Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Night at the Museum
Today I went to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum about 45 minutes or so south of Tokyo. The museum is actually pretty fun if you are into quirky sort of tourist attractions. The bulk of the museum is divided into two floors, the first housing a ramen counter and gift shop as well as a rather funny collection of ramen artifacts and time lines detailing the evolution of ramen in Japan. Above notice the lights above the museum in the shape of ramen bowls. Center, I am at the gate to the main exhibition hall, more on this later. At the right is a collection of limited edition cup noodles. I wonder how much these are worth if they are still hermetically sealed?
The main exhibition hall is a recreation on a 1:1 scale of a section of Tokyo from the year Showa 33 (1958). This year is important because this was the year that instant noodles were invented. Ahhh yes, the joys of processed foods. The museum was created and built by a Mr. Yoji Iwaoka, a prominent developer and philanthropist who was raised in Shin-Yokohama and has a passion for ramen. The main hall looks and feels like one might imagine 1958 Tokyo to feel. It is night in the middle of the afternoon. The exhibition is complete with characters (a policeman, schoolgirl, postman, etc. There are a few shops which do not sell ramen, such as a vintage candy shop where picture cards of famous Tokyo Giants of the era hang on the wall. There are street performers and of course ramen shops. About 10 in all. They are a collection of famous shops from all over Japan who have opened a branch in the museum. Visitors pay only 200 yen to get in and are encouraged to buy at least one bowl of ramen. Most shops offer a sample size, roughly half price, for those who wish to try several. I had three, two full size and one sample. I will rate them in the order I tried them.
The first place I tried was Ryushanhai from Yamagata. This was a miso flavored soup, but shouldn't be confused with the soup they serve you when you get a sushi lunch. The big red blob in the center of the soup is the miso. Very spicy miso. I tasted the broth when the soup arrived and then tasted the miso on its own before mixing the two together. I began to understand why several of my fellow diners had ordered theirs on the side. Not me however, I was determined to sample any ramen today the way the shop intended which made them famous. The miso was fire hot. I whisked it into the soup which produced a fantastic red hue and made the entire soup hot. Byt the second or third slurp, my nose was running as were beads of sweat on my forehead. The soup was also topped with two pieces of chashu, menma, green onions and a slice of fish cake (the pink and white swirl). The toppings were each of good quality, the star being of course the miso itself with the chashu evaporating as it was eaten and everything carrying the taste of the broth. The noodles were different than what I am used to, being broader and heavier noodles than the usual thin variety. I ate every last one of them and drank just about as much of the broth as I could handle before I threw in the towel.
This was about as different a bowl as I've had so far and the most perfect. Clean bright broth that got body and heat when the miso was added, well cooked noodles and good toppings. I give this five bowls.
Next I took a little bit of a break, had a quick cold beer in the middle of the exhibition hall and took some time to appreciate the scene. Tokyo shure did look different if it looked like this. I noticed an advertisement for a Mifune movie, a tobacco shop that sold only Hope, Peace, Midori, and Lucky Strike cigarettes. There was a story teller on a bicycle entertaining fellow diners. I however couldn't understand a word of it, so after a quick visit to the bathroom, not circa 1958 thank god, I was down for another bowl.
My second stop was Hachiya from Asahikawa in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. When I read the fact that the family that owns Hachiya has been making ramen for over 60 years (three generations) I couldn't wait to try it. Having done so, I swear grandma must have been in the soup. The first choice for Hachiya, though they like most shops here serve several kinds, was shoyu ramen (soy sauce flavor). Just think Oriental Flavor for those of you trying to keep pace at home with a brick of Top Ramen. Hachiya's shop was pleasant, well lit and the staff was friendly. It should have been telling though that there were only two other diners in the place with me. It wasn't terrible, it was just not good either. I regretted not having tried the mini.
The bowl in question here is Hachiya's shoyu ramen. Though it is named shoyu, the flavors come from pork and seafood as well. The saltiness of the soy sauce is fine, to be expected and I suppose some of the salt came from the seafood as well, but there are powerful dark undertones here that tend to overwhelm. That might be an oxymoron, ah well... The soup almost has a gravy-like quality about it, and it was also very oily, see below. Like when someone tries to make gravy by adding chicken stock.
I did enjoy the noodles however which were cooked perfectly despite the fact that the waitress and cook were clearly flirting extensively while the young man prepared my order. A third staff member just stood by and watched the cook closely. The pork itself resembled the soup in the way that the gravy would have gone well on the pork with a side of mashed potato or something like that. The menma however were simply to die for. They were huge, crisp and had that hint of sesame oil. I wish I could have brought them to Ryushanhai and put them on that bowl instead. Overall this was not a very good bowl of soup, certainly a let down after the perfection of the Yamagata bowl. I give it two bowls for the noodles and menma.
I wandered around for about ten or fifteen minutes debating whether or not I should try one more. There is a terrace level that overlooks the first floor and has two more shops on it. One of these shops, Eki Ramen, had a line down the block. There is a good practice to follow when seeking ramen; if you see a line, get on it.
Eki Ramen, from Sapporo in Hokkaido also served miso, though this was not a spicy variety. Though I was far from hungry and a little nauseated, I figured I could manage a mini from this shop since it seemed to have a good reputation. I found myself wishing my friend Tracy was here since I know he would have egged me through it and this kind of thing would be right up his alley.
The broth was miso alright, but with a strong garlic taste, not unlike what I had at Jangara a few days ago. I am not sure if this was for the mini only or if they always do this, but the toppings seem to have been tossed in with the noodles before the soup was added. The pork was tender, but still had been cubed. There were a substantial amount of spring onions and what seemed to be sauteed garlic lending a crunch to the soup.
The noodles were again larger, though not quite as large as Ryushanhai. Really great, really different. I wish I had had the full size here, but I couldn't possibly have finished it. I gave this bowl four bowls, but it really isn't fair to rate a taster. If I go back, I will
surely have the full size here. I gave the taster four bowls.
On the way out I stopped off at the gift shop, but didn't choose to buy anything. I thought it would be a cool idea to buy a bowl from there, but you can get the same bowls in Chinatown for about a buck a piece. Still, below are a few of the food items I could have packed up.
Left, instant ramen from some of the finest shops in the land. That price tag is about $6.50, not sure how many are in there. Center, preserved eggs, wonder what the shelf life is on those. And finally at the right is the famous chashu. Sorry, needs to be refrigerated.
I really enjoyed this place, if you find yourself in Tokyo, it's worth a stop particularly if you go to Yokohama, it is on the way.