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Friday, July 6, 2012
TOKYO FOOD FILE
A ramen line-up worth dipping into
Even in the middle of the afternoon on a gray, rainy-season Monday, the queue in front of us is the best part of an hour deep and moving at snail's pace. Only to be expected at Tokyo Skytree, you might say. Except we're not lining up for the observation deck: We're there for the new branch of the legendary ramen joint Rokurinsha.
Can a basic noodle counter founded a mere seven years ago and barely big enough to seat 12 truly qualify as a legend? In the case of Rokurinsha, most definitely yes — in fact twice over.
First things first: The ramen really is outstanding. It's not the classic style, served in a large bowl with hot broth. Instead, the house special is tsukemen, with a thick, rich soup on the side, served as a dip separate from the noodles. Initially disparaged by ramen purists, over the past decade tsukemen has become so massively popular it's almost a genre unto itself.
This is in large part due to Rokurinsha and its founder, Ryosei Mita. He did not originate the style: That accolade goes to Kazuo Yamagishi, the master of the now-long-gone Taishoken in Ikebukuro. Mita did, however, train under Yamagishi, though the version he developed is distinctively different.
It's also incredibly popular. From just about the day Rokurinsha opened in Osaki back in 2005, it jumped to the top of the Tokyo ramen charts and stayed there. And this accounts for its second claim to fame: The length of the lines outside.
Despite the obscure location, a quiet shopping street in an obscure residential area a substantial trek from the nearest station (JR Osaki), ramen lovers converged in droves, especially at weekends.
And they continued to come, some days as many as 300 people waiting for places at the tiny counter. Not surprisingly, the neighbors weren't happy. Finally in 2010, Mita bowed to local pressure. He decided to shut up shop in Osaki — though, rumor has it, there are regular, closely organized special popup openings — to retrench and expand.
By that time Rokurinsha's first spin-off was already well-established. It was one of the first outlets to open in the so-called Ramen Street in the underground Subnade mall on the Yaesu side of JR Tokyo Station. Slicker, brighter and larger (more than twice the number of seats), it has proved every bit as popular — evidenced by the lines outside, which can be as much as an hour at peak times.
It is the Ramen Street formula (and not the cramped original premises) that serves as the model for the latest branch, on the sixth floor of the Tokyo Solamachi mall at the foot of Tokyo Skytree. As you wait, you can gaze in on the spacious, well-lit dining room with its wall-size mural of Mount Fuji in vivid scarlet, and watch the black-clad young wait staff as they ferry the noodles to the tables.
You also have plenty of time to scan the single-page laminated menu, so you know exactly what you want well by the time you finally reach the ticket machine at the entrance. There are three basic decisions to be made: Do you want a normal or extra-large serving of noodles? Cold noodles or hot? And what kind of toppings?
We found a standard portion more than adequate (smaller servings are also available). Warm noodles are a good idea, as they don't cool down the dipping soup so fast. And as for the toppings, don't miss out on the trademark ajitama, a whole boiled egg with a wonderful firm, golden yolk; or the buta hogushi, delectable shredded pork. But do be aware that the more toppings you get, the more soup they soak up, which means less to go with your noodles.
And what excellent noodles they are. Much chunkier and chewier than standard crinkly ramen, with a light yellow, eggy hue, they are substantial and filling. The thickness of the strands makes them harder to manipulate with chopsticks, but they're the perfect caliber for drawing up the rich, savory dipping soup.
It is Rokurinsha's signature soup that really makes its claim to the ramen hall of fame. A proprietary secret blend of tonkotsu (pork bones), fish (predominantly dried mackerel) and vegetables, it is said to be slowly simmered for 13 hours to concentrate the flavor and give it just the right thickness to adhere to the noodles.
Along with the menma bamboo shoot and tender chāshū pork that come with the soup, you will also find a square of seaweed in the middle topped with a small mound of powdered fish. It's enough to transport you to umami heaven.
There are some excellent extra touches that are worth knowing. Draft beer is available here in special Skytree flagons (the other branches have never served alcohol). Disposable paper aprons are provided to prevent soup spilling down your front. Then, at the end, if you have soup left in your bowl, extra broth is available (ask for "soup-wari") to dilute it, so you can slurp down the very last drop.
But ultimately, it all comes down to the balance between the noodles, soup and toppings. These are the hearty, wholesome trinity that justify the hype at Rokurinsha and make the wait in line worthwhile.
Rokurinsha Tokyo, Tokyo Ramen Street, Tokyo Ichiban-gai B1, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo (03) 3286-0166; nearest station: Tokyo Station (JR & Marunouchi lines). Open 7:30-10 a.m.; 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.). rokurinsha.com.