Everything Will Be Fine

Omen in Kyoto, JapanI was  wondering if the food in Kyoto could possibly live up to the non-stop greatness of Tokyo; well, my first meal in the city– an insanely delicious bowl of udon noodles — was here to pat me on the head and let me know that everything was going to be okay.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

Omen, a restaurant with three locations in downtown Kyoto, specializes in udon noodles that you dip into a bowl of broth.  You can pick from hot or cold — I heard that cold is where it’s at, so that’s what I went with.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

They present you a plate of immaculately presented veggies, a bowl of toasted sesame seeds and other spices, and, of course, the noodles and the broth.  There’s a little sign on the table that helpfully tells you what you’re supposed to do: you add a little bit of the sesame to the broth, a bit of the vegetables, then you mix it up, dip some noodles in there and enter noodle heaven.  Then you begin the process again.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

The combination of all of the various tastes and textures — the crunch of the veggies, the chew of the gloriously perfect noodles –is awe-inspiring.  If this is the calibre of food they’re serving up in Kyoto, things are clearly going to be just fine.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

Post-Monkey Noodles

Enza Cafe in Nagano, JapanThe bus going from the Jigokudani Monkey Park to Nagano station isn’t super frequent, so after getting my fill of monkey business, I had a little bit of time to kill.

Enter: Enza Cafe, a small restaurant that specializes in ramen near the beginning of the monkey trail.

Given its proximity to such a well-traveled tourist spot (and its status as one of the few restaurants in the area), I didn’t have high hopes.  But since I didn’t have anything better to do while I waited for the bus, I figured sure, why not.

Enza Cafe in Nagano, Japan

I ordered the basic ramen, which they make with chicken broth rather than the more standard pork, and it was shockingly good.  It wasn’t quite up there with the best bowls I had in Tokyo, but from what you’d think would be a tourist trap, it’s amazing: rich, flavorful broth, springy noodles, and perfectly cooked egg.  It was the perfect capper to a very memorable morning.

Tokyo is too Sexy

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, JapanRemember that old SNL sketch from the ’90s where Chris Kattan played Antonio Banderas as the host of a talk show?  And every time he tried to unbutton his shirt, the members of his band would plead with him to stop, because he was too sexy?  Well that’s how I feel about Tokyo at this point.  It needs to stop, because it’s clearly too sexy.

Even aside from the food, there’s something about this city that’s completely beguiling.  I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else where just wandering around is so consistently rewarding, with interesting stores everywhere you look, amazing parks and temples all over the city, and a very pervasive (and endearing) love of pop culture — among many, many other things that make me want to fake my death and live here forever.

The latest place that has me contemplating buying a dummy replica of myself and throwing it over a waterfall is Fuunji Ramen, which might just have the longest food line I’ve come across in Tokyo so far.  Not only is it super long outside the restaurant (as usual), it actually continues once you get inside.

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

It’s totally worth it.

Their specialty is tsukemen ramen, which features a separate plate of noodles that you dip into a much more concentrated bowl of soup.  And oh man, the soup… I don’t even know how to describe that flavour.  It was everything at once.  It was like a magnificent fireworks show inside my mouth.  It had a bit of a fishy funk (but in the best way possible, trust me), it was a bit smoky, mildly spicy, and just the best.  It was the best.

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

The soup also featured some amazingly tender pork, and a perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg — the eggs in ramen shops here all have this dark orange, amazingly creamy yolk, and how do they do it?  Is it the quality of the eggs?  The way they cook them?  Or is it just the magic Tokyo fairy dust that seems to be in the air here?

It’s the dust.  I’m pretty sure it’s the dust.

The thicker-than-average noodles had a super satisfying chewiness that, when dipped in the amazing soup, were pretty much the best.

Yeah, I live here now.  Sorry, everyone back home!  Come to Tokyo if you ever want to see me again.

Beating the Line (and eating delicious food)

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, JapanYou’ve probably noticed from some of my posts, but there are lines everywhere here.  Everywhere.

They don’t bother me all that much (and in fact, sometimes I’ll seek out a line since it’s a fairly reliable indicator that a restaurant is serving tasty food).  But I was going to Kanda Matsuya, a really well-regarded restaurant that’s been serving up soba noodles for over 130 years.  There was no possible way there wasn’t going to be a line.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

So I showed up just after they opened, at around 11:20.  The place was already quite busy, but no line — success.  By the time I left, it was packed and the line was several people deep, as you can see in the photo above.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

As for the food?  Yeah, it would have been worth a line.  I ordered cold soba noodles with a sesame dipping sauce, and it was seriously delicious.  The noodles had a hearty chewiness, with a flavour that’s much more robust than, say, what you’ll find in a bowl of ramen.  When dipped in the sesame sauce, they’re delicious and addictive.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

Plus, when you’re done with the noodles, they come around with a pot of boiling water and use it to dilute what’s left of your sauce.  You can then drink that like a soup, and it’s surprisingly good.

Best Ramen Ever?

Hayashi in the Shibuya district of ToykoRemember when I mentioned that the eel at Hashimoto was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten?  Well, I’ve got another dish to add to that list.

Tokyo is a magical place.

I love ramen, but apparently the ramen back home is garbage, because the bowl I had at Hayashi in the Shibuya district of Toyko was life-changing.  It’s almost implausible how good it was.  Like, did that really happen?  Did I dream it?

No, I have photos.  It happened.

It’s a tiny little restaurant, and like most ramen joints in Tokyo, you order from a machine by the door and then hand your ticket to the person behind the counter.

Hayashi in the Shibuya district of Toyko

A lot of ramen places will have condiments on the counter; not here.  You don’t need them.

The stock is a combination of pork and seafood — I haven’t had anything quite like it back home.  It’s magical.  There’s a very distinct seafoody (but definitely not fishy) flavour, which is complemented perfectly by the rich pork base.  Also, this was so subtle it might have been my imagination, but there was a hint of smokiness there.

Hayashi in the Shibuya district of Toyko

It was kind of insane how flavourful and complex it was; it felt like I was discovering something new with every mouthful.

The noodles were perfect — they had the perfect springy, chewy texture, and just the right amount of thickness.

And I mean, look at that egg.  The yolk was set, but just barely, with a delightfully creamy texture.  So damn good.

The slice of pork was the bowl’s only weak point.  It was fine, but it was a bit dry, and nothing particularly special.  But the rest of the bowl was so insanely good that it really didn’t matter.

Ramen Makes Everything Better

Ramen in Tokyo, JapanI had a hell of a time getting from Narita airport to my Airbnb in Tokyo.  I’m not sure exactly where I went wrong — I had the stops for each of my transfers written down, and it all seemed straightforward enough.  But somehow it went horribly awry, and I found myself staring at the almost comically complex criss-crossing lines of the Tokyo metro, wondering where I even was, or where I needed to go.

I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what’s what, but I think there’s actually more than one company that runs trains in the Tokyo metro, which means not all maps will have all the lines, and that it’s possible to buy a ticket for the right destination but the wrong line.  It’s ridiculously confusing.

Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

But I did eventually get to my Airbnb, where I discovered that there’s a ramen shop just steps away — so of course I went and got a bowl of ramen, and it was like all of my worries evaporated into the ether.

Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

Ordering couldn’t have been easier — there’s a machine by the door, and you just pick what you want, insert your money, and you get a ticket that you hand to the guy behind the counter.  You sit at the bar, and a few minutes later, you’re handed a steaming bowl of noodlely, soupy goodness.

Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

It was amazing.  The noodles were chewy and perfect, and the broth had an amazing richness and a downright impressive depth of flavour.  It was so good that I temporarily forgot how hot it was and wound up burning my tongue pretty badly.  Totally worth it.

Plus, though I’ve never quite understood the point of the nori sheets in ramen (other than as a decoration), these ones were heartier and more flavourful than what they serve at home, and actually complemented the ramen quite well.

Enormous Dumplings and Chewy Noodles in Busan

Choryang Milmyeon in Busan, South KoreaA bowl of cold noodles that are so chewy you have to cut through them with scissors before you can eat them probably doesn’t sound all that compelling to you.  You’re just going to have to trust me: they’re super delicious.

What about dumplings?  Yeah, everyone likes dumplings.

Well, you can get both — and that’s about it — at Choryang Milmyeon, a popular restaurant in Busan.

Choryang Milmyeon in Busan, South Korea

It’s traditional-style seating here, which means you’ll have to take off your shoes and sit cross-legged at a low table.

Ordering was accomplished via the usual arrangement of pointing and nodding; easy enough since they only serve noodles and dumplings, and I got both.

Choryang Milmyeon in Busan, South Korea

As soon as the dumplings came I knew that I had over-ordered.  An order comes with six tennis-ball-sized dumplings that were filled with pork (I think), and that were seriously delicious (I’m much more confident about that).

Then came the noodles.  This is a Korean dish called jjolmyeon that’s made with a special type of noodle that’s about a hundred times chewier than the norm.

It comes looking like this:

Choryang Milmyeon in Busan, South Korea

Then you take the scissors to them and mix them up, and they wind up like this:

Choryang Milmyeon in Busan, South Korea

It’s so good.  The intense chewiness of the noodles is fun to eat, and the flavour of the spicy, slightly sweet sauce is only amplified by the temperature.

It was all really, really good, though sharing the dumplings is advised; I finished everything and I was profoundly, uncomfortably full.  Totally worth it, though.

Mystery Noodles are the Best Kind of Noodles

Food Republic in Beijing, ChinaI recently found myself in a food hall of sorts in Beijing, hungry for something a little bit more substantial than the various snacks that most of the vendors were offering up.  There was a full fledged restaurant in the back, but the menu was fully Chinese, with no pictures to point at.

There’s an app you can get on your phone called Google Translate, where you can point your camera at something and it’ll translate it on the fly.  When I first heard about this, I thought, well, travel has been revolutionized.  Then I tried it.  It sorta-kinda works, depending on what you point it at, but for some reason when you try it on menus the results tend to be gibberish.

Still, I was desperate enough to give it a shot, and amongst the nonsense was a line that said something about “old noodles.”  So I pointed at that and ordered it.

Food Republic in Beijing, China

What I got was a bowl of plain noodles, topped with some veggies and a delightfully potent black bean sauce.  You mix it all up, and it looks like this:

Food Republic in Beijing, China

It was so good.  I could make the argument that the springy, chewy texture of really good freshly-made noodles is one of the best things in the world.  The combination of the very salty, rich sauce, along with the crunch of the veggies and the chewy noodles was ridiculous.  A couple of spoonfuls of the chili oil they have on the table puts it over the top: noodle perfection.