I like noodles. I don't know a ton about ramen
. I've been inspired recently by the Momofuku
cookbook, which chronicles the meteoric rise of NYC oustider chef David Chang. He started with a ramen obsession (though that's hardly what he does now). I can't cook many of his recipes in my home kitchen, but I can eat ramen. So I am. And I did. These are three bowls I've enjoyed recently. Naturally, they are all in Gubei.
Variations on ramen are like permutations of pizza -- endless. These three are all part of the broad tonkotsu
-style, which means they share a pork broth for a base. I enjoy pork. All the shops offer various toppings. I always chose more pork.
At Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen
, that pork is charcoal-grilled belly resting atop the opaque broth, with a bit of blanched bok choy and a handful of chopped spring onions, pictured above. The restaurant is owned and run by three brothers from Fukuoka, and so that's the style. I think that means you're supposed to order the red-dyed pickled ginger for an extra 2rmb, which slowly stains the broth but offsets the richness. And that the noodles are straight and thin, like hand-pulled Lanzhou la mian
, but with better bite. They're made in-house, and when you order your #16 – tungu tankao chashao lamian
– the waitresses ask if you want the thin or thick noodles. Thin.
Hakata was highly recommended by some Japanese friends. When I turned up the first time to a shabby, non-descript restaurant with big glass windows, kids running around the dining room, and a menu of all kinds of other dishes, I was surprised: I expected a sedate and expensive paean to the noodle. Instead, Hakata can be lively. It's also inexpensive. The grilled pork belly ramen, the most expensive type, is 28rmb. You can add more noodles for 2rmb, or subtract pork to knock the price down, though I can't imagine why one would do that.
The flavor of Hakata's pork is strong; it has a whiff of barnyard to it. The slices of belly are thick enough to have chew, and the broth is velvety and soulful. It's not healthy. I think it's nice with a white to cut through the fat. Sprite would be my choice, if you're pairing.
This butterscotch broth, with a beaver dam of shredded leeks, is Fukurai Tei
's, and it's more of an acquired taste. The broth is still pork-based, but it's dominated by the funky twang of miso. A core sample drilled directly through the leeks would reveal: roasted pork belly, a par-cooked egg flavored with soy sauce, piles of bean sprouts, wood-ear mushrooms, cabbage, bamboo shoots, and squiggly yellow noodles.
Fukurai Tei – Fu Lai Ting (福来亭) in Chinese – is run by an older gentleman from Tokyo whose aesthetic sense peaked in 1986. The second-floor restaurant is shabby, much shabbier than Hakata, the tables are decorated with faded ashtrays advertising “Ballantine's – The Scotch”, and the menu is bordered with tiny clip-art balloons. The furniture, deep-brown set pieces that would rather be in a mountain lodge, weighs as heavily as their wide bowl of miso noodles.
Fukurai Tei is squirreled away in one of those massive residential compounds that surround the Gubei Carrefour. There is no flash to the place and I imagine that's part of the appeal to an older crowd. The mid-day television is tuned to sumo wrestling. The waitress shouts her understanding and gratitude with every order:
“The #4 ramen.”
“Hai! Xie xie!”
“A can of Coke.”
“Hai!! XIE Xie!!!”
“HAI!!! XIE XIE!!!!!”
Five obese dumplings on a sizzling iron plate are another of the restaurant's specialties. The filling is onion but apart from their voluptuous figure and crispy bottoms, they're hard to recommend. Miso ramen, with everything, is #4 on the menu, and 35rmb.
pork is my favorite of the lot. It shares the noodles with Fukurai Tei and the health concerns with Hakata. Ishin is more purely a ramen house than the latter, and has better gyoza than the former. The crowd is suits, either drinking beers in pairs or reading anime alone at the counter. They arrive in ones and twos until ten pm, and perhaps later. The ramen shop stays open until 5am on the weekdays; weekends, they don't close. Ladies are rare. They add ground pork fat to their soup in a final, manly flourish.
Ishin is aiming for the higher end of the market, and the ingredients show it. There is half as much roast pork in their ramen as anywhere else, but it has twice the flavor (and twice the fat). Fukurai Tei's pork is sliced thickly, and the center of the roll is darker meat, like turkey breast wrapped around a thigh; Ishin’s is thin enough to dissolve almost immediately upon contact. The center is snowy pork fat. They use the expensive Japanese “Music Eggs,” with bright orange yolks. The planks of braised bamboo shoots are perfectly cooked. The tonkotsu
broth has depth, and, towards the bottom of the bowl, a peppery kick. (They also serve a Tokyo-style shoyu
ramen, whose chicken broth base has a fantastic clarity of flavor.) When the pork noodles arrive at the table, the top of the broth looks separated – that's the fat, tiny off-white granules floating on top like broken grains of rice.
There is a drawback to Ishin. Eating a full bowl of their 58rmb weixin jipin remian
-- with everything -- leaves you with the feeling of swimming in glue: sluggish, dazed, drowning. It does not profess to have your health in mind, or provide an antidote to the swelling fullness that you will discover at the bottom of the bowl.
A few other things on the menu help: the sharp chive-and-onion gyoza, six to order, with skins as thin as a Din Tai Fung xiaolongbao
and white vinegar to dip on the side; the shredded chicken salad, a bowl of lettuce, chicken, and a sesame dressing; the freshness of boiled soybeans.
A friend whom I subjected to the experience last week texted in the late hours after the meal, as I lay in bed trying not to explode, to say that a glass of bourbon, neat, does wonders.
None of these places have English menus. At Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen, you want the #16, which is on the side of the laminated placemat menu with text, not pictures. It is called tungu tankao chashao la mian
. At Fukurai Tei, it's the #4, reshi jingcong doubanjiang la mian
. Ishin's everything bowl, with egg, braised bamboo shoots, pork, a sheet of nori, and spring onions, is the tonkotsu weixin jipin remian
Hakata Tonkostu Ramen
, 252 Xinyu Dong Lu, near Shuicheng Lu. More details and a map here
, No 11, Lane 19 Ronghua Xi Dao, near Shuicheng Lu. More details and a map here
, 179 Gubei Lu, near Tianshan Lu. More details and a map here