博多一風堂 hakata ippudo: slurping the red sea (okayama city)
There’s jazz, and then there’s jazz. There’s Kenny G, and then there’s Kenny Burrell. A particular demographic of music fans may swear by the funk riffs of Dave Koz and Spyro Gyra, but any hipster with a soul patch will tell you that that shit ain’t jazz, certainly not in the purist sense of the word.
If mediocre ramen were “smooth” jazz so to speak, Hakata’s venerated Ippudo franchise would be John Coltrane, a towering giant on the tonkotsu landscape, a household name and the soundtrack to every slurp heard from the pork-bone loving cognoscenti. There are better Hakata-style ramen shops out there, half of which are probably street stalls, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more reputable franchise for quality noodling in the Fukuoka tradition.
With branches across Japan and a highly anticipated satellite soon to open in New York City, Hakata Ippudo may well be the first “real” ramen operation to win hearts and minds on a global scale. They’ve certainly got the weapons to do so, with a stellar double bill of shiromaru and akamaru “white sea” and “red sea” ramen.
“White sea” ramen is traditional Hakata-style ramen, with a fairly kotteri pork bone soup, thin yet firm noodles, and the requisite negi, chopped green onion, and kikurage wood-ear mushroom. Ippudo seems to have a bean sprout fetish as well, since moyashi, though not ubiquitous in Fukuoka, grace both of Ippudo’s featured ramen selections (there’s even a tableside jar of spiced bean sprouts in the tradition of Korean banchan, but more on that later). Hakata ramen tends to degrade in quality the further one travels from, well, Hakata, and although the shiromaru at this particular branch of Ippudo, which opened in Okayama city mere months ago, is indeed less than perfect, it acquits itself nicely. Though the broth is a touch thin for Hakata tonkotsu (and the original Hakata branch of Ippudo is truly superior), what’s on offer here is still miles above the competition and an accurate take on the style; think Coltrane as played by Michael Brecker .
Hakata Ippudo’s crown jewel, however - it’s Giant Steps or A Love Supreme - is the akamaru shin aji “red sea new taste” ramen. Boldly innovative and a touch karai, it distinguishes itself from its traditional counterpart with a trademark dab of spicy miso paste and fragrant garlic oil. This, then, is the bowl that has since been reconstituted by Nissin as a limited edition exclusive for 7&i stores across Japan; it stands toe to toe with Sumire Miso Ramen and Santouka’s Shio as Hakata’s shining entry into the pantheon of convenience store greatness.
Live and direct on one of Ippudo’s signature rustic wooden tables, akamaru ramen is a glorious thing, especially when loaded zenbuiri-style with all the trimmings: a hanjuku tamago half-boiled shoyu egg, Hakata mentaiko spicy cod roe, extra green onions, and dried seaweed. Add in the tableside accoutrements - fresh crushed garlic from a do-it-yourself garlic press, pickled mustard greens, and the aforementioned spicy bean sprouts - and the experience borders on sensory overload, a mélange of flavors, Coltrane as backed by Ellington’s orchestra. It’s utterly mesmerizing.
|this is the great hakata ippudo we're talking about here. that said, they can certainly do better; but considering the okayama outpost has been open less than a year, i'm not complaining. it takes time to master that rich tonkotsu broth. as it stands, this is miles better than anything else you're likely to find in the area, especially with the added "red sea" flavor.||8|
|perfectly firm and al dente, ippudo is one of very few ramen shops to bring true hakata-style noodles to the far reaches of the known universe, meaning, anywhere outside of northern kyushu.||9|
|a gallant effort in overloading your bowl brings it within a nose of kyuushuu jangara's zenbuiri greatness. if only they had braised pork buta kakuni to go with the already succulent chashu. but then I'd be dead from the cholesterol overdose.||9.5|
|not this time. not when I had only one day in town and was two hours shy of yakitori. plus, the all you can eat pickled mustard greens and spicy bean sprouts pretty much make up for not ordering gyoza.||NA|
|ippudo has always been one of those ramen shops with a decidedly upscale yet unpretentious feel, due largely to the exquisite rustic wooden tables, the intricate decor, and yes, jazz on the PA system. if presentation were everything, this place would be the total package.||9.5|
|hakata ippudo is a legendary ramen shop, and one of the first to effectively branch out across japan with its regional roots intact. well-deserved kudos all around; one can only hope more ramen shops follow suit.||9.5|