大砲本店 kurume taiho: smooth grit
I’m no Muslim and I’ve yet to check Wikipedia, so I can only imagine what Islam’s Hajj pilgrimage entails. Do followers journey to Mecca on foot? Along a certain, prescribed route? In this era of McDonald’s and MySpace, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised if modern-day worshippers - of any faith really - simply boarded a flight or a bus for their holy destination of choice.
A Pastafarian pilgrim, for instance, might head to Kurume by train from Tokyo. Six-plus hours on the shinkansen, a transfer at Hakata terminal to the Tsubame line bound for Southern Kyushu, a hop across the scenic Ogawa river, and… well, you’re almost there.
My first trip to Taiho’s honten, or “original shop,” was something of a vision quest in itself. Kurume is a relatively small industrial city, famed as the home of Bridgestone Tires. It’s small but not that small, and I had naively expected the shop to be within walking distance of the train station. Forty minutes of stumbling around in the darkness with my luggage in tow, I was determined to sniff out a place I’d never been to based solely on a brochure (with an image of a dusty post-war main street) and the fact that, well, Taiho ramen is really really good. So by the time I gave up and hailed a cab, the peyote of hunger had set in and I was starting to see things - a fully-operational soft drink machine in the middle of a rice field, Japanese bosozoku street gangs doing laps around the city in tricked-out, glowing mini-minivans.
Kurume Taiho Honten, home to the legendary mukashii tonkotsu ramen, stands hidden in a completely unremarkable, semi-residential alleyway, clear across town from where I’d initially disembarked the train. Founded in 1953 by Noboru Kazuki, what initially started as a yatai food cart eventually grew into a multi-generational ramen operation with a handful of shops around Northern Kyushu and a noodle factory for packaged noodles under the Taiho name.
A decent bowl of Fukuoka tonkotsu ramen typically feature a soup simultaneously creamy and gritty, rich with melted marrow and the intoxicating aroma of pork. Taiho’s soup ranks among the smoothest in that respect, in the region and, by extension, the world. After all, it was in Kurume that pork bone ramen originated, and it’s right here, on these streets, that shops like Taiho keep the tradition alive with offerings like mukashii ramen - “old-style” noodles topped with sprinklings of kari kari diced, deep-fried lard.
A bowl of Taiho ramen, fully loaded with pickled ginger and a dollop of tableside cod roe paste, may well be a religious experience for pork bone acolytes. Best ramen ever? That’s always up for debate. For those who like their tonkotsu truly rustic, the soup might be a shade too smooth. Regardelss, Taiho is a touted contender and a top seed in the game. Mukashii ramen, the flagship of the menu, hearkens back to a style of local ramen served in the pre-technicolor days before cholesterol existed as a concept. Those crunchy bits of lard may kill you quietly, but they do add a nice, contrasting texture to the silken broth. The firm white noodles, traditionally a bit softer in Kurume, go over well even in Hakata.
Bottom line, Taiho serves a mean bowl of ramen that this rameniac, at least, returns to again and again. Whenever I’m in Kyushu, I make it a point to stop by, even if that means spending an afternoon in a train and a cab just to get to dinner. Whenever possible, I send a crate or two of instant Kurume ramen back home to, well, wherever “home” is. Their fresh packaged nama ramen is good stuff too, a top seller in local depachika marketplaces and at Canal City’s Raumen Stadium 2, where every month, patrons vote for the best from eight featured ramen shops. Taiho routinely trounced the competition until they expanded into a full-fledged area restaurant. Maybe they got disqualified; their dominance was practically unfair.
|exceedingly smooth and silky, yet thick with the grit of exploded tonkotsu marrow, taiho's soup is a creamy, frothy, porky wonder that hearkens back to yesteryear.||10|
|thin and relatively al dente in the hakata tradition, if a touch fluffier, as kurume noodles should be.||10|
|the chashu is sublime if thin. dried seaweed, characteristic of the kurume style, is inoffensive, but i could do without it. on my first visit to taiho honten, i got there just before closing and the bits of kari kari seemed a touch stale. then it occurred to me that they must keep a gigantic jar of diced, deep fried pork lard handy. they lose a point for the staleness, but gain a point for putting it in a jar. i wonder if they snack on it like cornnuts.||9|
|it's been a while since i've had their gyoza, so i won't consider it until my next visit.||NA|
|a nondescript alleyway aglow with the light of a steaming ramen shop. warm walls within and jazz on the stereo. top notch ramen.what's there not to love?||7|
|kurume taiho. i subsist on cases of their instant stuff whenever i'm far from kyushu. i think that says it all.||10|