青葉 aoba: double-soup doublecross
Imagine you’re a hard-working chef, an old man who has been toiling away in obscurity for decades, striving to produce the finest ramen you can. Imagine then, your best friend and business partner - younger, savvy, a novice to the ways of noodling, but a fellow with the know-how to take your food to the next entrepreneurial level. Unfortunately, you’re not in the best of health, and before you can get your big plan into motion, you fall ill. Your friend goes into business anyway, borrowing money from you to set up shop across town, his shop, which soon rises to fame on the back of your signature ramen recipe, the one you taught him.
You recover, open up a place of your own, and toil away for another fifteen years. No one notices, least of all your former friend, who by now has grown his empire into a chain of a dozen restaurants, scored with all the ladies, and made the rounds on TV as a celebrity chef with a prodigious bowl of noodles, never once acknowledging you as his mentor, never once pausing to say thanks. He claims your soup recipe as his own creation. He no longer returns your calls. He’s even stopped paying back the money that he owes you; you’ll never see it again.
Eventually, jealousy gets the best of you. You simply can’t stand it anymore, and so you decide to teach the man a lesson in respect. You reach out to some shady underworld types, pay them a fee, and set them a task. And so they kidnap your old friend, strip off his clothes and take humiliating pictures of him in the nude. They bind him and put a bag over his head, drive him around for a few hours, then rough him up and drop him off at home.
You feel better, until the law eventually catches up to you and you’re sentenced to prison, your ramen career finished, your shop closed but hardly missed.
I can’t make this stuff up, folks. Well, I probably could, but I didn’t. In an incident that would make an awesome premise for Tampopo II, Yoshihiro Haga, owner and proprietor of Aoba, was kidnapped by one Toshio Kawashima, the jealous mentor and jilted business partner alleging to have taught him everything he knew, most importantly, the vaunted dashi meets tonkotsu recipe at the forefront of the noukou gyokai “double-soup” ramen trend.
I kept all this in mind as I trawled the Nakano Broadway shopping arcade one recent afternoon. Due to its infamy, Aoba was one of those ramen shops I had always wanted to visit, yet never gotten around to on previous trips to Tokyo. The restaurant sits along a narrow alleyway adjacent to the main shopping thoroughfare; it’s a fitting location, a spot where one can easily imagine getting shoved into the back of a tiny Japanese minivan.
I kept an eye out for Haga-san as I entered the restaurant, yet the only chefs present were hired staff, at most half his age. No matter. I was looking forward to sampling this highly-regarded “double-soup” ramen that crimes have been committed over. The idea behind noukou gyokai is simple: pair a wafu-style shoyu, chicken and dashi broth with a richer tonkotsu pork bone soup for ramen with depth that’s also light enough to pleases the Tokyo masses. In theory it should work, however, at least to this Kyushu-trained palate, Aoba ramen seemed stuck in mid-transformation; the soup was smooth, but the tonkotsu flavor was neither deep or strong, and the overwhelming dashi fishiness of the broth pulled me in a different direction altogether, towards Taishoken perhaps.
The noodles were a good fit for the soup, and likewise hovered between thin, Hakata-style hosomen firmness and the more traditional yellow shinasoba strands. But topping-wise, curiosities abounded. A perfectly-cloven hanjuku half-boiled egg could be expected in ramen of this stature, but the black pepper, while jarring at a glance, is nothing compared to the chashu. Pink and smoky in flavor, I could have sworn I was eating ham. Now I hadn’t had ham in ramen since college, and even then it was mostly spam, hot dogs, or even vienna sausages that I would set atop Shin Ramyun, eaten out of the pot. Chalk it up to a top-rated Tokyo ramen shop to serve up something quite so fusiony, so un-Japanese, and yet Tokyo natives do love California rolls. It’s us tourists who tend to be sticklers for “authenticity” and things like Edomae-style sushi.
Ultimately, something tells me that the business-savvy Haga did in fact, originate Aoba’s menu, as the place serves noodles that simply aim to please. Kawashima, for all his claims over a stolen ramen recipe, probably wouldn’t have come up with a soup with quite so much mass appeal, nor would he have wanted to. Back in 2005, when the kidnapping made headlines, the general consensus was that Kawashima’s shop (the now defunct Akibaya), served noodles that were good for ramen-lovers but not the population at large. I can understand Aoba’s success, as it’s a compromise for the light-slurping Tokyo native who might want to live it up every now and then. But umami-freaks like me probably won’t go there too often. If indeed Haga slighted him, would that Kawashima had just taken the high road, Akibaya might still be around today. That’s the true tragedy in all of this.
|a double-soup blend that aims to please, Aoba's noukou gyokai wafu-tonkotsu signature suffers from being neither here nor there for hardcore rameniacs. it's neither porky enough nor fishy and light enough, depending on which way you want to go.||7.5|
|like the soup, the noodles fall somewhere in between the firm, unrisen strands of northern kyushu and springy yellow chukasoba. it's a fitting metaphoric complement to the soup for sure.||9|
|ham? yes. ham. or at least ham-esque. and you know what? it works. so does the generous-portioned, exquisitely boiled hanjuku half-boiled egg. but what's with the black pepper? i didn't really ask for that. no worries, it's harmless.||9|
|i had ramen jiro earlier in the day.||NA|
|aoba has a pleasant vibe, and it's a surprisingly large, old-school space down a Nakano back-alley. i was endlessly fascinated watching the staff keep track of diners on the seating chart, which eerily resembles a game of chinese chess.||6|
|noodles to kidnap for. the incident will forever live on in ramen infamy. that alone makes aoba worthy of a visit every now and then.||6|
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