ラーメン二郎 ramen jiro: tokyo towers
Critics navigate a tricky slope. Whether dissecting films, music, fine art, or food, everything is subjective and people - literally - have different tastes, cultivated through a combination of factors such as genetics and personality, culture and experience. Some Japanese friends of mine honestly believe that they have more sensitive palates than Americans, given that as babies, they were raised, nay, trained, on food that emphasizes deliciousness (”Oishiii~!”) as opposed to puréed peas in a jar.
As a food writer here on the wild, wild web, as someone who ostensibly places himself in a position of authority on a specific subject, or at least in a position to which others look for guidance, (and really, this goes for every other critic/blogger as well) I often find myself wondering, really, who am I to judge anyone’s cooking or creativity, to make or break a restaurant - and yes, there are businesses and bottom lines, life savings and livelihoods even, at stake here - with my own damn opinions?
Anyone with a blog account, some disposable income, and a digicamu for snapping pictures of foie gras or wonton soup should reflect on that from time to time. Popular culture in the twenty-first century is a series of tubes on the internet sagging under the weight of a billion brain farts; anyone who insists on contributing to the collective din of civilization ought to at least produce something worthwhile. Fill a niche and be a pioneer, if you can. Do something no one else has done before. Fail that, at least improve upon the concept or perform a public service. Enlighten readers about a particular cuisine or culture. And if education is too lofty a goal, I guess there’s always simple, diversionary entertainment. But don’t just show off what you had for lunch and say how great it was or how much it sucked. That’s just narcissistic self-massaging. Why bother anyway, when you could be playing Scrabulous or surfing YouTube?
Ramen Jiro has earned the first perfect score here on rameniac, not because “it’s the best!” or “it’s sooo good!” but because it’s the first ramen shop I’ve encountered that has fully realized the extent of its own ambitions. Astute readers know that I play favorites; yes I have a bias for Kyushu tonkotsu ramen and yes, if given a choice, I’ll sit down at a Hakata/Nagahama-style yatai nine times out of ten. Ramen Jiro does not do Hakata ramen. Rather, it specializes in an obscure sub-style, if one can even call it that, of ramen known as seabura chacha, or “pork back fat sprinkled” ramen. (“Chacha” is onomatopoeic for the sound of the fat falling into the soup. Yes, Japan is fun.)
Jiro honten, the original shop in Mita, caters largely to the outsized appetites of students at nearby Keio University. This hugely influential ramen shop, one that has been in business for decades, is essentially a three-person operation. There’s Takumi Yamada, his wife Yasuko, and his apprentice, Sakai. Former deshi have opened additional branches across Tokyo, creating a mini-franchise that runs twenty-eight shops deep. The honten is widely regarded as the best.
Like the outsider art of a Henry Darger or a Wesley Willis, Jiro ramen conforms to none of the popular taxonomic classifications. The original rameniac, BON, describes a bowl of the stuff as “rough and wild.” One Tokyo ramen site has a permalinked shrine , devoted to Jiro, that explains fasting with an apple or a pear in preparation for a visit.
I did nothing of the sort my first time there, although I burned off a few hundred calories simply looking for the place in Minato-ku’s dense urban labyrinth of neighborhoods. When I finally arｒived, it was to a steady line of devoted locals and Japanese salarymen in town on business. The shop is tiny, comprising the ground floor of a free-standing, acute triangle of a building. There’s space enough at the counter for maybe ten people at best, and barely room to maneuver between the mounted stools and the grease-stained wall. Yamada-san, a sumo and fishing junkie, is stern in appearance, but smiles warmly when called upon to, reminding guests to wipe down the counter on their way out. He is at Jiro every day, and word is, he doesn’t eat lunch while on the job. On the 26th of each month, the restaurant runs a special in honor of its name - “ji” “ro” can also mean “two” and “six” phonetically.
The ramen is served as a heaping, overflowing bowl, piled high with sauteed cabbage, bean sprouts, and buta, or “pig.” They don’t even call it chashu here, just “pig.” House-made noodles are thick and firm and the soup is a heady, viscous brew of shoyu, pork bone and seabura fat chunks infused with the overpowering pungency of garlic. Served without a thought to presentation, it is utterly unrefined and aggressive, a one-two combo to the stomach, a dead-on gut punch of texture and flavor that then fills up like poured concrete.
I cannot imagine Jiro ramen as being anything other than what it is. Because of that, it is unassailable, with a rabid, cult-like following of devotees that has been well-earned. Of course, it is not for everyone. Acolytes are mostly male, and if you don’t like garlic or if hearty foods aren’t your bag, look elsewhere. But those who stick around and make it through the line (and yes, there’s always a line at Mita) will be duly rewarded, for Jiro ramen, as Yamada-san crafts it, is a fully realized extension of himself - visceral, muscular rapture in a bowl to the tune of five hundred yen. In The Ramen Girl, Toshiyuki Nishida as chef Maezumi speaks of ramen with tamashii, or “soul.” Jiro’s soul, then, is transgressive - forceful, charismatic, and unapologetic. This is ramen that need not please (which is precisely why it does), ramen that wants for nothing save the occasional dash of pepper, or even more of what’s already there. More garlic. More vegetables, piled on higher. More pig. Extra vegetables are free. Just ask. Or get the large, oomori ramen at the ticket machine on your way in. That is, if you dare. You’ll be done for the day and then some.
|muscular, powerful, garlic-infused kotteri shoyu-tonkotsu soup loaded with seabura fat. it is at once viscous, visceral, and perfectly realized.||10|
|hearty, house-made noodles that are thick in heft and firm in texture. i can think of no noodle that would match the character of this soup better. an absolute win on all levels.||10|
|an indiscriminate heap of sauteed cabbage, bean sprouts, and thick, thick slabs of marinated "pig" that doesn't need to show off or look pretty. likewise, flawless.||10|
|hah. are you kidding?||NA|
|ramen jiro is a acute-triangle of fast-flowing, in, cramped, and out diners seated along two grease-stained walls with hardly any room to maneuver. but you know what? consider the context. it's perfect that way.||10|
|tenet #5 of jiro's motto is as follows: Disorder of taste leads to disorder of the heart. Disorder of the heart leads to disorder of the home. Disorder of the home leads to disorder of society, and disorder of society leads to disorder of the country. Disorder of the country leads to disorder in outer space. tenet #6: Would you like extra garlic with that?||10|
10am - 4pm daily