Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aji no Kura 味の蔵

Some restaurants actually come to Sapporo in their attempts in food stardom. In particular instances, this creates a sort of push in the Ramen scene, as influence from other areas of Japan can be helpful in boosting the concept of ramen.

In comes Aji no Kura, 味の蔵, The Taste Shack.

Aji no Kura is a recent restaurant being heavily, I mean heavily, advertised on Tabelog. Every time you search for Ramen in Hokkaido, this restaurant pops up in the sponsored area. It's also seemingly popular, usually a few people out the door waiting, and it mantains a 3.5/5 rating online. If anything, the first reason to the shop's popularity just comes from their hours.

Open 24/7.

Ramen tends to be well associated with the late night dwellers of Japan, the drunk masses hungry loners looking to fill up after their alcohol fill up, and a 24 hour spot in downtown drinking central Susukino pretty much can't be beat.

There's a couple issues pushing folks back however. The initial one is that this shop isn't actually Sapporo-grounded at all, it began in Shinjuku, a ward of Tokyo, and to many Sapporo ramen purists, this is a negative characteristic. Can we truly call it Sapporo ramen if it didn't start in Sapporo?

Well... why not? With modern technology allowing transportation of all sorts of agriculture, do the lines of what is genuinely Sapporo blend? Restaurants like this somewhat suggest that question.

Perhaps the reason the reason it doesn't scream Sapporo Ramen is because the menu attempts to replicate ramen from all over Japan, rather than focusing on one style. It feels like a shop importing ideas to Sapporo, rather than making new ones.

Well, we've heard the shop background so far. It's open all day and night, and has a pretty remarkable location.

How about the goods?

Aji no Kura is famous for their Pork Bone broth, a broth apparently simmered for more than 12 hours to extract as much rich, milky flavor as possible. They are not, however, famous for Miso, or really any particular style infact.

This shows quickly in the above miso dish. It's composed much like a Pork Bone soup, but the miso is put largely, if not completely on the back burner.

Furthermore, although you're able to pick one of two noodles, both of which are made by the company, they're both thin and fairly un-curly.

So on a basis, it doesn't really even share the miso characteristics Sapporo folk love. No thick noodles, no powerful miso flavor. It reminds me of Kyushu Ramen to be honest. Which is not a bad thing at all.
In fact the food is pretty dang good. As a Pork Bone soup, it's very tasty, a good balance of rich and light. Some garlic oil drizzled on top adds good complexity and character, and the noodles pair up well with the soup's characteristics (though I thought they were soft).

The shop also provides a laundry list of toppings you can freely add, including crushed by yourself garlic, stewed spicy vegetables, and pickled ginger, among others. This can at times be overwhelming, but at the same time, fun to customize a bowl.

If drunk at 3 am, this might be the closest option you have for that late night ramen fix. And you certainly wouldn't be disappointed.

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Aji no Kura
Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

赤星 Akaboshi, Red Star: With Interview

In our quest to find the best of the best, there is one spot that encompasses the evolution of Ramen in Sapporo.

That place is "Akaboshi", a 6 year old newcomer that is dominating the competition with its quality, popularity, and taste.

Akaboshi's claim to fame is it's business concept: sell delicious food for cheap. A bowl of Salt or Soy Sauce ramen runs you 500 yen. This is an unbelievable price. It's easily the cheapest in downtown Sapporo; nothing comes close. Naturally as a place with such cheap food, the restaurant has garnered a bit of attention. A lot of attention really, there's usually a bit of a line out of the door for the food.

But the attention spans just the price; Akaboshi is one of the top 20 rated ramen shops in all of Hokkaido on Tabelog, with a 3.7/5, significantly high for a ramen shop.

I had the honor of interviewing the owner and head chef of Akaboshi, a ramen guru by any standard. He had worked in Kitchens for decades prior to opening his tiny 8 seat shop in Tanuki Kouji. An unbelievable spot for garnering attention and easy access. He was certainly ready to talk about his restaurant, we spoke for around 40 minutes. In fact, he has already done a few interviews for TV laying out the majority of the ramen making process.

The objective was simple: Sell it for less, and make it taste just as good. I was surprised by his honesty in the interview; he told me essentially everything there is to know about how his ramen is made, without hesitation, and without secrets. He explanation for doing do was just because he wants people to enjoy this food, and even get a chance to make it them selves some day. This is extremely endearing. And this honesty is extremely rare in the food world.

For instance, he spoke at length about the variety of cost cutting strategies he implemented, many of which are merely part of the way the ramen is made. As an example, everything is made in house. Noodles, broth, toppings, as much as possible to reduce cost. This cost cut however, gains the benefit of added quality, without relying on factory produced items, the shop can have perfect control over what goes out to customers. Preparation of these ingredients is kept to lowest cost as well, the stock is cooked for only 3 hours to reduce gas use time.

I won't over elaborate with the details, but everything is meticulously planned to appeal to the consumer and reduce cost.

The shop, despite it's young roots, feels established and inviting. A few Ramen cooks and a waitress take your order after you sit down, and you watch the cooks make it in front of you, their eccentric behavior intriguing and enjoyable.

They reccomend Salt or Soy, though they also have Miso. The three Sapporo tastes after all.

This is Shio.

I ordered Gyoza as well. Considering how much money you save on the ramen, sides are extremely appealing. This is also part of the reason Akaboshi's "Seared Chicken" side dish is so popular, for 50 yen, you get this:

The chicken actually comes from the carcasses used to make the chicken based soup. Rather then just throwing away the meat, he flame broiled it and decided to initially give it away. But it became so popular that he now sells it for a whopping 50 cents. To elaborate on its popularity, If you arrive at dinner, it will be gone. More cost effective business, obviously.

The ramen itself is a wonderful representation of Sapporo's historic Ramen world. It takes the concepts of cheap and filling that historic places like Aji no Sanpei were built on, while also keeping with the times, catering to consumers tastes. Most ramen foodies currently steer away from overly rich soup, and indeed this soup has the perfect balance between light and heavy. The flavor is simple and clean, unmistakable chicken. The noodles are semi thin and curly, but white, perhaps a jump away from normal Sapporo standard thick yellow, but this was also part of cutting cost. Taste wise, the noodles are still lovely, cooked just right, pairing well with the clean. It comes with fragrant Nori and an egg, and the owner recommended adding a bit of their house made "Mackerel Garlic" powder, which adds a little complexity and further accentuates the warm chicken feel. The bowl feels well planned and constructed, intricately laid out for the diner.

This is an extremely enjoyable bowl of ramen. Perhaps I am biased because the owner was so kind and open with me, but even so, others agree. It's unanimously good stuff, and unbelievably cheap.

But why the name Red Star?

Well... the red Star is a Symbol of Sapporo, it used to ride the government office building, and Sapporo Beer uses it on a few of their products, so much so that in the early days people would order a "Red Star" when they wanted a Sapporo Beer. To take this name is to suggest a symbolic relationship to that which is Sapporo. But really, Akaboshi is this exactly.

The owner, towards the end, mentioned something to me that I found striking. He told me that places like "Aji no Sanpei", the creator of Miso ramen, and "Junren/Sumire", the brothers that evolved the concept of Sapporo ramen to luxury, aren't actually very popular among normal people in Sapporo; they are lost in the ways of being a symbol of old, and they haven't been able to escape their roots to appeal to the ever changing tastes of individuals. I agree with this completely, and it shows the business savvy of the owner.

In short, Akaboshi is a culmination of what makes ramen so enjoyable, since it captures the foundation of ramen's popularity in Sapporo with it's price and taste, but it does so without an expansive history, thus avoiding the trap of getting caught up within it's own popularity. Akaboshi is a reflection of what people of Sapporo really want, cheap, delicious, and quick food. The name Red Star is very fitting then.

This is a must go to ramen shop for any sight seer, without question.

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Sapporo Akaboshi


あっぱれ亭 Apparetei

Frequently we try to avoid the touristy spots in food especially, because they lack the higher quality and attention a home own shop attempts to maintain. Furthermore, they lack the atmosphere and warmth Ramen shops are so loved for, how these tiny shacks can produce such wonderful food with so little.

Apparetei then, is a paradox. It's big, it's in a tourism hole. And it stands out.

There is a Television Tower just at the end of "Oodori Park", a large strip of park down the center of Sapporo. This television tower is a local tourist trap, complete with pricey food and souvenirs.

Except for Apparetei. This restaurant is quite different.

Apparetei is located in the basement of this television tower. It has a 3.2/5 rating on Tabelog, which slightly makes sense, this is one of four locations in Hokkaido. The original shop is rated at 3.6/5, to put things in perspective. In this way it's not really Sapporo grown; a bit of bias may shoot out from this from reviewers.

Naturally then, like most tourism areas, the personality of the shop is fairly dismal. Bleak white walls, regular staff. A ticket machine, which is amazing for the tourist, but a little impersonal perhaps. But the shop holds a key ingredient that grants it spots in those guidebooks. It's landed in at least two.

That key is the 金ごまラーメン"Kingoma Ramen", the Gold Sesame Ramen.

Just looking at it we can tell something is rather unique about this bowl. It has amazing color, bright yellow with the subtle dots of red, and added green in the center. Despite the un-homely feel of the shop, this bowl is certainly inviting.

And of course, it tastes wonderful. The soup is complex and slightly rich, but not in the way many miso ramen soups taste. The sesame is home ground, and the shop prides itself on using local Hokkaido ingredients, which is always a plus. The pork is cut into bite size pieces of melt in your mouth perfection, mounded up in the center. Slight bit of sweet chili oil accents the richness and adds a bit more depth to the soup. The noodles are cooked well, chewy and medium thickness, and they hold up well to the soup.

I was perplexed by why the ratings for this restaurant were so low. But reading a few of them makes this clear; most people don't try the Gold Sesame Ramen.

Ah... I see.

There's a reason the guidebooks recommended the gold sesame ramen first. It's unique and absolutely delicious, and it's the must try dish of the shop. 

For those in Oodori, this is likely your best bet for Ramen. It's unique, delicious, and certainly satisfying. If you're in the television tower overlooking the city, then this is easily the best choice for your culinary desires. Though the shop look itself is a little lackluster, the food leaves quite the impression.

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11:00am - 9:00 pm


Ramen Touristy Spots

Ironic as it may be, Ramen is so ubiquitous with Sapporo that there exist actual tourism in the food. Folks from all over will come to Sapporo just to taste something in town. This has lead to some interesting tourist traps that travelers may want to take note.

Two primarily come to mind: Ramen Yokocho, or Ramen Alley, and Ramen Kyowakoku, Ramen Republic. Both are small spaces where various ramen shops have assembled to sell their wares to the masses of tourist flocking to Sapporo for culinary reasons.

But, like many tourist traps, they tend to fall somewhat kind of flat to the true food connoisseur.

Ramen Yokocho, aka Ramen Alley, has existed for around 40 years in the downtown Susukino area, as a place where Ramen restaurants came together and set up shop side by side. It would be silly for me to go in extreme depth about this place, due to the sheer tourism factor it has. There's plenty of websites about Ramen Yokocho in English, with loads of information.

Around 12 shops to tickle your fancy. Unfortunately, they range from completely ordinary to fairly lovely. Some shops like "Shirakaba Sansou"(a miso specialist) and "Keraan" (a shop that has tomato ramen) are wonderful, written about even in guidebooks, and fairly well liked. However, other stores are images of something yearning to be better, but caught in a loop of mediocrity. It's essentially a gamble, but more importantly, it's at best a trap.

Ramen Republic is slightly different in that all of the shops located within are actually branches of already successful companies. They came together in a sort of "Republic", a representative of the main shop sent to a gathering of sorts, to sell ramen in one shared common space, somewhat like a food court. While this may seem desirable, (mutiple already popular ramen shops? sounds good) and indeed, Ramen Republic gets far more traffic than the Alley, some of the quality has to be reduced to fit the constraints of being located on the 9th floor of a multilevel shopping center near Sapporo Train Station.

As an example, Yusura is a well liked semi-chain of ramen shops in Sapporo known for their lovely smoked pork and rich soy sauce ramen. Unfortunately, in setting up shop at the Republic, certain characteristics such as the smoke, the house made stock, among others, had to be cut. The result is something that, while still delicious as Rule 1 says, is not comparable to the original.

Indeed, none of the shops in either of these locations fairs against some of the more legendary or original stops, which have the ability to more aptly deal with service and maintain higher levels of quality. This is not to say the food at either of these locations isn't good, but if one is planning on attempting to eat the best of Sapporo, one must certainly look beyond the tourist traps.

Foodies generally agree, there are very rarely any signs of high ratings for stores in either of these locations, and in the case of Ramen Republic, the original shops virtually always have higher ratings than their stripped down mall counterparts in the republic.

For the tourist that doesn't want any effort, these places will be suitable. Beyond that, it's best to avoid, even Sapporo dwellers don't go to these areas. And we want the best, right?

麺 eiji, Men eiji

There is one Ramen Shop doing things so very differently from everyone else to the greatest recognition. Number 4 on Tabelog in all of Japan, the best ramen shop in Hokkaido. It has the guidebook love, the reviews, even a deal with Yashoku.

The NAME, is 麺 eiji. Men Eiji. Noodle Infant... er... yeah.

This tinsy tiny shop is located in the Toyohira "Ramen Warzone" district of Sapporo, which makes sense considering its wild popularity.

Currently the shop has a 4.02/5 rating, which just barely scrapes by other fan favorite "Menya Saimi".  However, it doesn't seem very fair to compare the two, one specializes in Miso, the other in something called "Seafood Pork bone Broth", a combination of fish stock and pork stock.

There's one thing you notice as soon as you walk in though. Not the small size (about 8 seats), or how the shop was completely full just 10 minutes into service. Nope, none of those things.

Everything is pink. Everything. The counter wood is a light shade of pink, the walls, the seats. Everything is in a shade of pink. (Pardon my less than wonderful camera)

Even the chopstick holders and napkin boxes.

So... pink huh? I assume this is because the word "Eiji" can mean infant, though I really have no idea. Yes I translated it that earlier, but the word "Eiji" on the sign is written in Roman characters, so the meaning is truly unknown. But the place is pink. Certainly a unique characteristic by any regard.

Like many Ramen shops, both popular and not, you order with a vending machine style device. Insert your money, push the appropriate button for the type of ramen you want, and a ticket comes out. You hand said ticket to the cooks, they make your food, and you're good to go. Slurp your noodles, enjoy your meal, and no tip or extra cash to pay.

Eiji is currently known for one of two things, it's tsukemen (dipping noddles) and its Seafood Pork bone broth Ramen. Today we will focus on the Ramen of course. It goes for 850 yen. This is what came.

There's a lot of good to say about this bowl of noodles. It comes with raw diced onions, long onions, hand made noodles, slow roasted pork, and that dark orange jelly like stuff, which is collagen. The broth is rich but not overly thick. The noodles are house hand made, which like any restaurant that sells noodles, is rare, and they are perfect, slightly eggy, just cooked right. The pork is tender, but not totally fall apart mushy like some, it's maintained it's texture. The raw onions are sharp, kind of a nice bite in comparison to the smooth mellow soup, which brings thoughts of gravy to be honest. It's complex and deep, and very satisfying.

That dark collagen, which tastes like pork essence, slowly melts into the soup, making it even richer and delivering a crazy mouth feel.

In a word, it's a very very good bowl of noodles. I can easily see why it has the #1 spot. Everything about this is surprisingly unique and quite lovely. I would refrain from saying however, that it is the best shop in Sapporo, this is a title very hard to merely give away after all. But make no mistake, Eiji will not disappoint.

For the tourist then, this may certainly be worth a look. However, the unique flavor profile might not match up with some of the less adventurous eaters; to them, classics like miso may be easier. But this is clearly top grade culinary stuff. 

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Men Eiji:
11:00am-3:00pm, 6:00pm-8:30pm
Closed 3 Tuesdays a month, Closed Wednesday.


麺屋彩未 Menya Saimi

Any entry in food about Sapporo cannot be without Menya Saimi, its popularity is... obscene to be perfectly honest.

Saimi is a miso ramen restaurant that opened only about 10 years ago in the "Ramen Warzone" known as the Toyohira district of Sapporo. They boomed immediately, and to put it bluntly, are the most popular miso ramen restaurant in all of Sapporo. They have souvenirs, amazing online ratings, even ramen you can purchase in the super market. Saimi is a great success, hands down.

This is particularly interesting when we take a look at the sign.

The sign says "Saimi, from Sumire"

Sumire?? This Sumire?? The legends??

Yes. Apparently the owner had worked in Sumire prior to making his own shop. You can assume then that he attempts to take a more modern approach to Miso, and in turn step away from some of the more old school variants.

The popularity of this restaurant is ridiculous. It has an astounding 4/5 on Tabelog, officially ranking it one of the highest ranked restaurants, yes restaurants, not just ramen shops, in Hokkaido.

So we've just blown past Sapporo. That's pretty noteworthy by any standard. Other rating websites agree, and Saimi is always at the very least mentioned in some form of guidebook.

This popularity shows; expect to wait anywhere for 15-30 minutes, as there is always a line. I personally went on a Sunday and waited 30 minutes.

Out of the door...

And through the shop

The shop is so popular that the train station nearby actually lists directions on which exit to take to more easily access the shop. Just as you get off the Misono stop on the blue line, you'll see the sign.

Critics rave about how it takes the deep flavor of Junsumi style, but without the heavy richness and lard cap, a balance between light and heavy, perfect composition. Homemade noodles and fresh ground ginger complete the dish. Honestly, everyone says good things about this place.

Which honestly worries me. Why are the only negative comments about the wait? Is there such a thing as over hype?

It's possible.

This is Saimi's legendary bowl. The top rated, undisputed loved Miso Ramen.

It's... well. It's really good. As expected. I can't pick anything wrong with it. Even the way it looks is lovely, bright green, pink, yellow. popping out. The noodles are thick and curly and cooked perfectly, two types of wonderfully cooked pork, with a subtle sting of ginger in the mellow, complex soup. A touch of sweet, not overly salty, just right. Portion is ample as well. It's totally obvious why this shop is so popular. It's good.

But... a 30 minute wait for a bowl of 750 yen ramen? Let alone in far away Toyohira district. For the tourist, this may be extremely off putting; imagine going so far out of your way for food, only to be forced to wait. This isn't high class dining; it's still a ramen shop after all. Ramen is supposed to be fast.

It makes me wonder if the rating isn't just pumped up by consumer euphoria.

Furthermore, I can't overlook the issue with their ridiculous hours, which frequently include closing randomly for no reason. The fact that Saimi can pull off such wild business hours is certainly interesting however, but for the tourist, it may be weary.

But, to be honest, the experience in itself is unquestionably remarkable. I've never seen a place so packed. It's clearly hit home with Japanese people as being absolutely delicious. For those feeling like going on an adventure, this is the spot.

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Menya Saimi
11:00am-3:15pm 5:00 pm- 7:30
Closed Mondays and two times randomly per month.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

札幌ラーメン零 Sapporo Ramen Zero

There are a variety of toppings ramen shops like to put on their dishes, called "Gu" 具. They range from bamboo shoots to sliced onions, and of course the infamously delicious roasted pork called Chashu.

In Sapporo, usually this roasted pork is only a part of the whole meal.

Except at Sapporo Ramen Zero. Zero has pork. An insane amount of pork.

Interestingly enough, the Calligraphy symbol there means "Zero", and since zero as a word was imported into the Japanese lexicon, the kanji itself can be read as Zero, rather than the Japanese concept of "nothingness"

I have to admit something before we begin; Zero was the first ramen shop I visited in Sapporo, so I suppose there is some bias in my analysis of this shop.

Anyways. Zero is a pork legend. Their ramen is renown for the massive chashu slow cooked pork they serve on top, approximately 3.5 ounces/100grams of pork steak per order. Considering basically all other shops have less than a single tiny slice, this is a huge selling point that Zero certainly doesn't hide.

Zero is actually an experimental shop owned by the semi-chain Barikiya, which is known for selling Kyushu style ramen. So what does a Kyushu style store know about appealing to the more Sapporo style of ramen?

Apparently a bit. Zero has been written about in quite a few books based on this massive pork steak they serve. But despite the publicity, this shop's reviews are fairly average, mostly due to the tsuke-men (noodles you dip into a separate bowl of soup) craze currently sweeping Sapporo.

Which brings me to rule 4.

4. Order the shop's specialty; avoid trends and "limited time" gimmicks.

This may seem like an obvious rule, but regardless, I believe it to be true. Frequently a shop will attempt to boost sales by jumping on a food bandwagon so to speak. Sometimes this has good results, but frequently, a shop with a distinct style attempting to cross over elsewhere fails. Stick to what the shop is known for. In this case, this is the pork.

Zero is located in Tanuki Kouji. As I've explained earlier, this is pretty much one of the best spots shops can pick for tourism and business. Excellent.

Furthermore, Zero has a ticket machine, and the Barikiya Company is working on English menus. Also excellent for the tourist.

The inside of the shop is nice. Fairly small, 16 seats, 8 of which are composed of 2 tables. Dark wood tables and walls, shades of red and brown on the walls. Pretty standard. But we're here for the bowl. So here it is.

Oh... oh boy I didn't expect it to be so massive. Pork comes with all 3 main types of Ramen, Salt, Soy Sauce, and Miso, however, the Miso is recommended by guidebooks.

The pork here is massive. It totally dominates the dish. 100 grams, they weren't kidding!
The pork is made with a combination of slow cooking and fast flash broiling at the end. It tastes, well. Amazing. It's easily the best roasted pork in Sapporo.That's all I can really say about it. It's succulent, rich, with just a hint of char and crisp, and totally flavorful. Amazing stuff.

Unfortunately, such ramen will cost you a bit of cash. Be prepared to spend anywhere from 750-1000 yen for a bowl. But such is the price for godly pork.

You'll notice however, that this analysis isn't really about the actual dish overall. The reason for that is rather unfortunate: the pork totally overplays the ramen itself. By comparison, the noodles and soup can't even come close. The ramen is good no doubt, actually above average if anything; the noodles are well cooked, thick, yellow, curly, and the soup has some interesting components, a little bit of sweet, and caramel notes float through the savory miso. But there's a reason this shop has a 3.1/5 among eaters: the actual dish feels like it has too much emphasis on the pork, and not on the overall dish.

For the meat lover, you pretty much can't beat Zero. Honestly. The roasted pork here destroys just about any pork period. It's that good. But as a ramen dish, some of the components can't keep up with the insanity that is Zero's Chashu. Which isn't totally fair; since the pork is so unbelievably good and huge, it's hard to imagine anything could even match it. But this is Sapporo Ramen, not Sapporo Pork; these characteristics have to be taken into consideration as well.

Can't forget about the noodles and soup!

If you're around Tanuki Kouji, this is certainly a viable option. This is pretty much a viable option any time if you like meat.

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札幌ラーメン零 Sapporo Ramen Zero
11:00am-10:00 pm
Closed Tuesdays


ほたる火 Hotarubi, Firefly's Light

Most if not all of the Ramen covered this far has been Miso. While this makes sense - Miso Ramen was invented and perfected in Sapporo - we should not discredit the other two main flavors, Soy Sauce and Salt.

Perhaps the reason that the other two are less focused on is merely because of the ambiguity of their use. Soy sauce, and especially salt ramen, can have all sorts of flavor; if anything these ingredients merely compliment the broth. In this case, the broth is the star.

After all, what does it really mean to be salt broth? That can taste like just about anything. Chicken, fish, pork, bonito, vegetable even. Depending on what else you add to the soup, the flavor can change so dramatically, it's hard to even classify all Salt ramen or Soy Sauce ramen as the same category.

By contrast, miso is a specific, complex flavor. When we eat miso, we expect at the least to taste miso as a flavor. This is not usually the case for Soy Sauce and Salt.

Except at Hotarubi. Hotarubi does Soy Sauce ramen rather differently.

Hotarubi's Soy Sauce ramen is specific in it's uniqueness for... tasting like soy sauce.

If you can't imagine soy sauce tasting like much of anything, well, this shop will change that for you.

Just off of the Hachiken 八軒 JR train stop, Hotarubi opened fairly recently to positive reviews, spinning the concept of Soy Sauce to focus on... the soy sauce.

As of today however, Hotarubi's rating currently sits at around 3.1/5. This make some sense, as this website claims their ramen is reminiscent of Junsumi style, and this is a fairly polarizing, old world style. Most Sapporo dwellers tend to enjoy less rich styles (though your palate and mine may certainly be different), and thus the rating reflects this.

But a 3.1 rating? Seems fairly low.

To be honest, I don't have much information about this store beyond that it opened just in 2006, and they specialize in rich ramen, which is the shop owner's preference. Since the ramen book I found the store in, "One Day One Noodle 2", recommended the soy sauce ramen, I figured this was the way to go.

So let's take a look.

Right off the bat, we notice the insane color. This is a dark bowl of ramen; it looks like it has been steeped in soy sauce. I thought the color was remarkable, and rather unique, though certainly not black miso unique.

The soy sauce flavor is quite potent, which is pretty impressive. This honestly tastes like... soy sauce. It's actually appealing to me at least; it has a sort of old world soup feel to it, with a concentrated, yet fairly simple flavor. However, this soy sauce focus also means it has a good amount of salt; I would be silly to suggest that this bowl of ramen isn't salty. Still, I wouldn't say it was an unbearable amount. The soup, as it seems, is certainly rich; it has a good bit of oil on the surface, which helps cut some of the powerful taste of the broth. I had no problem drinking some of the broth, though I did feel guilty at times. Toppings were good but not incredible. Noodles were thin style and well cooked and don't fall to the soup. The bowl was quite good, and leaves a rather interesting impression.

All meals come with complimentary 杏仁豆腐, Annindoufu, or Almond Tofu Pudding, which is an excellent compliment to the savory, salty, rich ramen. Sweet, milky, and a good way to end the meal.

To put it bluntly, if you love soy sauce, then this shop is for you, without exception. Soy sauce as a single component being highlighted in ramen is rare, and this may be the only shop to do it in Sapporo with any sort of prowess. Otherwise, considering its location, the appeal of this bowl doesn't climb high enough to urge anyone to go out of their way for it.

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ほたる火 Hotarubi, Firefly's Light
Mon-Sat: 11:00am-3:30pm, 5:00pm-9:00pm
Sunday: 11:00am-9:00pm


Saturday, July 31, 2010

ラーメン札幌 一粒庵 Sapporo Ramen Ichi Ryuu An

Ichi Ryuu An: "A Single Grain Shack". A generation 3 Sapporo restaurant, cooperating with Yashoku Ramen.

They're popular, they're hip, they're new. And worth an entry in the guide.

Ichi Ryuu An began in 2007, setting up in the basement food hall of an office building down the street from Sapporo Station. As such, getting to the place is extremely easy for the tourist, and since it's near the station which is filled with places for shopping and such, the incentive to be in the area is high. In terms of location, Ichi Ryuu An is a winner for sure.

However, the shop is somewhat hard to find, being in the basement level of an office building. Please look for a sign that looks like this:

Note: the colors will actually be in reverse, black lettering and a white background. But the script looks like this.

This shop specializes in miso ramen, particularly in something they call 元気のでるみそラーメン Genki no Deru Miso Ramen, which roughly translates to "Uplifting Miso Ramen".

It's called that because it includes extremely high end ingredients like 7 year aged miso, which includes special wild garlic found only in Hokkaido. These ingredients are supposedly good at giving you energy, and being medically beneficial. The concept is using high quality, healthy ingredients to make a high quality meal. The chef went to so far as to consult doctors on what foods were good for this task, in which he discovered not only this high quality Garlic, but also how to maximize its use.

This shows in the price; one bowl is a whopping 1000 yen.

At first this may seem to be a large negative point, but particularly, this shop has a lot of praise for it's food, especially that Uplifting Miso Ramen. As if this writing it has appeared on several TV shows including Tvh, STV, HTB, and HBC. Furthermore, it has a full page section in the Ramen 1000 book, and its average rating on Tabelog is 3.67/5, substantially high for a ramen restaurant. Tabelog has even been advertising the restaurant; if you search ramen in Hokkaido on that website, this shop appears first regardless of actual search results.

So let's take a look.

Despite not having any windows, being underground and all, the show is rather inviting. Nice dim mood lighting makes the place feel relaxed, comfortable, and contemporary. Warm wood counter tops and shades of brown on the walls further add to a very high end atmosphere. Still, the place is small, only 16 seats or so, which plays nicely on the overall feel of the shop.

Also it's a good example of Rule Three

Sit down, and order a bowl of Genki no Deru Miso Ramen, that Uplifting Miso Ramen. This is what Yashoku claims it looks like.

And this is what came when I ordered:

You can choose "futomen" (thick noodles) or "hosomen" (thin noodles). Thick noodles are a concept developed to pair well with Miso, they're Sapporo characteristic, and the chef recommended I go this way, so I chose thick.

Just based on looks, this ramen is amazingly appealing. Wonderful color contrasts, with the deep greens from the leafy arugula, the hint of red and bright yellow from the stir fried chili egg. The earthenware bowl is colorful but subtle, modern yet ancient. The color play is nice.

The key characteristic of this Uplifting Miso Ramen that makes it different from the normal Miso ramen on the menu is  this sort of egg/pork stir fry delight on top. I don't particularly know how to describe it, but the pork is tender and flavorful, and the egg is an interesting contemporary play on the soft boiled egg people frequently see on ramen. And it has chili slices for a bit of heat and color.

Overall, this is an extremely good bowl of Ramen. The noodles are well cooked, a wonderful dark golden color, the soup has interesting notes of garlic and onion along with the miso, and it's not overbearingly rich, but has just the right amount of fat content to be fulfilling. No crazy lard cap or anything. The toppings pair well with the noodles, and the portion is very good considering the price. With the chili's in the egg, I was expecting a bigger explosion of flavor in the soup, like a crash of garlic, herbs, spices, and miso, but the quality taste is still superb. The soup is quite complex and extremely interesting. The mellow garlic contrast is at times nice with the sharp arugula. It's certainly unique for miso ramen, and quite delicious.

For those hanging around the Sapporo Station, this is easily the best ramen shop in the area. I recommend this shop without question.

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Ramen Ichi Ryuu An
Monday- Saturday:
11:30 am - 3:00 pm. 5:00 pm - 9:00 pm.
Closed Sunday


Friday, July 30, 2010

春一家 Haru ichiya

As we transition on this wonderful journey of noodley goodness, I felt it only necessary that we perhaps continue towards the epic and weird noodles.

Which is why today I presen "Haru Ichiya". It has a much fuller name actually...

 春一家 三代目 麺宿

If I could translate the full name it'd be something like "Spring Household, The Third, Noodle Lodge"

Yes, this should be pronounced Ikka or Ikke, not Ichiya. I know. But the name is certainly Ichiya.

The third refers to this being the 3rd time this shop has moved. Spring Household is the name, and... Noodle Lodge? I suppose that's a fancy way of saying "Ramen Shop"

Haru ichi Ya moved from Tokyo to the "Ramen War zone" (as some guidebooks are calling the 豊平 Toyohira district of Sapporo) in April of 2010. It's a newcomer to Sapporo by any standard, and thus reviews of it are scarce. Furthermore, the reviews seem to be polarizing, a combination of perfect and very low scores.

Despite this, the store has been on TV, as well as been written about in a few ramen books. So I had to check it out.

First let's take a look at the shop.

Interesting... kind of a.. house feel to it I suppose. Two floors and 40 seats, that's ambitious.

There's a very warm, contemporary feel to the shop. The menu has drawings instead of photos, reminds me of the indie hand drawn Americana that we saw in movies like Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. The walls are wood and deep red, it's incredibly inviting, and the new feel is exciting.

The shop is famous for its 黒八味噌ラーメン, Black 8 Miso Ramen. Yes, that name is weird. What does it mean?

I spoke briefly with the shop owner, one of two actually, and he told me essentially his philosophy on food was that foods with black color are good for you, and so he combines 8 black foods in this miso ramen. Black vinegar, black bean miso, black pepper, among other ingredients he wouldn't share.

Ah, the chef's secret.

The result of this black heavy ingredient mixture is... well... Something of fame and glory.

Black miso ramen with pork and egg. 780 yen.

Quite literally, a soup that is black in color.

Film of fat floating on the top, reminiscent of the Junsumi style loved by those in Sapporo. But the soup is black. I mean black to the core.

My question is... how in the world did this soup get so black? It's AWESOME.

This bowl of ramen, in my opinion, is amazing. Period.

The color is amazing, the flavor is complex, rich, and unique, as these black ingredients are actually not violent at all, smooth and deep in their flavor. Slightly sweet and musky in it's composition, with good miso flavor. This is a miso bowl after all, and I'm very impressed that this flavor came through as well. The thin straight noodles are house made (YES!!) with an old style machine they have in the back. It gives them amazing texture and length, and they hold up well to the delightful concoction of the soup. The fresh cracked black pepper adds a nice bit of heat and fragrance as the pieces pop in your mouth while chewing. It also has fried slices of garlic, which give just an amazing aroma and flavor to the already superb bowl.

Even the vegetables, (bean sprouts, onions, cabbage) that had been stir fried and mounded up on top, tasted perfect, a touch of flame broiled char and scent. The portion was deceptively big, and every bite of it was delightful.

I drank the whole thing, to put it bluntly.

Plus points: The owner said he is making an English menu. For the tourist, this is amazing.

The shop is located just a three minute walk from the Misono station on the blue line. If you're looking for something completely unique in not just Ramen but food in general, and something quite delicious, I'd say it's well worth the trip. Honestly I was thoroughly impressed.

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Haru Ichiya
Open 7 days a week.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

山嵐黒虎 YamaArashi KuroTora. Mountain Storm; Black Tiger.

Today's Ramen is brought to you by the lengthy named "Mountain Storm".

Sweet name Seriously.


YamaArashi is actually a separate shop much farther south in Sapporo, however, they recently released a new restaurant (Kurotora) near the downtown area of Sapporo. For the traveler, this shop is far easier to access.

It's actually just outside of this area known as "Tanuki Kouji", an expansive, covered walkway, excellent for shopping. In this way it seems somewhat superior to the original for the tourist.

Furthermore, this restaurant actually has a slightly different menu than the original, and as such it's rating on Tabelog is HIGHER than the original shop. 3.49/5 for the original, 3.62/5 for Black Tiger, the shop we're looking at today.

If that isn't irony I'm not sure what is.

This is the size of the entire shop... tiny.

Entering the small 8 seat shop, you will see a ticket vending machine to your right. For the tourist, this makes ordering actually fairly simple, providing you know what you're looking for, as it will of course be written in Japanese.

Which is why I'm here eh?

The Ramen at this restaurant is divided into three categories; White, Black, and Sea. These divisions categorize soup.

White is the basic soup, made with pork bone. Look on the machine for this figure: 白
Black is the basic soup with a touch of soy sauce. Look for this figure: 黒
Sea has a slight touch of fish broth added to the soup. Look for this figure: 海

In other words in general, they're fairly similar. You can pick based on your preferences, however, in most guide books I've come across, white and black are the most recommended.

After giving your ticket from the machine, sit down at one of 8 seats, and... wait?

Then your food arrives. I ordered Black, and this is what came.

Pork Bone broth with soy sauce. It's topped with chopped onion, sliced scallion, a slice of nori, and I ordered a boiled egg extra. Black is described as being rich and deep, and boosted with a bit of collagen, which you can see is the browner side of the bowl.

Floating collagen on soup... well... that's different.

The presentation is quite appealing; a certain level of black vs white contrast, half and half. The color is nice.

The noodles are thick, not housemade, but quite nice. They have that good bite you always look for; they're cooked well.

Honestly, I was absolutely shocked in the best of ways by this shop and its food. I thought the soup was incredibly rich and flavorful, and had an amazing depth that played well with the noodles. The raw white onions added a nice bite to play with the mellow thick consistency of the soup. The collagen gives an incredible rich, smooth mouth feel to the already milky white rich soup.

It was just so good. Ahahaha.

"Pork Bone soup" as a concept is somewhat rare in comparison to miso, shoyu, or shio, the three tastes, within Sapporo. In this regard, this place is a little treasure that manages to break away from what all the other shops are doing, while also maintaining a level of quality and integrity.

The shop is cool looking, the location is great, the food is awesome. The experience itself leaves quite the impact. If you like rich foods, and love porky pork goodness, this shop is absolutely for you. Even if you DON'T like that stuff I would still suggest checking this place out.

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11:30-4:00 5:00-9:00
Closed Tuesdays


Monday, July 26, 2010

狼スープ Ookami Soup (Wolf Soup)

Today's Ramen is also considered a ramen of the "Jun Sumi" variety, with the rich miso and curly yellow noodles.

The shop's name is 狼スープ, Ookami Soup. Ookami means wolf.

No, the soup does not contain any wolf meat or something... A lot of Ramen shops use names with reference to Nature and life. In fact, pretty much every Ramen shop I've written of so far has had a name related to one of the two.

Ookami soup specializes in Miso Ramen. In fact it's the only thing they have on their menu, either Miso or Miso with soft boiled egg as a condiment. I would suggest you enjoy miso if you plan on visiting here after reading this entry.

Considering the legacy already established by Sumire and Junren, I was skeptical of a Miso Ramen shop claimed to be "Jun Sumi Style" by reviewers online. We all love originality after all. The reviews were rather positive on Tabelog however, as of this writing the average rating is 3.7/5. In fact, Ookami Soup is one of the top 10 ramen restaurants in all of Hokkaido on that website.

That's pretty much an invite to try some ramen.

To be honest though, I have almost no information about this restaurant. I don't even know when it opened, or any secret little morsels about its history. If anyone has any information, Japanese or English, please let me know and I will update accordingly.

The shop is fairly small, which is some good Rule 3.

Despite my lack of knowledge of the shop, it seems immensely popular. Those writings on the ceiling are actually autographs typical of Japan, big thick cardboard like material that celebrities put their signatures on. Ookami Soup has them all the way to the ceiling.

I went with a friend (my ramen obsession has quickly spread amongst my circle of friends), and we arrived at 11 am, opening hours. Within 15 minutes the shop was full. At lunch. On a Tuesday.

This place is popular.

So let's examine the food. I ordered Miso with Egg.

First noting the color, it's a bit more orange than Sumire or Junren, which I liked.

The noodles are made by Nishiyama Noodle Company, the same company that makes noodles for Aji No Sanpei. So they are good, as expected, though we do love house made stuff more don't we?

I was worried however, about another Sumire/Junren knockoff. When you get labeled with that online, it means you resemble theirs at least to some degree.

However, I will say that Ookami managed to escape being a mere clone, and they do this through a very complex spice profile in the soup. Perhaps it's my palate that discerned this, but I honestly got hints of cinnamon and cardamom, with a slight hit of anise even. These rooty, musky spices are not as prominent, nor really used at all in the original, and so, at the very least, I have to applaud the store for actually pushing out of the box with some unique spices. It even had a little heat of chili flake.

But unfortunately, the majority of other characteristics are just not all that amazing. The egg is average, the noodles are good but not astounding, because they're factory made, the pork extremely tender but flavor wise normal, even the bamboo shoots are ordinary. I was extremely impressed with the soup for it's unique spice profile and interesting character, mellow yet complex, rich yet not overbearing, and not overly salty, but it just isn't enough when being compared to such legends in my opinion.

After all, Ookami Soup does have that label tacked on.

In good news, Ookami Soup does prevail in terms of location, as it is located just outside of Nakajima Park. For the tourist, Nakajima Park is a wonderful little escape from the city with a beautiful lake, trees, playground, and activities, and the location is accessible by a stop on the Nanboku subway line. You can rent a boat and paddle out to the lake, and afterwards, Ookami soup is right there to fill you up.

With that being said, if you plan on going to Nakajima Park, Ookami Soup is essentially a must visit for a quick, inexpensive, delicious lunch. But if going there is something out of the way, you might as well take the full trip down the Nanboku subway line to Junren or Sumire. They both exist down that way anyhow.


Ookami Soup 狼スープ

Mon-Fri: 11:00am-4:00pm
Sat-Sun: 11:00am-8:00pm
Closed Wedesday.

http://ameblo.jp/ookami-soup/ (Shop's Blog)

Ramen Sky, ラーメン空

Segueing fairly well from the concept of Yashoku Ramen and Miso as a historic concept within Sapporo, we have particularly one restaurant that stands out in context.

That restaurant is ラーメン空, or as I'll designate it, Ramen Sky.

Imagine a Sky made of Ramen, I would assume such a thing would be either incredibly frightening or awe inspiring.

I had quite a few sources direct me to this shop. It has a 3.5/5 rating on Tabelog, which despite what you may think, is surprisingly high, as even the highest rated Ramen shop only has around a 4/5 rating on the website. Furthermore, this shop also had a full page article in the book "Every Day Noodles", a guidebook highlighting different noodle shops across sapporo, including of course, Ramen.

However, most reviews online seem to suggest that it the restaurant's style is "Sumi Jun Ken", which as you remember, means it is essentially a replication of what Junren and Sumire have been doing for 40 something years. Thick soup, rich lard cap on top, golden noodles, you guys know.

This restaurant opened recently, and thus Yashoku has decided to collaborate with them, but the truth is that this restaurant had originally closed in 2006, to move to Nagoya, but after it actually came back to Sapporo. Interesting story in itself, it happens to have a particular cult following considering how new it is. Combining this with the amazing location near Susukino, the downtown party district of Sapporo, and you have a fairly packed restaurant.

Yashoku claims it is "a taste of Sapporo", which makes sense, it is after all, reminiscent of those Second Generation Ramen shops.

I sat down at the restaurant on a cool spring day,and the place was full up. Which brings me to my next rule.

3. A small ramen shop is usually a better shop.

There is just something about the size of a shop that makes the experience feel more personal. It also means the cooks have to be more intelligent and creative with space and ingredients, and food from smaller stores tends to be better.

But... this is a ramen review. How was it? Do I agree with the consensus?

For a bit of comparison, this is what Yashoku displays as their picture of the bowl.

And this is what I recieved

So, fairly accurate hm?
Well... I cannot tell a lie. It was certainly good.

But it wasn't amazing.

To be honest, knowing a little of the history of ramen now, I couldn't help but feel like it was merely ripping off Sumire and Junren. Nothing in particular stood out from the original rich miso ramen, maybe a little less in terms of the fat film floating on top. The noodles are not hand made, and as far as condiments go, your standard fair of sliced welsh onions, bamboo shoots, soft boiled egg, and roasted pork, known as "chashu". They were okay, nothing essentially standing out. Fresh ground ginger melted away in the soup for a little extra bite, which I liked but I couldn't shake the fact that I was eating essentially a remake of the second generation, with the only differences being that maybe a bit more tweak on the spice profile and a little less rich. Both Sumire and Junren also have ginger as part of the spice profile.

In this way, I can't say I agree with such a high rating online, because to me, the uniqueness of this bowl was extremely lacking. But I will not pretend like it was anything less than good. Remember the first rule after all :P

Therefore, in short, if you have the chance to go to the original "Sumi Jun Kei" shops, I would suggest skipping this place. For a bit of a twist, in a far superior and much easier to access location however, I would certainly recommend this shop.

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Ramen Sky ラーメン空
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 11 am-5 am
Sunday: 11 am to 1 am.
Closed Monday.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Ramen Today

So, we have discussed at this point three generations of Ramen in Sapporo.

Aji no Sanpei is the origin, the first generation that defined Sapporo as a culinary epicenter, where food ners could finally gaze upon this city for culinary reasons.

Sumire and Junren and number two, responsible for the evolution and addition of depth and character to Miso Ramen. Consider them the second pioneers, as they created the concept of Ramen being lavish in Sapporo. In fact, ramen is widely considered a "B class gourmet" meal today, because of its complexity and versatility, while maintaining a lower price point. Most meals don't cross 1000 yen.

But what about a third generation? Sumire and Junren are at least 40 years old. Who became the current generation? There has to be one.

Well. Yes and no.

Many would argue that there is no defined third store to spearhead the ramen expansion we see today. No shining Knight on Armor so to speak. However, there are certainly loved newcomer restaurants, who push the boundaries of food in Sapporo.

Enter Yashoku. Yashoku Ramen is your friend if looking for extremely popular, modern shops. That generation 3.

Yashoku Ramen is a cooperative company that works with local Sapporo ramen shops to send said shops' noodles, soup, and ingredients to customers so that they can make it at home. It allows, say, a person living in Tokyo to make ramen from a shop in Sapporo. Yashoku packages and delivers the ingredients straight from the shop.

They claim to distribute "3rd Generation Sapporo Ramen" to the masses. I have absolutely no problem with this. I love the idea of showing the culinary prowess of local restaurants.

Unfortunately, their roster of shops you can purchase from constantly changes. Attempting to use it as a source solely would be fairly difficult.

But it is kind of a symbol of what's popular besides some of the internet rating websites. I like it because their criteria for which restaurants they will sell from specifically includes "newer" restaurants. Despite the term itself being fairly... open ended (how new is new?), for those looking for the "ramen newcomers" as I like to call them, feel free to use the website.

Perhaps the most important trend to notice then, about modern Sapporo ramen, is... well... the types.

Miso ramen is only ONE of the popular varieties now. Sapporo ramen today is no longer limited to miso, but to all varieties and styles. Rich, smooth, thick, thin, chewy, soft, all sorts can be classified as Sapporo Ramen. What makes one ask... what is Sapporo Ramen then?

The truth is that, there isn't really a definition now. Perhaps that is the greatest achievement these restaurants have been able to accomplish, breaking a town's own stereotype on the foods associated with the location. In fact, some suggest (such as this fellow here) that Sapporo ramen really just means any combination of the three tastes, Shoyu, Shio, and Miso. But even this is an understatement, there are plenty of shops that use other flavors in their soup, such as pork bone, shellfish, and tomato even.

It's an interesting concept none the less. I suppose part of the excitement of Yashoku is merely seeing which restaurant they will collaborate with next.


From Generation Three, the sky's the limit. So let's talk about some ramen!

And then, There was 純連 (Sumire? Junren? Huh?)

After Aji no Sanpei conquered the ramen universe with it's glorious creation of Miso ramen, many restaurants followed suit. But it wasn't untill the early 1960s that a store ambiguously named 純連 burst onto the scene, and changed everything.

I write the name in Japanese alone because, well, when the first 純連 came out, no one actually knew how to read it besides the owner, an old woman who merely wanted to start selling ramen. The people in the shop called their store "Sumire", but most Sapporo dwellers misread those fancy Chinese characters as "Junren".

So begins the advancement of Miso ramen.

In the murky, 1960s kitchen of the old Sumire, it is suggested that the first "rich" miso ramen was born, and this is considered the "Second Generation" of Sapporo ramen. As we recall, Aji no Sanpei made miso ramen with the concept that it would be healthy and filling. Sumire entered the market with the prospect of changing things up. The pork was bountiful, the soup thick and complex, dark deep flavor, and a characteristic film of lard floated over the noodles, keeping them hot and adding to the already copious amount of richness.

No longer was Miso Ramen a post war image of necessity in hard times, but rather, it had become an image of excessive pleasure. This pleasure was not cheap of course, something of the equivalent of 900 to 1000 yen for a single bowl.

But the new style of Miso ramen was loved by people in Sapporo, they had been picked up by a magazine and customers were flourishing. However, the old shopkeeper one day became extremely ill, and decided to close shop.

That is, until the following year, in which her eldest son decided to continue the business. They reopened, this time under the name "Junren", due to customers frequently calling the old restaurant that, and to this day have been a staple in the Sapporo Ramen culture.

However, the old shopkeeper actually had three sons, and the other two also decided to open up a shop, reopening "Sumire". In other words, at one point in time there were two shops named 純連, one read as Junren, one as Sumire. Despite this, they were completely separate in terms of management; they merely had similar characteristics in the food.

Sumire has since changed the way their name looks to すみれ, to distinguish it from Junren. But the truth is that the original Sumire created a new style of ramen known as "Sumire Style", or as it's also called now "Jun Sumi Style". To give you an idea on how popular "Jun Sumi Style" is, the following website lists 17 restaurants, all popular no less, as having Jun Sumi Style Miso Ramen.

It's more or less the new standard for miso ramen.

Since their massive boom, both restaurants have grown into fairly large size multi shop companies; Junren has four locations, and Sumire has well over 10.

You can imagine in this way then, that the two essentially go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other, since they're from the same source.

I will review the two restaurants as this blog goes.

Info on Junren/Sumire.


Sumire, The lost interview

I attempted to review the second half of the duo, Sumire, in our Sumire Junren combo. The two brother restaurants are wildly popular, and considered the Second Generation of Sapporo Ramen, after Aji no Sanpei. I failed, the owner was extremely busy. If this changes, I'll be sure to update with extra information. Hope for the best I suppose.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Aji no Sanpei 味の三平

About 4 years after Daruma-ken, the restaurant Aji no Sanpei was born onto the scene. In many ways, Aji no Sanpei is far more important, for it engraved essentially what is "Sapporo Ramen" into the world of culinary artistry. Aji no Sanpei invented Miso ramen.

Yes, invented it.

To clarify the importance of this achievement: when ramen comes to the mind of a Japanese person, they will almost indefinitely think of three basic categories in terms of flavor: shoyu, shio, and miso. These are ubiquitously called the "Three flavors", or 3味. The previous two have been discussed before, as the origins of ramen long before in Japan, but Miso is the newcomer of sorts, and Aji no Sanpei at the very least deserves high praise for inventing this whole new species of ramen.

I actually sat down with the owner of Aji no Sanpei, the contents of the interview can be found later on, and I'll link to it when I finish translating it.

Actually, in a bit of interesting lore, Aji no Sanpei buys noodles from the Nishiyama company, whom was created by the cousin of the owner of Daruma-ken. Everything has a connection in Japan I suppose.

Aji no Sanpei also has an old world feel to it, despite being located in perhaps the most perplexing and unique location I've come across for ramen shops: the 4th floor of a stationary store.


Stationary and ramen... I have seen everything. But the idea makes sense; According to the owner, to avoid working late night hours, they decided to pick a shop that had a lot of traffic without being open through the middle of the night. This gave the shop owners somewhat of a life outside of the restaurant since it closed early, which, at least to the owners, was far more desirable than being open untill 2-3 am.

Miso Ramen actually was invented as a concept in pure post war idealism. People wanted food to be healthy, and bountiful, and full of calories and nutrition. Miso was successful because it had qualities that salt and soy sauce didn't, health and calories without extra cost. Perhaps this is why it took off initially.

The owner claims, like many, that his ramen has changed with the time, but I seem to believe otherwise; as do most restaurant visitors of Aji no Sanpei. Which makes sense, in comparison to Miso ramen today, Aji no Sanpei is far lighter, not rich or thick, and the miso flavor itself is surprisingly mild.

There is however, one specific issue. If you search 味の三平 (Aji no Sanpei) in google, one of the suggestions you get is this:

Look at the 3rd suggestion. まずい means literally "unappetizing", or as I like to think of it, "gross".

So... it seems like a fairly large number of people might be dissatisfied with Aji no Sanpei's ramen.

Perhaps we see a trend here, which leads me to the second rule.

2. A store's age is not correlated with it's quality.

A brand new store may have some seriously amazing eats, and an old store may have faded into it's obscurity and old history without evolving quickly with the times.

But how did I think of it? Did I agree with the 3.3/5 rating on Tabelog? Did I think it was "unappetizing"?

Well... I wouldn't go so far as to say that. Perhaps I am biased because the owner was so sincere and honest in my interview with him, so prideful and happy about his ramen and the history he and his family of cooks are responsible for. Perhaps it's because I have  a soft spot for miso ramen, and for cooks who genuinely love their food, their creations.

But... I kinda liked it. It has a very mellow, if almost unintelligible, miso flavor. The stir fried vegetables really show through, onion and bean sprout just the right texture, with stir fried minced pork added for a bit of richness. The pork base soup, which included boiled pig head (yes it's awesome) is murky and clouded and reminds me of a home cooked stock. The noodles are of course delicious and perfect in texture, and not just because they are made by an external company. I was allowed to visit them during preperation, speedy hands and silent maneuvers flawlessly enacting a dance like trance of slicing and boiling, and I saw how each of the 5 cooks for 15 minutes merely practices making the noodles to perfect accuracy.

"Ah... you're over 4 minutes now! Hurry up!" the owner shouted to one of the cooks as he prepared 7 orders of miso ramen simultaneously.

Still... this once again falls into the category of history over substance. Aji no Sanpei is lost in its old school character, and while this is charming, the quality of the ramen itself is good, but not astounding in comparison to ramen today. One should look at Aji no Sanpei for what it is, the origins of what we call "Sapporo Ramen", the first generation in a legacy of quality food.

For the history buff, this place is worth a look, of course. For the gastronomist, this place may be not.