Posts Tagged ‘tonkotsu’

Japan Series One: Kagoshima. The Land of Kurobuta Pork, Black Cows, Hot Springs and an Active Volcano.

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

It wasn’t a very difficult decision to spend our winter break in Japan. Just the summer before, we rocked it out at the Fuji Rock Festival – undergoing some of the worst weather conditions for nearly five days and putting our relationship to the test to see world class bands. We survived without any casualties and with nothing but big smiles. Then in March 2011, the tragic tsunami hit and all of a sudden, we missed Japan. We had taken the train along the eastern coast of Japan through Sendai, which was hit the hardest. I’ll remember the dark blue ocean and green scenery with quaint villages peppered along the coast – all of which was gone on that fateful day. We had an even stronger appreciation for Japan and it was only natural that we would go back as soon as we could. So begins my series on Japan and our experiences in Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, Hakodate, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, the Fuji Rock Festival and Kurokawa. You may not know these names now, but you will very soon. This series is a collection of postings from our trips to Japan from 2010 – 2011. Bare with me – these are long postings with the intention of making it easier for your future reference . Enjoy.

When Jeni and I decided that we’d be going to Japan, she quickly pulled out our collection of various Japanese travel guides. “Where do we go?,” I asked. Jeni had already lived in Osaka for two years and it was all she really knew until we would travel to other prefectures in Japan. “I’ve always wanted to go to Kagoshima,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about and responded with, “What’s it known for?” I guess I’m easy, because the second she said the K-word, I was sold. “Their known for kurobuta pork. You know Berkshire pork.” Even in the U.S., that stuff isn’t cheap. But when you see it on the menu, you should probably order it because it is amazing pork. Kagoshima is highly agricultural, and as you’ll see in this posting, they really know how to raise some of the best beef, pork and chicken around. And like that, we were in 30,000 in the air traveling to a prefecture we knew nothing about – with nothing but our soon-to-become-true fantasies of dreamy, melty pork leading the way. Funny to fathom how food can be the main objective in traveling.

Twelve hours later, we arrived in Kagoshima, the southern most prefecture of the island of Japan. Prefectures are governmental bodies larger than cities, towns, and villages. A prefecture, may sound like a state, but it functions more like a large district with administrative jurisdiction or subdivision. Basically think of them as a county. The entire country of Japan is smaller than California and is broken up into 47 prefectures. Tokyo being the “metropolis” prefecture. Example: Los Angeles, Orange County and Riverside would be considered separate prefectures.

The second we stepped out of the Kagoshima airport, we were hit with the cold wind. I LOVE cold weather, Jeni hates it. Luckily she had some of those hand warming heat packets with her because this was going to be one cold trip. Living in Los Angeles, we don’t really have seasons. And that’s why I look forward to visiting cities like New York more than once a year because the seasons completely change the character of the city. Certain foods taste better, people are in a different mode  and there’s an overall different vibe. Same with Japan since we went last year during the summer – this would be a different kind of Japan.

I loved Kagoshima after the first few minutes. I loved that there weren’t too many tall buildings like Tokyo. It was also not crowded at all. “Finally Japan, thank you for the breathing room.”

Our check in was set for 3 pm and we arrived in Kagoshima 3-4 hours early. We left our bags at the hotel and decided to kill some time. Kagoshima City itself isn’t that big and we relied a lot on the train to get around since it was easily navigable, taking taxis when it was too cold to walk at night. This train made us feel like we were in a tiny model city.

We took the train back towards the Kagoshima train station to hang out at the shopping center there called Amu Plaza. FYI, a shopping center or train station in any Japanese city is more than what it seems. There are usually cafes, restaurants and grocery stores many levels beneath the ground. This ferris wheel you see is on top of the Amu Plaza which also has a movie theater. We lucked out and ran into a vendor’s market selling all sorts of Japanese goodies like bonito flakes (katsuoboshi), rice crackers (senbei) and various marinated fish. They even had jarred honey with Japanese hornet carcasses inside – crazy! Ever watch the famous “30 Japanese hornets vs. 30,000 Killer bees” video? If not, YouTube it now. We tried the mochi grilled over charcoal and then wrapped with seaweed and a brush of soy sauce – so good.

And then, the smell of something very very familiar… not just meat, GOOD meat. Within two hours, we would finally be getting a piece of real kurobuta pork. The guy on the left was grilling some various chicken parts and the guy on the right was grilling skewered kurobuta belly. I’ll take both… delicious. Right then and there, I knew this would be a fantastic trip down to Kurobuta City, I mean, Kagoshima City.

In Amu Plaza, we found a nice selection of restaurants and food stores. There was a ramen shop with large posters screaming for us to try it out. Having tried some tasty ramen during last year’s visit to Fukuoka (Hakata), we were completely blown away with their style of ramen. I was a firm believer that there is no bad ramen in Japan, but this particular place just wasn’t very good. Kagoshima-style ramen employs the Hakata-style tonkotsu broth boiled for hours, but it could be the sauteed cabbage and fried shallots that might have rained on the parade. There was another place we tried a few days later that was a little bit better but I think overall Kagoshima may not as big of a ramen town as Sapporo, Fukuoka or Tokyo. Rameniac and I had a conversation about Kagoshima-style ramen and it seemed like we were both on the same page. I’ll have to give ramen another shot once I come back to Kagoshima. Another thing we tried was yaki tamago, which literally means “grilled/fried egg”. You may recognize this as a type of common ingredient served with sushi rice. Scrambled eggs are mixed with seasoning, probably with tsuyu (a dipping sauce, made of dashi, mirin and shoyu), and cooked in a rectangular pan. Watching the chef make it was a real treat – an old man, with chopsticks watching an egg cook like he was dismantling a bomb. No matter what the Japanese are doing, they’re going to put in 110% detail and attention. The omelette was great!

On the top level of Amu Plaza, we found even more restaurants. We were sold once we saw a line outside this restaurant that serves kurobuta shabu shabu. This would be our first time eating kurobuta pork in shabu form – nice! We started with some yellowtail sashimi and I was quite surprised to find the soy sauce to be very sweet. I later read that in Kagoshima, sweet soy sauce is the regional twist. It was interesting but I still prefer the standard kidney-punishing stuff.

We both got bento box lunch sets. Mine came with what I thought was miso soup, but was in fact a popular regional soup called tonkotsu. Not like tonkotsu as in pork bone broth ramen. Tonkotsu is a slightly sweet stew that is made with none other than tonkotsu pork bones, veggies and not sake, but shochu, the potato rice wine, and served with slivers of sliced kurobuta. I could eat this all day. Jeni got the kurobuta katsu and it was beautifully fried.


Tsujita Ramen LA, West Los Angeles. And Along Comes Another Solid Ramen Shop.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

By now, you’re used to seeing this style of ramen. A bowl of what appears to be a milky, unctuous liquid topped with braised pork, a hard-boiled egg with a soft yolk, seaweed, bamboo/fungus and scallions. In about 3-4 minutes, the top of the soup will begin to slightly congeal, resulting in a thin, transparent “blanket” of fat. Health freaks and vegetarians would be appalled by this. But for ramen addicts, this is everything they fantasize about and surely the cheapest way to experience true Japanese cuisine minus the $800 plane ticket or week-long jet lag. And this style of ramen is delicious. Long gone are the days when we only had a choice in either shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt) or miso ramen – which is referred to as assari kei ramen, meaning lighter than its heavier cousin, kotteri kei. This style of kotteri kei ramen, known as tonkotsu ramen, has become somewhat of a a new standard in Los Angeles – at least in my eyes. Tonkotsu broth can only be achieved after 10+ hours (even 15+ hours depending on how psychotic the ramen chef is) of boiling pork bones, particularly the leg bones, over low heat. The “white, milky” broth is the fine result of boiled marrow and collagen over a long duration of time. The combination of salt, a soup base (tare) and in some cases, various seafood makes this one of the most highly complex, desired types of ramen in Japan. J and I spent almost 3 weeks in Japan traveling up and down Japan experiencing ramen from some of the best prefectures such as Hokkaido, Tokyo and of course, land of the tonkotsu broth, Fukuoka (Hakata). Although each region of Japan has its favored style of ramen, the tonkotsu ramen continues to be wildly popular.

But this new trend in ramen styles didn’t happen overnight. Along some cave wall in LA, you might find hieroglyphics and Caveman drawings depicting the ramen evolution in LA. Thinking back as far as 2003 AD, I can actually remember my experiences at Los Angeles ramen shops, particularly in the West Los Angeles area.  Sawtelle Blvd. was originally inhabited by Japanese botanists and gardeners in the late 80s and they formed a small Japanese community between Santa Monica Blvd. and Olympic Blvd. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Osaka” to distinguish itself from its larger cousin, “Little Tokyo” in Downtown Los Angeles. The shopping centers offered various things to eat and quickly became a haunting ground for UCLA students. The most popular places being the ramen shops. “Little Osaka” was the go-to spot for many Westsiders craving ramen-like objects.

It’s also interesting to note the ramen shops I used to love. It’s interesting how age and money play a huge part in what you thought was once delicious. My first time eating ramen was at Ramenya and thought it was the best thing ever. I never liked Asahi Ramen and actually preferred Kinchan’s shoyu ramen. I never understood the allure of the ring-of-fire-inducing Orochon in Little Tokyo either. All of the Sawtelle Blvd. places were pushed aside once I tried Shin Sen Gumi in Gardena and Daikokuya in Little Tokyo. It was the first time I was exposed to a pork-bone broth ramen and it was awesome. Only one dollar for extra noodles? Yes please! But in 2006, I went on my first trip to Japan and came back fatter, inspired and yearning for the ramen I ate nearly everyday. It was life changing and I completely forgot about Shin Sen Gumi and Daikokuya. I befriended a ramen freak named Rameniac (Rickmond Wong) who frequented Japan 8-10 times a year. We had a mutual love for ramen and talked about it all the time. I lived vicariously through many of his ramen-focused trips. It was he that kept me up to date with the ramen shops that seemed to pop up quite frequently. A few years later, he informed me about a ramen franchise from the South Bay and Costa Mesa area called Santouka that had everyone running towards the Mitsuwa Marketplace in West LA. I think it was Santouka’s emergence that really put Los Angeles on the US “ramen map”. In Rameniac’s words, “it’s getting better here in Los Angeles.” A few years later, I was sent over to try two places in the South Bay (Gardena and Torrance), Yamadaya (now also in Culver City) and Mottainai – both are solid. Although, way more rich, I felt Yamadaya took over the #1 ramen spot in my book. And just when I thought things had plateaued with Yamadaya, the attention is again shifted away from the South Bay and back to West LA. We are presented again with yet another addition to the ramen gene pool in Los Angeles. And all of a sudden, the ramen rankings have been reshuffled.

Tsujita LA is the latest ramen shop from chef/restaurateur Takeshi Tsujita from Tokyo and at only 32 years old, his empire is now five stores strong. Tsujita had opened a few months ago and to everyone’s surprise, he was not serving ramen. But he made a surprise debut at Mitsuwa Marketplace in West LA and knocked it out of the ball park.  It was Tsujita’s preemptive strike on ramen freaks in LA and a sure indication that ramen would be served at his Sawtelle location. He started to offer ramen only last week and foodies all over cancelled any existing plans they may have had to get a taste of Tsujita’s mastercraft – with waiting time up to 45 minutes.

On the fifth day of ramen service, I met up with my friend TN for some heavy noodling. And as expected, there were about 15-20 people waiting outside this tiny, packed restaurant. Once we were called up, we asked for the ramen bar for the best seats in the house. There you can watch stone-faced ramen cooks work meticulously like robots. I remember one tiny ramen shop in Tokyo that had nearly 5 ramen cooks. Each guy has his own “station” if you’ll call it that. One guy cooked the noodles, one guy carefully ladeled broth in to the bowl, one guy placed the toppings, one guy did the final look at the bowl and wiped away any drops of broth and one person served the ramen to us with a huge smile. Freaking Japanese, so technical I love it. Sitting there at the bar, I could only hear two things: the slurping of ramen and Japanese zither music playing, which tells me that Tsujita isn’t clowning around. It was pretty hilarious. And that’s a good sign because that makes everyone serious about their food. “No talking, just eat!”  In Japan, there are some ramen shops that offer only standing seats with only a curtain to separate you from another diner. Japanese mean business, even when they eat.

Tsujita’s main specialties are the tonkotsu ramen and the dipping noodles known as tsukemen. We ordered one of each. On the tables, Tsujita has provided you with an assortment of condiments such as Japanese pepper, Japanese seven-spice pepper (shichimi togorashi), pickled ginger, pickled Chinese preserved vegetables, soy sauce, vinegar, tonkotsu sauce and tsukemen sauce. The last two are provided for extra flavor if you happen to add extra noodles to your ramen or dilute your cold dipping noodles. I tried the Chinese preserved vegetables, and they were delicious. I was surprised to find that it was actually pretty spicy, considering the Japanese don’t really spice up their food. But in the ramen game, every chef makes up his own rules.

And from behind us, we heard the cute-sy, Sanrio-like voice of our Japanese server. It sounded something like, “Aiyeeeeeee-ehhhhhhhhhh hehehe!” I’m not sure what that actually means in Sanrio talk, but I know it to mean business time. She set the bowl down and it was simply beautiful. I went through my ramen checklist and made sure all the toppings were there. At least two to three pieces of melty pork, light-brown egg, Japanese mushroom fungus, scallions and a piece of seaweed – good to go. Are you like me when it comes to ramen? Because ramen is so complex and well-thought out by the chef, I kind of perform these little tests just to see how good of a chef he is.  Ramen can be looked at as one whole unit, but for me, I see several things going on in a bowl of ramen. As I always do, I go in with the soup spoon first. The broth was great with just the right amount of thickness and sheen. It was very forward on the sea salt taste but very light. I can definitely taste Tsujita’s addition of seafood to the tonkotsu broth.

The second test is how well he understands the “bite” of a noodle. The noodles themselves were very good and cooked al-dente. Thicker than the ramen noodles you would usually see at Shin Sen Gumi but thinner than Yamadaya’s “thick-cut” noodles. Like pasta and tomato sauce, the Japanese have different noodle cuts depending on the thickness of the broth. Here, Chef Tsujita offers a medium cut ramen to go with a rather “light” tonkotsu broth.  You wouldn’t be able to eat more than 5-6 bites of this if the broth was thick as mud with tagliatelle noodles. I’ve eaten an extremely thick chicken-bone broth ramen in Hawaii and found it simply inedible because there was such an imbalance. So soup density and noodle thickness have to have yin and ying.

The third test is probably my favorite since I love eggs. In American cuisine, we highly covet the 63 degree egg. In Japanese cuisine, they covet the ramen egg. It is semi-hard boiled but with a rich, melty egg yolk that oozes out once you’ve punctured the egg with your fangs. The Japanese have cleverly created this by pricking a raw egg with a needle and boiling the eggs in a soy-sauce based broth for hours. And the result is simply masterpiece. Tsujita’s eggs were amazing, maybe even one of the best ramen eggs I’ve ever eaten. I love it when a whole egg is given versus an already-sliced ramen egg. It is an experience itself cracking open that egg, like eating a juicy, Chinese soup dumpling (xiao long bao). I could taste the yolk and I could taste the simmering base.

And for the final test, the cha shu pork itself. Traditionally, pork shoulder and belly can be used to make this pork topping. I’d imagine there’s some ramen chef out there using pork cheeks and neck and it’s probably amazing. This was beautiful and easily the tastiest cha shu I’ve had in Los Angeles. I am almost certain Chef Tsujita grills the pork after it has been braised for that extra texture and flavor. Two pieces of cha shu were more than enough for me.

But to my surprise, Tsujita’s ramen wasn’t actually my favorite. It was the bowl of Tsukemen my friend TN was eating. Don’t you hate when you have food envy. When you’re so sure you’ve ordered something delicious, but your dining companion actually has something better. TN offered me a few strands of noodles. I ate it and it was delicious. I couldn’t help but eat my ramen and continue glancing over at his. He caught me a few times and offered some more. I declined, lying that I enjoyed my ramen more. But I kept looking at his. This continued on for the next 30 minutes until I gave in and asked to eat some more. That is an example of food envy. Anyway, if ramen is one family unit, then tsukemen is the divorced family. Versus compiling a bowl of noodles in broth, you are served a bowl of noodles and a bowl with warm or cold dipping sauce. This was something I was never really into. Not because of the crane-like work your arm engages in with dipping and eating. But because I love soupy things. But I was completely free from that mentality on this day. I had never tasted such a delicious bowl of dipping sauce. I’m a huge fan of bonito and the dipping sauce is simply rich with that flavor. With the tsukemen, Tsujita also offers a slice of lime. According to an LA Weekly interview, Tsujita traditionally uses a Japanese lime-lemon called sudachi, but is currently using a lime until he can import the actual sudachi. I think TN was too hungry to even remember the lime was there.

Inside the dipping sauce were also small bits of pork. The pieces themselves were slightly hard because they were possibly burnt bits/end cuts. I’d imagine that Tsujita reserves the best pieces for actual cha shu toppings. In any case, it’s still tasty.

The guy on the left is slacking off. You can tell because he’s slightly breaking out of stone-face mode. On the right is the Sanrio server.

So there you have Tsujita, which I’m quite sure has re-arranged the ramen rankings for tonkotsu/kotteri kei ramen lovers. I don’t eat tonkotsu ramen very often because of its richness and possible 1,500+ calorie count, but if I do, I’m going to go for the gold. As far as ramen goes, I still prefer Yamadaya (South Bay) over Tsujita’s ramen. Yamadaya is definitely way fattier and rich but the broth has amazing depth. Tsujita’s broth almost seems too forward on the sea salt. Not salty, but overtones of salt water.  But it is still delicious.  As far as tsukemen, Tsujita is my current favorite. I’d recommend going with a friend and ordering the way TN and I did so you can get the best of both worlds. Enjoy and thanks for reading.

If you’re interested in tsukemen, I’d recommend checking out Zach Brook’s great review on Los Angeles tsukemen on his blog, Midtown Lunch.

Tsujita LA Artisan Noodles
2057 Sawtelle Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 231-7373