Ramen Yamate (Ramen), Komaba Todaimae

This place is a little far from Shimokitazawa, as you will need to walk for about half an hour, but it's quite worth the walk if you are a Ramen addict. Actually, "Ramen Yamate" being located by the Tokyo University Campus, the promenade can be quite pleasant as you could cut through the verdant school grounds to get there. The mix of old brick academic buildings and modern structures looks quite nice on photos, so if you're an adept of that particular visual art, that's another reason for you to wander through the premises.
If you have no interest in walking or photography, that's still OK, as the bowl of Ramen is interesting and good enough to go all the way there. It is also a big favorite among the college's students and you will see many of them in there.

"Ramen Yamate" kitchen

What's so special about this place is the noodles, and most of the people will agree with me in saying that they are pasta-like: they have the egg-yellow color, more or less the taste and definitely the firmness of slightly al dente Italian pasti. I think that's quite original but I know for a fact that some hardcore Ramen-eaters find that a blasphemy. Well, that's too bad for them, as the "Togarashi Ramen" (chili ramen) I had yesterday was excellent.

"Togarashi Ramen"

The broth in Ramen Yamate is Tonkotsu-based (pork bone), to which they add some Tori-Gara (chicken carcass), Konbu (tangle), garlic, ginger and Shiitake mushroom, all of which they simmer for 24 hours. This makes a light-flavored Tonkotsu soup that I find very appetizing.
Friends from college who are readins this blog (thank you) might remember our favorite "Akashiroya" in Yoyogi-Uehara (the place is gone now). Well, "Ramen Yamate" is the mother shop and tastes quite the same.

Yamate's most popular dish is the "Yuki (snow) Ramen" which consists of that basic broth with toppings of roasted garlic and onion, and a final thin layer of lard on top of the soup. That light blanket of fat, which supposedly adds smoothness to the broth, looks like snow, hence the name of the dish.
As mouth-watering as that sounds, as I said earlier, I went for the "Togarashi Ramen" which is a hot version of the basic broth, with added chili in it. The soup looks hellishly red and spicy, but that's really on the surface, and they manage to keep it very eatable. The soup actually tasted so good that I even thought for a while of downing it, but fought such calorie mega-intake with courage.

Togarashi Ramen Soup

The ramen comes with Menma (Japanese style Sungan) and a slice of Chashu (Chinese-style bbq pork) that somehow tastes a little bit and has the fibrous texture of canned tuna. Both toppings are a little too low on salt for my liking, which is a shame as they definitely need more flavor to compete with the rich spicy soup

The pasta-like noodles are freshly made on site (the "noodle factory" is next door) by the manager and were originally studied and designed as to give the best Nogo-Doshi possible (literally Passing the Throat), an important notion in Japan where firmness of food can be a matter of lengthy heated discussion. Nodo-Goshi can designate anything from firmness, smoothness or fluidity, but is really basically about how easily and enjoyably you'll down the stuff.
Even after more than 30 years in Japan, Nodo-Goshi is still a slightly difficult notion to grasp for me, so let me just say that their noodles provide a nice resistance, are tasty and are a pleasure to swallow with a little bit of soup. Once again, Ramen purist might tell you that they do not mingle well with the broth, but that's the least of my concerns.

Whether it has something to do with the fact that the noodles do seem a little "Italian", I don't know, but Yamate also offers a "Tomato Ramen" (left on the picture above), with Italian tomatoes, wine, aromatic herbs and chili-infused Olive oil, which might be a wonderful match for the "pasta". If you're in a challenging mode, go crazy...

"Ramen Yamate" (mid to far right) and the "Noodle Factory" (left)

Ramen Yamate is open everyday from 11:30am to 02:45am
You can walk there from Shimokitazawa (30mn), Higashi-Kitazawa (20mn) on the Odakyu Line or 10mn from Komaba-Todaimae (2 stations from Shimokitazawa on the Inokashira Line)
Shibuya-ku, Tomigaya 2-21-7
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Nikunchu (Yakiniku), Shimokitazawa

In Japan, people love to grill meat and devour offal at Yakiniku joints. This tradition, derived from the Korean-style barbecue, is perpetuated nationwide through cheap chains and eateries or expensive specialized restaurants.
I have been a big Yakiniku lover in the twenties, gradually eating less of it over the years (as I find the fat more and more difficult to digest with the age...) and finally reducing it to something like twice a year since the encounter with "Jumbo", a restaurant in the outskirts of Tokyo managed by a man from Osaka who serves you the MOST amazing meat you will find. I have since almost stopped eating Yakiniku elsewhere, as I know it will most probably not come close in quality and satisfaction to what this wonderful place offers.
So when the Bear Pond barista told me the other day he heard "you can get the equivalent of a ¥10,000 dinner for a cheap ¥3,000 at this place called "Nikunchu", you will understand I felt obviously a little blasé... but at the same time curious about that price difference.
I decided to give it a chance, since it would still give me something to write about on this blog even if did not live up to the expectations.

Well, let's say I was pleasantly surprised by the quality-price ratio of this place.

Since it was the last day of the week-long Golden Week holidays, they were out of almost all their usually recommended "Horumon" (from the English term Hormone, designating the offal by extension) stuff like Reba-Sashi (cow liver sashimi), Shio-Teppo (the salted intestine region close to the pork rectum) or the Harami (lean-meat-looking-but-in-fact-entrail around the cow's diaphragm), so we went with some of the other interesting guts and "regular" muscle meat.

I have to apologize for the terrible quality of the pictures, as I happened to forget my camera yesterday. Please bear with me...

We grilled some salted Tanshita to start with (the part of the cow tongue closest to the throat) and were later offered some Tansaki for free (the tip of the tongue) as an apology for being out of a lot of stuff: that's what I call good service.
The Tansaki was probably the closest to what Yakiniku places usually serve, that is slightly fibrous, whereas the Tansaki was more chewy. Both were a bit salty for my taste but the cheap ¥400 beer did its job in killing the thirst.

Kutsubera (left) and Tanshita (Right)

We then cooked some pork adam's apple "Kutsubera" (literally Shoe-Horn), a plastic-like white organ resembling a little shoe-horn, which is a quite rare body part at a Yakiniku restaurant . It was cartilaginous and fatty at the same time and simply seasoned with sesame oil and salt. Good stuff.

In keeping with the "weird" stuff, we opted for the pork Oppai (literally Boobs) which I assume has something to do with the "breast" part of the pork...but I'm a little lost here. It was very gelatinous and the bits looked like chunks of fat when they brought them fresh to us. Once grilled, they had the firmness of a stirred liver. It was seasoned beforehand with a Miso-based sauce that gave the Oppai a nice sweet flavor.

We also went for my favorite Marucho (cow's small intestine), which is basically a big chunk of melting-in-your-mouth fat around a little very chewy part. This always goes incredible in pair with your beer. Their Marucho is good and worth the price, as you spend quite some time chewing on the flavorful and rubbery thing!


We couldn't leave without trying their lean meat, so we chose some Kainomi and some Jo-Karubi. Both were salted beforehand.
The Kainomi, the meat around the cow ribs closer to the shoulders is a very precious part and usually costs quite a bit, though Nikunchu offers it at an affordable ¥1,000. The meat has the juiciness and fatness of the short ribs, but manages to be firm as well, so it's almost like the best of both world. Fat and fibrous at the same time: a Yakiniku lover's dream.


The Jo-Karubi, a fatter short ribs, almost like a Toro tuna, was juicy and not annoyingly fat, like it can sometimes be in expensive places where they seem to unfortunately associate FAT=GOOD.

We ended up paying approximately ¥3,000 per person, just as what the Barista told us, which definitely was a deal (though we need to remember that we mainly went with the cheaper Horumon. Might have been more expensive should we have ordered more meat). The meat and Horumon were fresh and tasty, the beers and other alcohol cheap and the service good overall. We had to wait close to half-an-hour before we got in, so you might want to make a reservation or be ready to wait a little bit.

I think it is an over-statement to say that it equals what you would get for ¥10,000 elsewhere, but the quality you get for the money is truly impressive. Try it, it's worth it.

Nikunchu has no fixed closing days and is basically open everyday from 18:00pm to 03:00am though they will close as soon as they sell out of most of their ingredients.

Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-9-3
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Yasai Sakaba (Izakaya), Shimokitazawa

On this last day of the Japanese Golden Week, I would like to introduce "Yasai Sakaba", literally the Vegetable Tavern, to anyone in need of a healthy regime or looking for a cheap lunch or both.
I've had a strange love and hate relationship with this restaurant as I tried it probably five or six years ago, disliked it and ignored it for a mediocre food and hospitality, then gave it another chance a couple years later to discover that it actually tasted good and that the affordable price could justify the sometimes Soviet-like service.

Yasai-Sakaba serves a relatively cheap but good dinner that I have shared with a lot of friends in the past, so it is definitely an option should you be looking for a menu offering a cuisine revolving around vegetables dishes. The forte of this eatery is the vegetables brought from the old capital "Kyoto", and I would actually recommend you have a look at this very comprehensive article on the history and importance of the Kyo-Yasai (Capital Vegetables).

I will focus on their satisfying lunch though, which offers several little dishes, a bowl of rice and a miso soup for an inexpensive ¥700~¥1000 (depending on the main dish you order)

Among what was brought to us yesterday less than 10mn after we ordered (but remember, the content of the lunch changes daily) were 2 slices of Ao-Ingen Tamagoyaki (green haricot filled omelette). The green haricot inside were Ohitashi style (boiled and then seasoned with a shoyu and dashi stock sauce) and provided a nice additional juiciness to the eggs.
The plate also contained a sauteed dish of Menma (Japanese style Sungan), Chinese Cabbage and chicken that wasn't bad all. The ingredients were stirred with vegetable oil and shoyu, and I have always found it to be a killing way of cooking things.

In a possible attempt to clear out the chicken they had not sold out the day before, we were served another chicken recipe that consisted of boiled chicken, Sichuan-style pickeled Mustard plant stems "Zaasai" (or Zha Cai in chinese) and cucumber slices all marinated in sesame oil and soy sauce. The seasoning that can NOT go wrong. The zaasai and the cucumber add crunchiness to the fibrous chicken and that all added up to a tasty dish.

The main I ordered, and that you can see on the top picture, was a nicely fried old-school Niku Corokke (Beef and Potato croquette), with the slightly sweet potato puree inside doing wonders with the little bits of minced beef.

If you're thinking "chicken, beef, oil...this doesn't sound too healthy to me", well rest assured, as the rice they serve you is a Gokoku (five grains) blend, a mix of rice, wheat, bean, kibi and awa millet, which is supposed to be an extremely healthy diet. It tastes good and its pinkish/purplish color looks nice so what could you ask for more?

As I told you, when you're used to the Japanese politeness, the staff here can seem a little on the blunt side, but having to pay the very affordable ¥750 for the above quality lunch largely offsets the sometimes lacking of hospitality.
It is also a little disappointing that they tend to serve you more meat than they used to for lunch, but once again, they are largely forgiven with the quality of the cuisine they serve.

Yasai Sakaba is closed on Wednesdays and open the rest of the week from 11:30am to 15:00pm and 17:00pm to 24:00pm (they can be pretty packed for dinner)
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-25-10
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Yasube (Tsukemen), Shimokitazawa

In Japan, it is a very popular custom to go slurp some noodles late at night after a drinking/clubbing session. I am not sure why people do that, as you are usually 1) very drunk or 2) already too full to appreciate the dish, not to say that it sure does not help your hangover the next day either, but I do follow the tradition myself as well time to time.
That is exactly what I did yesterday after a whole day of total gastronomic debauchery at a good friend's house. As I suddenly felt like downing a bowl of noodles, I walked towards the Tsukemen shop "Yasube" which I had promised to cover in a previous post about "Mitsuyado Seimen".
The tiny place was full (as always) when I got there and had to queue for about 10mn, during which I bought my ticket from the vending machine. I opted for the regular 220g Namimori Tsukemen which was served to me few minutes after I sat at the 7 seats counter.

The first impression I had is that the shoyu-based broth you dip the noodles in is surprisingly fishy. They are probably simmering a lot of Ni-Boshi (dry baby sardines) and Katsuo-Boshi (dry bonito) to bring that much flavor. I got worried that it might be too fishy for me, but repeatedly dipping the wet noodles in the soup quickly waters and smoothes the broth to a very nice balanced flavor. The broth is also quite hot, as they add a decent amount of chili powder in it, but it is just enough to stimulate your appetite. For those of you who like it pretty hot, you can order their Karami-Tsukemen, which features a rayu (chili infused vegetable oil) added soup.

The bouillon comes with bits of nice and soft Chashu (Chinese-style bbq pork), some very good Menma (Japanese style Sungan) that adds a pleasant saltiness to the whole, a lot of leek and a big sheet of dry seaweed Nori.
Though I haven't tried them, they also offer some Katsuo-Bushi powder for added fishiness and some fresh onion for those who want extra freshness.

Now, let's get onto the belly filler. I am not sure what it means, but a notice on the menu says that they add water to the dough so that the noodles keep a nice firmness until the end. What I did feel on the other hand is that they seem quite fluid in your mouth, and that definitely made them easier to chew and swallow. Whether that was due to the extra H2O, I don't know, but despite the enormous amount of food I had ingested during the day, I had NO problem whatsoever in devouring them. If you are hungry, the middle size Chu-Mori (320g) and big size Oo-Mori (420g) are all priced the same as the regular one I ordered, at ¥720. I would assume that the Chu-Mori is within the reach of anyone's stomach so don't be scared and go crazy.

In retrospective, I found the tsukemen at Yasube easier to eat, and the broth more delicate or less salty than at Mitsuyado Seimen. Of course, this is a more classic Tsukemen, whereas Mitsuyado is focused on the original Yuzu flavor of its soup. You could actually try and compare both restaurants should you spend your whole day wandering the streets of Shimokitazawa...

Yasube is open everyday from 11am to 02am, though they will close as soon as they're out of noodles. They also offer Ramen in case you're more into having your noodles in the broth from the start.

Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-12-15
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Rairaiken (Chinese), Shimokitazawa

When you live in Shimokitazawa, you tend to become blind to the existence of a LOT of restaurants just simply because there are so many of them to choose from. And a lot of them are so good that it is human nature to go safe and keeping going to the same ones.
That's where comes the advantage of writing a blog. You do have to fuel it with new places and try some of those restaurants that have fallen out of your scope or you have simply ignored.
The Chinese eatery "Rairaiken" I chose today is not only one of those places I unfortunately overlooked for too many years, but it seems to be into everyone's oblivion, leading a life of its own in a different time pocket.
"Rairaiken", which is as typical of a name for an old Chinese restaurant in Japan as "Taj Mahal" would be for an Indian joint, was opened in 1945 by the father of the present owner, who according to what the "Tonsui" lady told me before, used to provide free food to starving people in the aftermath of the war. So it is an understatement to say that this eatery is hold in high-esteem among old folks in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, being respected by the older generation doesn't mean you will be flooded with customers, and accordingly, Rairaiken never seems to have anyone to serve food to...I'll be honest by telling you that the main reason I never entered this place is because I have rarely seen anyone in there since I moved here and that was obviously not a good sign... But boy was I wrong. It is no Michelin food, but I can assure you that they deserve WAY more customers!

The old-movie-set looking place was empty (as usual) when we got there. We were welcome by the restaurant lady who is 77 years old now, while her husband, who inherited of the place when his father passed away in early 1950, stayed in the kitchen. Upon Tonsui's lady recommendation, we ordered the "famous" Niku-Dango (Chinese-style meat balls), and otherwise opted for the Chahan (Chinese-style fried rice), a dish which is supposed to give you an idea of how good the joint is (as a lot of Japanese will tell you) and some Gomoku-Yakisoba (mixed Chao Mian)

The meat balls, which took a good twenty minutes to get to our table as they were unbelievably made from scratch, are the perfect bite-size at three to four centimers in diameter and seem to be a mix of pork and beef. They are slightly hard on the outside, giving a nice resistance to the teeth, and the syrupy Ankake glaze just sweet enough. They are a bit expensive at ¥1,100 but they are handmade from order, and I can imagine them going perfectly hand in hand with a good bowl of white rice.

The "Chahan" fried rice was definitely a proof of the owner's cooking skills and experience. Nothing extravagant, just a really nice and simple not sticky Chahan, sufficiently al dente to make you work on it and enjoy the taste of the Eggs, Chashu (chinese-style bbq pork) and Naruto (sliced fish cake). The rice was kept smooth from the lard used as cooking fat, which was very pleasant as I hate it when you end up choking on a Chahan that is too dry.

Gomoku Yakisoba
The last dish we went for is the Gomoku-Yakisoba, or sauteed noodles topped with vegetables and seafood cooked in thick glaze: another plate that did not disappoint at all. I don't know whether the noodles were quickly steamed before being sauteed but they had a nice consistency, not to mention that the low-salt thick shoyu-based sauce went greatly with the noodles and the numerous stirred ingredients (carrot, sprout, Chinese cabbage, pork, shrimp, bamboo shoot, jew's ear, naruto and mushroom)

Given the advanced age of the adorable folks managing this place, I really have no idea how long they will keep the place alive, so please do try and eat there if you have a chance as it will keep the restaurant from being (what I believe to be) unjustly empty, definitely give you a great idea of what an old local Chinese restaurant in Japan tastes like and last but not the least convince them what we have not forgotten them.
So let yourself welcomed by the white Beckoning Cat "Maneki-Neko" in the window and enjoy the time trip as well as the good food!

I forgot to check when they are closed, so I shall update the info as soon as I can.
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 3-26-3
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