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yamagoya: everything goes green

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By now, even the most casual slurper should have their go-to ramen joint, whether it’s the best shop in town or the modest but serviceable neighborhod hangout. In Tokyo, by any measure the ramen capital of the planet, options are bountiful. Yet time and again, I find myself defaulting to Yamagoya, an outpost of a Fukuoka chainlet that dishes up authentically mukashii-style tonkotsu ramen - thick, full-flavored and as close to Northern Kyushu as you’ll likely find in Kanto.

I have a bit of a personal attachment to Yamagoya. As an English teacher in the far south, Yamagoya was where I cultivated my jones for pork bone ramen, where I trained my palate and cultivated my particular strand of craving, so to speak. Ask the local Saga City high schoolers to name their favorite ramen shop, and someone will doubtless mention Yamagoya. When it comes to ramen, you can never go wrong with the seal of teenage approval.

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Yamagoya in Tokyo’s Kiyosumi-Shirakawa imports that punchy goodness wholesale, then throws in a few seasonal surprises along the way. Best of which is a yuzu tonkotsu ramen, gone green like Kyoto matcha with a thick, bubbly broth and a righteous citrus-tinged infusion.

But first, the nuts, bolts, and pork bones. Yamagoya’s tonkotsu ramen, in and of itself, is of an appropriately high caliber. Unlike the smoother, lighter Hakata-style broths of Ippudo and Ichiryu, the rich liquid hews closer to the mukashii (olden days-style) tonkotsu ramen of central Fukuoka, much like that found at Kurume Taiho. It’s rough and rugged, earthy and oily, and little appears to have been lost on the road to localization in the Japanese capital. Let’s put it this way. I could live in Tokyo amidst the city’s countless wafu shoyu and noukou gyoukai ramen shops, and feel comfortable knowing Yamagoya is a bike or train ride away.

With authentically thread-like Kyushu-style noodles (order them futsu and they trend slightly on the soft side, a la proper Kurume ramen) and a few brilliant if sliver-like slabs of tender chashu, Yamagoya doesn’t err. Some may find the soup a touch too punchy; it’s a guilty pleasure, so I don’t mind in the least.

Blended with a proprietary spinach-based yuzu pesto however, the entire composition comes alive in hitherto unfathomed ways. It’s one thing to offer yuzu kosho as a tableside garnish, plenty of tonkotsu shops do that. To use Kyushu’s trademark citrus as tare for the soup is another matter altogether; the resulting liquid turns a deep, earthy green, and every sip, aromatic and sensual.

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I can only imagine the crestfallen look I gave the chef a couple of days ago, when I raced virtually straightaway from Narita to Yamagoya. The yuzu ramen special had been swapped in favor of a shio tonkotsu. Spring is in the air in Japan, but I can hardly wait until summer comes, and yuzu season rolls around again.

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yamagoya's tonkotsu ramen is a rich, heady mukashii-style stew. order it with the signature spinach and yuzu pesto base, and the clouds part and angels start singing.10
perfect, thin strands in the fukuoka tradition, slightly on the soft side unless you specifically ask for katamen. these will do fine. 9.5
yamagoya's chashu is sweet and succulent, if thin-sliced in the typical Kyushu style. don't expect generous chunks of meat, but taste and tenderness are assured. even the boiled cabbage, unique to the yuzu ramen special, somehow works within its context.9.5
i'm a fan of yamagoya's gyoza, although with so many ramen shops in tokyo, i've yet find room for a batch at this particular branch. usually it's off to another bowl within the hour!NA
a large, long counter runs the perimeter of the room on three sides, while the kitchen dominates the center. one too many structures obscures the view of the chefs at work; give up those trade secrets and show me the soup boiling! 6
the go-to ramen shop from my English-teaching days, you could say that Yamagoya is what started it all.10


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