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Cheap Eats of Japan Not Lost In Translation

I’ve been back from Japan for a week now, and while I’ve fully recovered from jet-lag, I am still thinking about the stunning beauty and myriad mysteries revealed to me on the trip. The tastes and textures of the food I ate there—some familiar and some completely novel—played major roles in my experience of the country. Japan has a reputation for being pricey. Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and I did have some expensive meals. But many of the best-known restaurants are relatively inexpensive places that have gained their reputations by focusing on one dish and learning to make it to perfection. The first such place we visited was a ramen spot in Tokyo called Sapporo Junren, specializing in Sapporo-style miso ramen. Although Sapporo Junren is pretty famous and is widely regarded as the best place in Tokyo to get miso ramen, we would likely never have known to look for it (let alone know how to find it) if it hadn’t been for our intrepid guide, Yakitori. An American photography writer living in Tokyo, Yakitori is the son of a college friend of Auntie Pasti and Corny Uncle. He occasionally does tours of Tokyo on the side, and he knew exactly where to bring us when I told him that food was a top priority.

Takadanobaba, the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, is has become the ramen capital of the city because of its proximity to a couple universities. The line was out the door when we showed up at the restaurant (a good sign), but it moved pretty quickly as people got up from their stools at the counter that formed a three-sided rectangle around a serving area connected to the kitchen. As with seemingly everything in Japan, we ordered our ramen from a vending machine in the restaurant’s vestibule. To be precise, we picked out the kind of ramen and toppings we wanted and paid for them at the vending machine, which then printed out a ticket, which we then passed along to the server who submitted it to the kitchen staff. All-in-all, it was a highly efficient operation. We all ordered the spicy miso ramen (sans pork for Daddy Salmon). The broth, thick with miso paste and redolent of pork and chilies was one of the best I’ve had. The pork melted in the mouth, noodles were al dente with excellent chew and bamboo shoots, scallions and ginger added essential textural contrasts. Within one bite, this soup had put all New York City ramens to shame.

Our next chance to try a Tokyo favorite came the following day when we were out wandering in the high-end Harajuku shopping district. I had read about Maisen, a restaurant known for tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets). Numerous people had also recommended it to me before I left New York. It happened to be in the neighborhood, and we needed lunch. Unfortunately, we did not have Yakitori to guide us, and we had not mapped out the restaurant’s location before leaving our guesthouse. Streets aren’t really named in Tokyo, and addresses are mostly absent from buildings. The guidebook’s map was sketchy at best. We were mere blocks away, but none of the people we asked had any idea what we were talking about. After walking in a series of frustrating circles, our hunger overcame us and we sat down to eat at another cafe. It was only after eating that we walked a bit further down Omotesando (the Madison Ave. of Tokyo) and saw a sign pointing to Maisen. I wasn’t exactly starving then, but hey, there’s nothing wrong having a fried pork cutlet for dessert, right? Unfortunately, we didn’t have the appetite or inclination to sit down to another meal, so we didn’t get to see the interior of the restaurant, which is apparently a former pre-World War II bathhouse. Instead, I stepped up to the restaurant’s outdoor takeout window and ordered a classic tonkatsu sandwich, made with a folded piece of thick flatbread, shredded cabbage and a piece of tonkatsu doused with a sauce made from ketchup, Worchestershire, sake, mirin, ginger, garlic and sugar. The bread may have hindered my appreciation of the cutlet’s perfectly crisped exterior, but there is no denying that this was a tasty sandwich.

Our travels soon took us out of Tokyo. The next chance we had to try a classic spot, with a specialty dish came in Kyoto. While Daddy Salmon was off fishing with his new Japanese buddy, the latter’s wife Matcha took Mango Mama and me on a tour of some Kyoto sites. In between temples and gardens, we stopped at Omen, a Kyoto landmark, serving thick chewy udon noodles. The two-storey restaurant was packed with people, and the line extended out the door. After about 10 minutes we were seated upstairs. Matcha’s English skills were quite limited. Our Japanese skills were all but non-existent, but at Omen it’s easy: all you do is order “Omen.” What arrives first is a platter of vegetable trimmings, including bean sprouts, green beans, daikon, spinach and scallions, along with a bowl of toasted sesame seeds.

Next comes a bowl of hot (or cold, depending on how you order) seasoned broth and another bowl of udon noodles, cooked and sitting in warm, unseasoned water. Matcha showed us how to add our desired combinations of vegetables and a couple spoonfuls of sesame seeds to the broth. We then lifted the udon from its bowl and dunked it in the seasoned broth before popping it in our mouths and slurping it down. While not as complex as the ramen broth, this had a cleaner flavor that was obviously intentional. The slightly salty richness seasoned the vegetable additions and added the perfect slick of flavor to the excellent noodles. I’m pretty sure I could eat this soup once a week, whether in hot or cold form. As it turns out I might be able to. While we were eating, Matcha told me that, in addition to its other Kyoto locations, Omen has a New York location on Thompson Street in SoHo. I’m planning to check it out as soon as I can get down there. The menu looks pretty different from the one in Kyoto, but it does offer “homemade udon made in our traditional style.” It’s funny how sometimes you have to travel around the world to realize the greatness of what you have back at home.

Sapporo Junren
3-12-8 Takadanobaba
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan

4-8-5 Jingu-mae
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan

74 Ishibashi-cho, Jodo-ji
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan

At Chuko, Vegetables Are The Unlikely Stars

I never thought I would say it, but the vegetarian option was the sleeper hit at Chuko, a new-ish ramen place in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Well, that’s not exactly an accurate statement; I ordered the vegetarian broth…and then added pork. Still, I can say with some certainty that the broth was the best element of that dish. Flavorful and complex, it was replete with Brussels sprouts, kale, sweet potatoes, roasted squash and other fresh, seasonal vegetables. I ordered it with a soft-cooked egg, which ran into the steaming broth when punctured with a chopstick. The pork was medium-thick slices of smoky duroc. It was tasty enough, but I found it too lean for soup. A fattier cut would have melted luxuriously into the broth. Instead, this became slightly overcooked and chewy in the broth. Pork notwithstanding, that vegetarian broth was emblematic of the way the chef at Chuko (opened by three Morimoto alums) handle their vegetables. I ate dinner there last weekend with Cousin Ketchup and my friends P.C. Biscuit and Granny Smith.

The first evidence of Chuko’s vegetable prowess emerged with the arrival of the appetizers. We ordered all four on the regular (non-special) menu. Among these was a fantastic kale salad, made with a combination of raw and tempura-fried kale, pickled golden raisins, dressed in a slightly sweet white-miso vinaigrette, and topped with cripsy curls of Japanese sweet potato. The Brussels sprouts were deftly sauteed until their cut edges were lightly blackened. Then they were doused in pungent fish sauce and topped with crunchy peanuts and pickled peppers, yielding a divine assemblage of texture and sweet-salty flavor.

The less successful appetizers were those that contained meat, including the overly bready fried chicken wings which came with a fairly tame dipping sauce that was supposed to be spicy. These weren’t even in the same food group as the mind-blowing ones I ate at Pok Pok Wing. Also underwhelming were the pork-stuffed gyoza with a soy-based dipping sauce. It’s not that they were bad; they just weren’t particularly distinctive in the way that the kale and Brussels sprouts had been. I should have just ordered the headcheese special, but I wanted to put the core menu items to the test.

Next came the ramen, which comes in four broth varieties: soy, miso, pork bone and that tasty vegetarian one. In addition to the pork, there is the option to add chicken, which is lightly cooked and cut into silky smooth pieces. We ordered as many different combinations and permutations as we could among the four of us. P.C. Biscuit selected the pork bone broth, mixing things up (with the eager encouragement of our server) by adding the chicken to the mix. The broth and thinner noodles that came with it were nice, although I didn’t come away with an overly porky impression. He also got the hard-cooked eggs, whose static nature made them seem superfluous. The white rectangles of chicken were surprisingly flavorful, but the texture was almost slimy and would have benefited from a slight char on the grill. Granny Smith’s miso broth was tasty, with an almost milky cloudiness, but Ketchup’s flavor-packed soy broth with pork was probably my second favorite soup on the table.

The ramen at Chuko was good by Brooklyn standards, and at $12 a bowl, it’s more affordable than Zuzu Ramen. But if I come back to Chuko, it will not be for the pork or chicken wings—it will be for the vegetables.

552 Vanderbilt Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11238

Chuko on Urbanspoon

Zuzu Ramen: Proof That You Really Can’t Go Wrong With Braised Pork

Perhaps Empanada Boy said it best when he observed: “The main difference between ramen and pho is that ramen costs at least twice as much.” While that’s certainly not a precise assessment, it captures the way I often feel when ordering ramen at a restaurant. I think to myself: “This had better be good because I’m paying $14 for this bowl of soup.” This thought crossed my mind the other day when EB and I met my friend Oyster at Zuzu Ramen, a restaurant on Park Slope’s industrial 4th Ave. Oyster lives nearby, and the pork belly in the signature dish had been tasty enough to beckon him back more than a few times. It turns out that Oyster’s instincts about this being more than the average ramen joint were right on. The chef at Zuzu, Akihiro Moroto, has worked at fine dining establishments such as the now-shuttered Lespinasse and at Jean Georges. But did that make a bowl of his Zuzu ramen worth $14? I was game to find out.

The small wood-panelled restaurant has high counters and tables, equipped with stools. It has large windows looking out into the street and windows at the bar, offering patrons views of the chef at work in the kitchen. As I sipped an interesting Japanese IPA, I watched the chef using a torch to crisp the long thin pieces of fatty pork that would soon grace our soups. Oyster and I ordered the namesake Zuzu ramen, with charshu (the blowtorched pork), bamboo shoots, bok choy, Thai basil, noodles and a slow-cooked egg, served in a slightly spicy, fragrant dashi broth. EB went for what turned out to be a somewhat spicier green curry-miso ramen, redolent with cilantro and featuring charshu and a slow-cooked egg. We sipped our beers and eagerly awaited the arrival of our soups.

In due course, three steaming bowls of soup were delivered to our table. I started with a bite of the charshu, which was floating, silken and buttery, at the top of my bowl. It was certainly tasty. The noodles had a nice chew to them and a springiness that shows they were fresher than average. Breaking the soft-cooked egg allowed some of the yolk to run satisfyingly into the broth. The broth itself was tasty, particularly bites that included Thai basil, but it was not remarkable. I preferred the green curry-miso broth in EB’s bowl. It was punchy and flavorful, but still nuanced, and set off the richness of the meat and the egg more clearly. It was also $11, compared to the $14 Zuzu ramen (the latter admittedly delivered in a slightly larger bowl).

There is no doubt that Zuzu makes the best ramen in Park Slope. It’s far better than the fairly generic bowls I’ve had at the recently-opened Naruto Ramen around the corner from my house. I don’t think it quite holds up to the addictive ramen at Ipuddo, the Japanese chain with a single New York location in the East Village. But then again, I’ve waited for a table at Ippudo for more than an hour and was once simply turned away at the door at 8:30 pm or so because the list of people waiting was so numerous. There would never be such a wait at the relatively serene Zuzu. And while I could always go to Chinatown and fill my soup craving with a $5.75 bowl of pho, there are times when the top-notch ingredients in a good bowl of ramen, and the subtleties of the flavors they create, really hit the spot. When that contemplative mood strikes me—or when I’m simply craving a nice slab of braised pork—Zuzu Ramen will be right there near the top of my list. Is that occasional feeling of pure satisfaction worth $14 a bowl? I suppose it is.

Zuzu Ramen
173 4th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Naruto Ramen
276 5th Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Ippudo NY
65 4th Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Zuzu Ramen on Urbanspoon

Naruto Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ippudo on Urbanspoon