Porky Distractions In An Uncertain Time

Porky Distractions In An Uncertain Time

Near to my house, by the Tobu-Nerima train station, there is a tiny standing bar with space for maybe six people.  It is a jolly, drunken spot.  If you walk in the door, you are welcomed, no matter who you are.  People either try to speak to me with whatever English they have or they happily ramble in Japanese, not really caring whether they are 100% understood or not.  The bar always has a spread of dishes out on the counter and I have tried a pretty major guts stew and a top dish of braised pork.  There is a complicated set of tickets hanging from a shelf.  From what I can gather, if you are a “member” of the bar, each order you make gets you one of those tickets — gather enough and you get a free drink of free food.  A lot of army guys from the nearby base hang out there.  A few photos from Iraq and Afghanistan hang on the walls.  Also, a picture of a handsome German with a long ponytail holding a mug of beer.  (That’s “Marco” and every time I am in the bar, someone will mention Marco and ask if I know him.  They seem to love Marco.  I have come to hate him.)  I was there once when a very drunken guy showed me his serious Yakuza tattoos; he then kind of forced my friend and I to go to a “girls bar” with him where he paid our 3 tabs (about $100) so he could talk to our rather primly dressed, middle-aged bartender about the size of her breasts.  Seemed a bit of weird fetish to me.  The last time I went — on a whim after getting off the train at ten pm, I chatted with a guy who looked like he knew how to eat.  We traded notes about places in the neighborhood and he advised me to go to a ramen shop called, Nigata Nagaoka Ramen Yasuzawa Shokodo.  He said that their ginger-soy ramen was the truth.

Well…there is no time like lock-down, no-school, no-work, Tokyo-in-the-time-of-Corona to go out of your way, take a long walk with your son and try a new ramen.

Apparently, we were not the only people to have this thought.  Nigata Nagaoka Ramen Yasuzawa Shokodo is located in a neighborhood half-way between the Tobu-Nerima and Kami-Itabashi stations of the Tobu-Toju Line.  Rounding the corner, we found ourselves faced with a hefty line, 15 to 20 persons deep.   My son has a touch of the hay fever, so even masked, coughing into his elbow, we caught a ripple of suspicion and a subtle distance between us and the rest of the line.  After about 45 minutes, we made it inside and decided we would each get the basic ramen with egg and an order of their special roast pork with egg over rice.  The restaurant is homey (old couches for waiting customers) and unlike most ramen restaurants most of the seating are tables.  In the kitchen, a young female chef had her newborn baby swaddled to her chest as she plated dishes.

If you like pork and the taste of ginger, this is the restaurant for you.  Most of the ramen that I eat lately features super complex, often thick broths.  The ramen that came to our table is classic, almost nostalgic, Chuka Soba.  The broth is clear, darkened a bit by soy sauce, with a sheen of chicken fat dappled in rivulets across the surface. Next to it came the pork.  A lusty-looking dish with two fat slabs of pork belly; two fried eggs with dark-orange yolks all laid over cabbage with a smear of hot mustard. What to try first?  I figured the temperature mattered more with my ramen so I dipped my spoon in to sample.  The broth had a clean simplicity with a strong, ginger flavor.  It warmed my belly immediately.  I supped up the noodles — springy, perfectly cooked, but basically unremarkable.  My egg was perfect, yolk custard-like and the thick slices of chashu were tender and richly flavored.  After a few bites, I moved onto the pork dish.  It was a bit hard to eat as a shared plate.  I tried to take it apart with a chopstick and ended kind of pulling it apart to the disconcertion of a woman sitting next to us.  I lifted my fatty piece, streaked with egg yolk and bits of cabbage well soaked in sauce.  Incredible bite.  Sweet, porky fat and tender meat.  The glaze of soy and mirin had a rich, earthy sweetness — the mustard adding a sharp note to cut through the fat.  I suspect the belly is long braised, cut into pieces and then seared.  It exists at the heavenly nexus between long-cooked tenderness and a slight chew.

The pork was so good that when I took another bite of my ramen, I was non-plussed.  The flavors of the pork and the ginger of the broth did not meld; my ramen went from being special to being regular.  I looked around and saw that a majority of people were eating either the pork and egg special or a “ginger-pork” special.  Of course many people were just busy with ramen — but they were not mixing up the dishes.  Fair point.  I was paying a price for gluttony.

However, a bit of gluttony in a chaotic, uncertain time is worth it.  $10 worth of delicious distraction.



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