Restaurants & Bars 4

Ramen Jiro, Tokyo

David Boyk | Aug 3, 200405:48 PM

I'm actually posting this (in slightly edited form) for my friend Lane Rettig, who is studying in Japan. I told him to go to Ramen Jiro because of the NPR report by Andy Raskin (chowhoundX), and he finally got around to going, and wrote this:

For lunch today I visited Ramen Jiro, finally. I've passed the place a hundred times but never happened to be there around lunchtime--for some reason, my schedule is always out of whack when I'm in Tokyo.

The first two words that come to mind are _****ing amazing_. The only thing I was prepared to expect was surprise, and it totally defied expectation. I found the spot easily, as there was a line out the door and around the corner, of course. There was obviously a ritual--you have to buy your meal ticket (a small, colored plastic tag) before getting in line, and even despite understanding Japanese I wasn't sure what the guys around me in line were suggesting I do at first, until one of them pointed me to the meal-ticket machine. I wasn't sure at first why you needed to buy a ticket before lining up (meal ticket machines are common in Japan but there isn't usually a line), but the reason became clear quickly: as I approached the door to the restaurant, the guys behind the counter--all young Japanese guys, about my age, wearing cool headbands and looking very sweaty--asked to see the tag I was holding. That's why they're colored: so the guys behind the counter know what to prepare next. There's even a window cut into the outside wall so the people in line around the corner can show their tags too.

The first thing you notice are the huge vats--no other word will suffice--behind the counter, filled with ramen noodles, veggies, and broth. They're kept at a constant boil, as things are added (or thrown in, rather), taken out, and put back. That part is common to Japanese cuisine, but I've never seen vats of that size before.

Then there's the menu. It's rather simple, but exists in two dimensions, sort of: the noodle dimension and the meat dimension. You first choose the 'size' (amount?) of noodles, mini, small, or large. Small is described as "1.5x normal quantity" and large is "2x". Then you choose the amount of meat: two, four, six, or eight "slices" (though it doesn't actually end up in the bowl in slices). I didn't have any breakfast this morning and I was feeling particularly famished, so I was very tempted to go ahead and order the large--at this point I hadn't actually seen a dish served so I wasn't sure how big they would actually be--and I was beginning to think the stuff I had heard beforehand was probably just an exaggeration anyway.

But I thought better of it, and ordered the small with only the two slices of meat. I figured I could start small and work my way up (hah, little did I know).

Just before serving you the dish, the guy behind the counter will ask, Ninniku wa? meaning, "With garlic?" There's a whole chart on the wall explaining things--they ask about "garlic" but you can respond with any of a number of set phrases. Basically, these phrases--which apparently have to be strung together in a certain order in the case of making multiple requests--net you any of a number of free toppings or "garnishes." Garlic--a big fistful of finely-chopped raw garlic, like you get on better New York pizza--is just the canonical choice. You can also ask for tougarashi (grated hot-pepper) or any of a number of other extras: extra veggies, extra "oil", extra soy sauce, a separate bowl of different-flavored broth to dip the noodles in (which the guy next to me did, I think I want to try it next time). You've already put your money into the machine anyway--toppings are free.

Then, the moment of truth. The bowl is placed before you. The bowl itself is standard ramen-sized, but it's what's inside that makes the difference. It's enormous. I was immediately glad that I had made the prudent choice and ordered a small: a quick estimation told me that I could probably finish what I had ordered, but it would be close. I'll try to take a picture next time, but it's really a beautiful sight: piles upon piles of tender pork (it's not in "slices" at all--it's torn up and reminded me more of Jamaican jerk than anything else), heaps of veggies, all covered with that beautiful, fresh garlic (how could I resist?). The noodles are underneath--you have to stir things up a bit before you eat, which is tricky in itself as the moriawase or mound of food is well over the top of the bowl--and they're beautiful as well. Thick and tasty, they look handmade.

It's ramen with something else, something entirely masculine, something so sexy it defies words. I've eaten ramen all over this country, and I was just at the point of despairing that Japanese food--especially Japanese "Chinese" food--is the same everywhere. This was completely different, which alone is cause for acclaim. The flavor was fantastic: delicate in the way all Japanese food is, but hearty at the same time--thick noodles, thick chunks of meat, thick veggies, thick is really the word. And the garlic, which I've never seen put in ramen before--it's rare in all Japanese cooking--, was the perfect addition, perfect. The flavor couldn't have been better. Most ramen in Japan is one of two varieties: soy sauce based or miso based. Thinking back on it, I don't think Jiro's was either. Or if it at some point in its history had been, after the addition of the ingredients and the way it's prepared, it no longer was that simple.

So, the big question: yes, I finished it. Barely. It wasn't easy. I ate every last piece of meat, veggie, and noodle, and drank the broth (which you're not usually expected to do anyway) just for completion's sake. I had walked in starving, and walked out feeling unable to move. I had to keep walking around for almost an hour before I felt like I could sit down, before my stomach had settled. And, when dinner time came, six hours later, sure enough I wasn't hungry at all. This coming from a guy who eats a lot, especially by Japanese standards, and I'm usually hungry well before dinnertime.

I can't wait to go back! It was just fantastic. And ultra cheap, to boot--650 yen for my dish (that's the usual price for a bowl of ramen, but it was double what you usually get, in both quantity and quality). I also want to try the honten, the original location, in Mita (the one I visited was in Takadanobaba). It's a strange comparison, but somehow it reminded me of home, reminded me of my favorite spot in the world: the New York pizza parlor. It had the same air of routine, of comfort, of assured and time-tested quality. It wasn't just the garlic.

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