Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hachioji Min Min Ramen (八王子みんみんラーメン)

I can't remember the first I heard but there's a saying I had come across in the foodiesphere that sort of went by, "There's nothing that would start an argument quicker with friends than topics of Politics, Religion, and where to find the town's best Sushi..."
I've since included Ramen.

In fairness the list could infinitely go on, and as long as there are no shortages of passionate and loyal devotees to BurgersPizzaPhilly CheesesteaksHotdogs and even Sliders - not limited to elite epicures. Fortunately, politics and religion never come up with my circle.

I further diverge here but the story of Nigiri Sushi (nigirizushi) is an interesting one where many may find distant from the highbrow thimble-sized lustful bites. Early illustrations of nigiri show something much more hefty and democratic, resembling maybe an Omusubi rice ball in portion (in fact I've heard the custom of serving two nigiri's per order have come from early purveyor folks cutting the blunt snack in half for easier consumption).

A quick fast food bite sold at outdoor stalls for those hustling kimono sporting Edo proto-Tokyo urbanites. During these times without refrigeration, Wasabi, Shoga ginger, Shiso and also the vinegared rice all came about as preservatives and/or preventative measures for a potentially upset tummy, dealings with room temp seafood. So a bit of irony (or not) that one can say the concept of edomae nigiri sushi revolves close (pun intended) to those accessible and affordable carousel joints at least in origin. While by all means I'm first to appreciate refinement and distillation, I do embrace all.

I'm not sure if the analogy exactly fits this long belated post but I guess what I've been wanting to express is that there is ramen, ramen and ramen, and a lot of the ramen focused blogs out there seem to lack empathy to rustic bowls, the humble shops who produce them, and the long loyal local patronage that supported which as a whole without a doubt was the foundational bedrock of the later to come media driven craze.

I can understand the agenda but are these Ramen fans or Gourmet Ramen fans? The term only a few decades ago an oxymoron. Not sure but I can safely say I'm the former and as long as an honest hardworking shop is doing the basics right (and that is key here), I diplomatically embrace them all as well. Throw in factors of personal taste, maybe even your metabolism at a given age (ha), longtime memories of good company with friends and family, work or pleasure, and we have something like any a flux of great to good. But perhaps most important, something irreplaceable. If I'm not making any sense that's fine cause it has been raining and I'm in total rambling mode.

I was excited to finally try Min Min Ramen for many reasons. One, I'm always up for a deep Shoyu ramen which is rather hard to find here. Second, it's a Hachioji style which I haven't tried, and last but foremost, they are my close friend's family's favorite shop, particularly the dad who had unfortunately passed away several years ago. It was really nice of them to make the time in their schedule to share as it was a small trek out.

I'm not very familiar with the city of Hachioji, but what I gathered a basin city of Tokyo surrounded with mountains, known for its many colleges and otherwise quiet suburbs. The style of ramen found in this area is characterized by a shoyu flavored chicken based soup topped with iconic chopped yellow onions and good down coat vest of glistening lard.

We pull up to the roadside prefab shack and as I enter immediately notice a nice subtle scent of shoyu. Steamy cauldrons and folks friendly but simultaneously all-business in the open kitchen gets my heart rate up.  Dining is at a smaller tatami room at back where long and low tables are communal. Customers were a mix of young family with kids and blue collar types on their break. My heart is already won.

The basic regular size ramen at 480-yen is under $5 and I find also heartwarming. With topping options and larger sizes, bowls can hover in the 1000-yen (~$10) range. My regular size Negi-BaraChashu-Menma which seemed popular the day was 950 (~$9.50). If I remember right my friend ordered a large serving of the Chashumen and the missus same but with request of a lighter soup.

While we waited we enjoyed a plate of the house menma (marinated bamboo shoots). Came with a nice coating of seasoned lard, slightly set due to how frigid cold it was the December day. Crunchy, salty, peppery and full of flavor - no brainer delish. Call it the workingman's amuse-bouche but my bouche was amused and I'm more than ready to sink my teeth in the bowl to come.

Above, Min Min's Negi-BaraChashu-Menma in all its rustic shoyu glory. Both machine and hand chopped onions are used at Min Min for additional texture. My order means that I get some shredded negi Japanese leeks in addition which were lightly seasoned. Pork is also upgraded to a fattier and tender from-the-belly that encompasses the bowl like a smiling porcine sunflower. Small sheet of Nori seaweed and more of the Menma bamboo shoots complete.

The visually delightful caramel colored soup doesn't disappoint in the shoyu flavor department. With a punch but also surprisingly without edge and rounded despite. It also has depth and plenty of umami thanks to the chicken stock blended with some dried fish (I hear a combination of katsuobushi and aji (mackerel) bushi) which unfortunately most often gets played down here in the states. I didn't use any condiments but there were garlic paste, toubanjan chili sauce, and dried bonito katsubushi flakes that looked to have been seasoned in shoyu (though not to tsukudani level).

The layer of fat keeps the pungency of onions at bay and adds a light sweetness that only pork lard can contribute. The yellow noodles that are a straighter and edges on the thinner side of medium-thickness is chewy with a great springy texture. Similar to when you come across a great cheeseburger, the bowl is everything I want in a shoyu ramen, void of anything unnecessary. And if lack of pretension can somehow be considered a seasoning, the honest tone sings.

While the meal was definitely great, the small trek and appreciation for friends sharing their family's favorite made it an even more memorable event. It's places and similar memories from childhood like these that originally made me a fan of ramen. The day also something irreplaceable, good times and I look forward in doing this again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Ramen Radar: Marukai Gardena Ramen Fair

Got a note the other day from my friend Junichi about Marukai Gardena's two month long Ramen Fair organized by the Ramen Yokocho Association.

Unfortunately I didn't make it for Menya Hiromaru but there's another seven weeks left of different notable ramen showcased from Japan and California...

Sept 4 ~ 7 - Menya Hiromaru - Toyama, Japan

Sept 10~15 - Shoki Ramen House - Sacramento, CA

Sept 17~24 - Tsujita - Tokyo, Japan

Sept 26~29 - Tatsunoya - Kurume, Fukuoka, Japan

Oct 1~6 - Hakata Hide-Chan Ramen - Fukuoka, Japan

Oct 8~13 - Chanpontei, Omi, Shiga, Japan

Oct 15~20 - Kamitoku - Ginza, Tokyo, Japan

Oct 22~27 - Taishoken - Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan 

Just quickly, I'm personally looking forward in sampling the legendary Taishoken (even knowing the original master Kazuo Yamagishi has long retired). Taishoken is known to be the originator of the tsukemen but judging by the site image it seems they'll be serving a ramen. Tatsunoya from Kurume who's been a semi-regular at the Mitsuwa events would be a good bet for peeps looking for a great authentic Kyushu Fukuoka Tonkotsu experience of firm/thin wiry noodles with an extra creamy broth. Then the collagen central rather rare beef bone broth of Kamitoku would also be in my top to-try list.

Hope to see you there! I'll probably be the one slurping the loudest... ;)

Marukai Market, 1740 Artesia Blvd, Gardena, CA 90248

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Retort Report: House Toro-Uma Gyu-Kakuni Curry And Azabu Juban Beef Curry

House Shokuhin has over twenty different retort pouch curry products on sale at a given time (not including various heat levels of each), and when you include the few that have been discontinued over the years, it's a pretty impressive portfolio. Sharing two from the House today, flexing some of their 40% top share muscle of retort curry sales in Japan (the second S&B at a distant 20%).

The first is the Toro-uma Gyu-kakuni Karee (とろうま牛角煮カレー) that roughly translates to "Melty-Delicious Beef Kakuni Curry"...?
Kakuni, many may know typically as the blocky braised pork belly dish which this series is also available in. The suggested retail price of 284-Yen (~$2.80) makes it a small splurge but nothing over the top.

No room for veggies in this 210-gram packet of meaty goodness, the larger beef pieces that near wiggled in my spoon averaged under an inch in size. These were seriously cray cray tender where the term "melt in your mouth" definitely not a hyperbole. From what I gathered, House had filed a patent on its prep process a few years back.

As for the roux, it didn't seem that different from their standard issue curries. A solid profile as in 'tried and true,' but also expected. The Beef Kakuni that blended into the curry I also felt could've used some other seasoning for added interest. Say, some light sweetness and/or hints of anise maybe to help further highlight.

As long as one doesn't expect too much from the roux's classic Japanese curry flavor, this was definitely an upped joyful experience with all that extra large and tender beef pieces. :) A kakuni curry I've made in the past can be read here.

Next also by House is called the Azabu Juban Beef CurryAzabu Juban is one of many desirable residential neighborhoods of Tokyo and this was created in collaboration with restaurant Grill Manten-Boshi. Here they boast using some original long stewed Demi Glace sauce for extra depth and unctuousness. Perfect time to test out again and maybe conclude my final decision on how I felt about the Demi Glace trend in curries...

As with Shiseido Parlor, the box photo a silver sauce boat status. I can't remember what I paid, but the suggested retail price of 380-yen (~$3.70) is definitely on the higher side. Some ingredients listed were a good quantity of sautéed onions, white roux, chutney, apple juice, Fond de Veau, your demi glace of course and finished off with some red wine amongst all your other usual Japanese curry suspects. This series also has a straight Beef Stew version.

Immediately noticeable was the beef's texture and how equally tender to as the earlier kakuni curry it was (perhaps putting the patented process to good use?). Cut to smaller pieces but still at a larger size for typical retort curries where it's not uncommon to see only a single sliver in the entire pouch for most, ha. I felt I had at least one with each spoonful and along with mushroom pieces, everything exceptionally smooth.

The reddish color of roux may visually give away the advertised Japanese Demi Glace blend which had tones of tomato flavor and subtle tartness, making it also overall on the sweeter side. It's a classy neighborhood restaurant curry if there is such a genre. Definitely richer and complex than your usual where I can see people that are into this being delightfully satisfied. But for me it still makes it edge toward a Hayashi which as much as I occasionally enjoy a plate of, something I need to be in a specific mood for.

Quality stuff here though where a lot simply comes down to personal taste. Like how I recently gave my extra box of the SB Demi-Glace Cheese Curry to a Japanese friend and she absolutely loved it.(!)

At least I can finally conclude that when it comes to Japanese curry, I personally prefer it sans cheese and unless used as a kakushiaji hidden flavor agent, not too meddled with demi glace.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Retort Report: Meiji Otokono Goku-Uma Kuro Curry And S&B Demi-Glace Cheese Curry

From the land of Men's Pocky naturally brings a men's oriented Japanese Curry. The title is a mouthful but goes by Otokono Goku-Uma Kuro Karee (男の 極旨 黒カレー), roughly translated - Men's Extra Savory Black Curry...?

While I've posted on a Squid Ink Curry in the past, this product from Meiji would be inspired more from a small trend of 'black curries' in Japan where the non-food historian of me can vaguely make out memories in the bubble economy of the 80's when your occasional overly ambitious Yoshoku chefs in boutique cafe/restaurants would obsess in creating a uniquely rich and extra deep Japanese curry roux to outdo the next. While they all may have unique takes, basically a copious amount of onions are laboriously caramelized well above and beyond the call of standard curry prepping duty, some unique spices also carefully blackened for an extra roasted aroma and flavor, then finally all long stewed with yet another 'to one better' spirit amount of time for good measure.

I was particularly excited in trying this because it's produced by Meiji corporation, a retort pouch curry underdog with only a handful of curry products that creates none other than my favorite Ginza Kinkei line. Here the "men's" take seems to be on a stamina boosting angle where the box boasts using charred garlic oil and the Peruvian Maca plant as ingredients amongst other things.

Claims aside, I have to say the flavor was near fantastic. With a thinner viscosity closer to Indian Curry, the roasty (koubashii) and unctuous flavors (koku) are the least bitter and pleasurably impactful. The fine grit of spices and fruit pulp gives it a good body while the generous amount of large tender chicken pieces also infused with plenty of blackened spice flavor is hard to miss.

What prevented this from being a knockout home run for me was that it was still overall a little on the sweet side. Not sure if this is a trend with newer generation retort curries, but if I wanted something sweeter, I'd personally go for a Hayashi Rice? Still, I place this up there with my other favorites, and it already seems that the product has since gotten a small tweak in recipe, so I look forward in trying this again along with the other red curry to this Men's series.

Next is an S&B Demi-Glace Cheese Curry (S&B デミグラス チーズカレー).

Japanese curry blended with some Demi Glace and morsels of melty cheese. As with the Kinkei Mozzarella and Glico's Grand Chef, I casually brace as another test with my personal tolerance of perhaps having too much of a good thing in a single pouch...

It's hard to explain Japan's fascination with Demi Glace, but the Japanese version as with the country's curry pivots around the all important consumption of hakumai rice and is adapted to complement accordingly. The combination while hinting flavors of a Hayashi isn't all that bad if not interesting and nowhere near the fusion clash that was the Mabo Curry I've tried a while back.

The larger chunks of beef (for typical retort curry standards) were a pleasant surprise although they may have been on the leaner and slightly stringy side. The cheese that seductively marbled about the surface was maybe close to a milder version of cheddar. It's not hard for me to see why some would be all over this, but for me personally while it was a nice meal overall, by now I'm definitely content with the conclusion that I'm not a Cheese with Japanese Curry fan, as popular as the combination is. As for spiking with Demi Glace, the jury is still out. The second to the S&B's cheese curry series is the Roasted Onion Cheese Curry.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Retort Report: Hormel Okinawa Spam Curry And Glico Grand Chef

An excerpt from my overseas Spam popularity theory post, some thoughts on cultures that embrace Spam were:

1) Usually a place where the culture of consuming Pork has already been very popular...
1b) These places tend to have a geography, whether it be the lack of space (have dense forests) or topography where raising pigs for consumption is much more convenient than cows.
2) These places are usually subtropical, hot and humid climates where the task of preserving meats were already difficult and thus canning is popular.
3) Last but probably most influential... A history of U.S. Military occupation.

With these, my hometown Okinawa fits the bill quite well and we have here today a Spam Curry from Hormel Okinawa. The product found sitting next to the Habu Curry was purchased at a tourist gift shop and you can say for me had red flags all over it. But as a proud Spambassador (Spam Ambassador...) who enjoys spreading word of the great virtues of this classic pork luncheon meat brand product I give it a try, even ignoring Kat's not too flattering review I had remembered reading some time ago.

First I have to say that as much as Spam is a popular protein substitute in local dishes on the island, I can't recall it ever being used in Japanese curries and there's probably a good reason why. The porky umami-rich salty flavors that usually makes my mouth water when grilled crispy on the edges and in a sandwich here I felt completely clashes with the also savory curry roux with spices.

A rather odd combination of flavors that didn't complement, and although sometimes even seen in traditional soups, I feel the method of stewing rarely brings out the best in Spam. The Spambassador needs to keep it real and it was an unfortunate thumbs down for the tourist oriented catch. I'm sticking with the classic Chinsuko cookies as travel gifts, and if I maybe ever did have Spam with curry again, I imagine it'd be fried separately and plated on top?

Next up is a Glico product, the 'Curry Grand Chef'... (Beef - medium spice level.)

As I mentioned on my original spicy Beef Curry Lee post (30X post here), Glico isn't a retort curry powerhouse as compared to House and S&B, but it can't be said that they don't try to compensate with novelty. The Grand Chef comes with a small packet of Camembert Cheese flavored cream sauce.

A deep roux with lots of tender beef and the few mushroom pieces gives this a nice value. But while the first few spoonfuls were great, ultimately I felt it was too sweet for my tastes despite it being labeled as in medium heat level. The cheesy sauce also seemed to be flavored on the sweet side and was surprising for something I guess is marketed for an older audience. The rich flavors makes it otherwise an overall solid product but not something I'd be keeping stashed in my personal all-star curry cupboard.

Novelty or gimmick, I still give a tip of the hat to Glico for trying. Like how we would've never have gotten the now ubiquitous mayo-mustard beam packets in instant Yakisoba without companies willing to experiment with something new. With rice cooker on warm, I patiently await for the next big thing. :)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Retort Report: Shiseido Parlor Pork Curry And Kinkei Mozzarella Cheese Curry

Another exciting edition of sharing my delicious meals of heat-and-serve convenience that is the retort pouch curry! The first is a treat from the historic and ritzy Shiseido Parlor. Many may recognize the name Shiseido as the Japanese cosmetics company, but having roots in pharmaceuticals, it would be that they had opened an American drugstore inspired soda fountain back in 1902 in Tokyo's posh Ginza district. They are credited in introducing ice cream to the general public amongst other things and the building currently serves as the company's flagship store. As their restaurant serves the finer end of Japanese Yoshoku cuisine pendulum I've always been curious in dropping in the pretty Art Deco building when I'd often pass by during my treks, but for many random reasons it never happened.

If I did ever visit, I know I would really have a hard time deciding what to order. Price be damned, the visual of their perfectly flawless Omurice and Cream Croquettes are what Yoshoku lovers' dreams are made of. While one of their more famous is the ~$100 Lobster and Abalone Curry, it was a pleasure to find the Beef, Pork, Chicken and Vegetable versions at select department store grocers at a much more attainable ~$5.50 each.

What I had brought back for tasting was the Pork Curry, and for this special occasion I busted out my classy vintage Noritake China. The meal's box probably the prettiest I've encountered in any Japanese retoruto meals, it matched the plate by chance. :)

Even the pouch inside was super cute!
In rapidly boiling water it would sit for a few minutes, then the piping contents poured on a plate creating my familiar yin-yang estuary of savory aromatic curry next to some freshly cooked, equally steamy hakumai rice. Sweet Fukujinzuke pickles for me a must, while Rakkyo are a nice to have option.

This was a surprisingly fruity Japanese curry where the light acidity helping to cut the usual associated richness with subtle pleasant lingering of bitterness. Some presence of vegetables, however most well-surrendered into contributing to the body of the roux, it was nice to see a good amount of tender pork pieces for the price as well. Overall a fairly recognizable flavor profile but definitely extra fragrant with heat level on the milder side. This curry was a pleasure to eat to the very last spoonful. I really regret not also purchasing the Beef version.

I've covered the Kinkei Brand Curry in the past and feel for something in the $2 range, it's still what I consider the one that I wish to be in my cupboard at all times, cost-performance wise. I came across a version with Mozzarella Cheese and thought I'd include it in my to-try stash.

These days it's hard to know what's not an appropriate topping for Japanese Curry, cheese definitely being up there in popularity, while Natto isn't unusual as well. I did wonder if the mozz combo here would perhaps be too much of a good thing. Time to find out. I used my Coco-Ichi plate-ware and matching spoon again for this one. :)

I didn't recognize any of the beef and onion pieces this time which I missed. There were however plenty of the advertised melty cheese orbs which was maybe difficult to make out a lot of the Mozzarella flavor from the rich roux.

Not surprising the plate was on the heavy side and rather indulgent. For me the balance of flavors that made me a fan of the original wasn't quite there and got to be a bit much towards the end. For Kinkei, I personally would be sticking with the standard Beef Curry, with or without a topping of Natto. :)