And no, we weren't headed to Asahikawa for the weather, which was actually pretty nice at about 36 degrees Fahrenheit when we left Sapporo, but for more hedonistic endeavor.
The weather changes quickly here....from the mild near freezing drizzle and the rainbow above, to the sudden snow during our 90 minute ride to Asahikawa.
But things had cleared pretty quickly by the time we had arrived.
When we mentioned visiting Asahikawa to folks who knew about the city, the first thing mentioned was Asahiyama Zoo; though they really couldn't fathom going there at the end of November. And when they found out what our real purpose was....well, they kind of thought of us as being a bit, well, as my Mom would have said, "きちがい".
To get to the first destination, we had to leave the train station and cross several streets to one of the many municipal bus stops. From there, it was me, using my terrible, quite limited Japanese, to ask if the bus passed the destination. Once on the bus, I used Google Maps with pocket wifi to figure out when we were getting close. Lucky for us; the wonderful and friendly driver remembered that I had asked about the place and made sure to let us know. And when we started walking in the wrong direction, stopped, opened the door of the bus and pointed us in the right direction. You gotta love Japan!
So where was this? Well, while I have a favorite splurge sake that I enjoy, my favorite (not) everyday sake is made by Otokoyama. If my liver could only speak. Sam used to call me Mr Otokoyama ages ago and Ed from Yuma and I really enjoyed our Otokoyama in our younger days eating at Sakura.
So a visit to Otokoyama Brewery was a must.
The sake museum was interesting, I didn't know that Otokoyama has been around for almost 350 years!
You get to see the brewing facilities, a collection of scrolls, and vintage brewing tools.
Loved the various displays of various awards and the world wide distribution....heck, I even recognize some of these places!
And then of course, there's the tasting area......
Just when we started tasting various sake, a busload of Chinese tourists invaded. The Missus was laughing as many of them complained about having to use the steps to go upstairs! We decided to take a break and sit at one of the desks; which had a collection of reading glasses of various magnification....I don't recall seeing anything like this before.....
When things calmed down a bit, having tasted most of the free samples, we went to taste the "good stuff" which you had to pay for.
It is a tiny shop, a few simple tables and bar seats.
As with most ramen places we've been to in Japan, you help yourself to the ume and pickles.
What did we order? Well, that was a no-brainer. Shio Toroniku style of course. Which was delivered in the signature thick sided donburi, designed to keep the broth hot during your entire meal.
There some slight, though significant differences with regard to the ramen. The noodles were even more chewy and just had a wonderful texture. The pork cheek was sliced much thicker than what we've had here in San Diego, and yet started to fall to pieces when dipped in the broth. The big difference? The broth tasted less salty, but had a mild seafood flavor, this totally reminded me of the flavor of Sanouka's shio broth when they first opened. I don't really pick that up in recent bowls in San Diego.
Since we'd had a rather large breakfast, we shared the single bowl, and also ordered a boiled egg and some rice, which was cooked perfectly, and went well with the pickles.
One constant between Santouka here and Santouka in the states is.....the boiled egg is still mediocre as it's hard boiled. At least this one didn't have that sulphuric tasting green ring around the yolk that indicates a terribly overcooked boiled egg.
In regards to the ramen, the Missus claims this is the best bowl of ramen She has had to date. Me? Well, I'm not so sure..... Still, I can now say I've been to the original Santouka.
We walked back to the train station with bellies full of warm ramen.
The train was pretty empty, I guess it was the slow time of the day.
My friends actually did pretty well, since I bought them a bottle of the Otokoyama Kitamiduki, which I was told you can only purchase in Asahikawa. They told me it was delicious. For some reason, I think that we'll return to Asahikawa one day. After all, the Missus loves Santouka!
Our flight from Seoul to New Chitose Airport was perfectly uneventful. The airport is about 30 miles from Sapporo. It might easily be one of my favorite airports....there are a number of shops selling; well, everything! It's not a large airport and easy to maneuver....and good lord, the samples! We ended up buying a load of snacks for my MIL.....so much, that we ended up mailing it Sapporo! As regular readers will know, I'm not much of a snack person, but I was totally taken by this Hokkaido corn snack, which was light, refreshing, and not too sweet. More on that in a later post. After sampling a load of stuff and buying some snacks, we activated our JR Pass and got to Sapporo Station in no time. Our good friend Akiko had made our hotel reservations at the Hotel Monterey Sapporo, telling me that I'm "going to love the breakfast buffet". It was a nice choice, just a five minute walk from the station.
After checking in, freshening up, and relaxing for a bit, we headed out. First stop; the ATM at 7-11, the easiest, most convenient ATMs in Japan. Be it 7-11, Lawson, or whatever; the snack selection and prepared food at these shops are something to be reckoned with.
In spite of it being close to Thanksgiving, it wasn't too cold....yet! So of course the Missus wanted to walk to our lunch destination. Which wasn't so bad after putting in all those miles walking in Seoul. That's the Sapporo TV Tower located in Odori Park.
Strangely, we didn't come across too many people during our walk....perhaps it was a bit cold? Or perhaps folks were just a lot smarter than us and used the subway, which ran just a block from our hotel.
I'd read about Nijo Market before our trip and it was along the way to our destination so we decided to take a look around.
Seeing all that seafood and knowing we'd be around here for a couple of days really got the Missus excited.
The prices were no joke!
But it did get my heart beating a little faster since I knew we'd be looking for some crab for the Missus.......
The Missus had declared this to be a "discovery of ramen and yakitori" trip. Our last stop before leaving Narita for Seoul was for some Seabura (pork backfat) Ramen at Miyamoto. So it only made sense that we'd try some ramen here in Sapporo. It only made sense that we visit a place famous for what I heard called their "flame torched chashu", Ramen Zero, which, being in the Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade was really easy to find.
We entered......and of course came across the ramen ticket machine!
As with most places in Japan, the folks here were really nice......most of the labels didn't have kanji characters, but a young lady came out and we made it through punching the right buttons with a combination of really bad Japanese...at least I know what we wanted and could order it in Japanese......it was a matter of finding the right buttons.
We were in Sapporo; so it was only right that we get a Sapporo Classic "Only in Hokkaido". A light Pilsner, easy to drink, great head, with a sweet finish.
So, like I said, Ramen Zero is known for this......
Will you look at that piece of pork belly. This obviously wasn't one of those one thin slice of chashu places. I really liked the pork, which was tender, but not falling to pieces, smoky, with a nice pork flavor. The Missus thought they put too much black pepper on the beast. She also got a nicely soft boiled egg and some rice, which was just perfect.
Since this was Sapporo, I got the Miso Ramen....with the pork of course!
Man, that pork...plus the bowl was about $11 US and totally worth it. The noodles were nice, of the thicker variety,, curly, and firm. The broth was the most un-miso, miso broth I've ever had. It was very mild, slightly thick, with a touch of sweetness, and we made out what seemed like a rather strong ginger flavor. In other words, everything took a back seat to that pork.
As you can tell, we didn't leave hungry. It seems we lucked out as I heard the place often sells out of items early in the evening.
Sapporo Noodle Zero Minami 2 Jōnishi Chūō-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaidō, Japan
Due to the season, night was falling like a curtain as we left. Still, we had a bit of exploring to do before heading back for the evening.
And while my last go around with Pho Hut wasn't bad; this was disappointing.
Well, at least the egg noodles were decent, not overcooked. But the broth was basically MSG water, lacking any depth, the char siu was tough and tasteless, and as with previous visits, the dumpling fillings just floated away from the wrappers....I guess you could look at the wrappers and say it's just another noodle and this should be pseudo meatball egg noodle soup.
Pho Hut & Grill 5252 Balboa Ave San Diego, CA 92117
And it did to a certain extent as the chashu was low on flavor and tough, so the kakuni pork did quite well. The noodles were nice and firm. Calvin loves the fresh pressed garlic with his ramen, while I think in this bowl it kills all the other flavors. I still think the broth could be hotter as it cooled quite quickly. The egg was decent, but the broth is not what it was when Yamadaya first opened.....lacking in flavor and richness.
The guys really enjoyed the Tori Nanban; the "Chicken Tartar" more.
Crisp, nice ginger tones, with a dose of vinegar........really good this time around.
As a bonus, John and Calvin treated me to lunch! Thanks guys!
Ramen Yamadaya 4706 Clairemont Mesa Blvd San Diego, CA 92117
Meetings in the Hillcrest area meant that I got to check out Rakitori; which lead me to wonder about the Hillcrest location of Tajima and also revisit Ouan. So here we go......
Rakitori Japanese Pub & Grill:
I recall someone; I don't quite remember who, mentioning this place, so I thought I'd give it a try.
This is a nice little spot right off hectic Washington Street....kind of trying to be hip (vegan ramen, bulgogi tacos), a few craft beers available.
Looking at the menu, I believe the place is a fusion of Korean - Japanese. The young lady waiting on me was very nice. When I ordered the Oxtail Ramen, she started explaining that this "wasn't Japanese ramen".....so I asked if it was like Gori Gomtang......and she smiled brightly and said, "oh yes, are you Korean?"
So here's my Oxtail Ramen ($10), which had everything but the kitchen sink.
So where to start with this? There was the equivalent of perhaps one oxtail worth of fairly bland oxtail meat, really not worth the asking price. The garlic actually tasted really delish in this.....well, because Gori Gomtang needs a heck of a lot of salt added....the salt provided didn't strike me as being of the best quality, making things a bit bitter. And there was a bit of scum as well, though the amount of collagen in this did well coating the straight from Nishimoto noodles (cooked adequately though). You see, no matter how much salt or pepper you add to this; the noodles just seem out of place as a vehicle for moving flavor. And that kimchi mandu, the sour flavor, just didn't go well with this whole thing to me.
The corn was a decent addition adding much needed sweetness to the bowl, the wakame I'm not so sure about.
Good gori-gomtang needs nothing but really good sea salt and a ton of green onions....this, well, had me wishing for rice instead of noodles for some reason.
Rakitori Japanese Pub & Grill 530 University Ave San Diego, CA 92103
Tajima Ramen Bar:
After Rakitori, I was curious about how much ramen was available in Hillcrest over basically three blocks, so I decided to visit Tajima Ramen Bar.
Man, remember when this was the original location of Yakyudori...then it became something else...then Tecchan Yakitori and Izakaya, and now part of the Tajima empire.I remember the original Tajima when I had my consulting gig on San Diego (late 90's) and then when we moved here (in 2001). And while I'm not the biggest fan of the various locations, you have to admit that they have a successful formula. And this location is no different. The service here was the most polished and professional of the three places listed on this post.
I like the set-up; basically two "bar" type areas for solo/duo eating, a communal table, and several four tops.....they've got that covered. Nice, modern design.
I went with the standard tonkotsu ($8.50) with the thicker noodles, which to me, would do well with a rich tonkotsu broth.
So here's the thing...I just noticed that I have an affinity for the "chopstick-noodle thing", so maybe you can tell me what other shot I can take? First off, the egg was nice, not perfect, but decently soft boiled. The chashu was fairly tender and actually had some flavor, the temperature of the broth was nice and steaming hot. Not a big fan of bitter fried garlic in this and the tonkotsu broth was really low on the collagen/fat scale. Still, this wasn't too salty, nor did it have that "tinny" flavor of an quick "base" broth. In fact, this might be the best bowl I've had from Tajima in years, strangely much better than what I've had on Convoy. This doesn't mean I'll be driving up here for my ramen fix....but it was a nice surprise.
Tajima Ramen Bar 3739 6th Ave San Diego, CA 92103
Ramen Izakaya Ouan:
If I was doing Rakitori and Tajima, it seemed only right to revisit Ouan.
I got there a few minutes after 5pm. I was told to take any seat I wanted. To be considerate I took a seat at the bar....which turned out to be quite, well, like a visit to the twilight zone. To the right of me was the "selfie duo", who couldn't help but keep taking selfies during the entire meal....I counted 9. To the left was the "drunk and obnoxious foursome".....ripped at 5pm......two of them kept drumming on their plates with the chopsticks and singing along with whatever was playing overhead. And of course, service was a bit slow, so they couldn't help but flag down the Server and tell him, "look....we need your undivided attention and service....you take care of us and we'll take care of you..." Aaaah, selfish and condescending in one swoop! Meanwhile, the "selfie girls" ordered a cold sake....and decided that they didn't like it and wanted something better......like the hot sake! Shades of Navin Johnson, do you recall "snails on her plate"??? But who am I to judge, right?
Anyway, it took 40 minutes for my ramen, which I thought was really weird......even at places like rokurinsha, with a line that went down to forever....I've never waited that long for ramen. Having had some of the other ramen offerings here, I went with the simplest; the OG Ramen ($9).
So, getting down to brass tacks, how was this? Well first off, the noodles, in terms of texture were perfect for my taste. It basically ended there as the two tiny slivers of pork was tasteless and the broth too "shoyu forward" for my taste......I wanted a bit more shoyu/dashi balance in lieu of the lack of richness/fat in this type of shiru. The "onsen tamago" was ice cold, but there was an abundance of bamboo shoots....this could more accurately be called menma shoyu ramen.
At nine bucks, I think they could do better, sad because I love places like this.......but waiting 40 minutes for a nine dollar ramen...etc.....
Ramen Izakaya Ouan 3882 4th Ave San Diego, CA 92103
I do try to revisit places as much as I can....so long the food or the service wasn't terrible. And my initial visit to Nishiki Ramen during their soft opening was neither of those....though the hype machine was in full swing....shades of RakiRaki! So I waited things out and after returning from our recent trip managed to visit twice.
I will say, post grand opening hype, that things were pretty calm, even slow during my visits....though I do try to get in as early as possible. Also, the service here was really nice; the two young ladies working were very efficient and quite friendly on both visits.
So, it off to the ramen, right?
I decided to start with Nishiki's "signature" tonkotsu style ramen ($9.95), which looked sort of like what I had in my soft-opening visit. Having had a mild, poultry forward broth previously, I was kind of stunned at how salty this was. Also, the broth wasn't as hot as I'd have preferred. In spite of looks, this wasn't quite as rich, nor did it have much in terms of personality with regards to flavor....perhaps it was just too much salt? The chashu was cold, a pet peeve; though the egg was quite nice......perhaps almost perfect.
The noodles had a great texture, nice pull, though the flavor of them seemed different from what I recalled....strange, I know, but something seemed to have changed.
The Chicken Karaage was better than on my previous visit. The flavor was excellent; I'm pretty sure they use shio koji to add that extra complex depth of flavor.
When it arrived it was nice and crisp, but it quickly became soggy........not quite worth the $6.95 I paid for it.
In order to perform my "due diligence" I returned the following week. I saw something called "Nishiki Black" on the menu...there are places that use black garlic oil in their ramen and places that use a black sesame infused oil. So why not, right? Also, I ordered this with the "thicker noodle" which in my mind would prove to be a nice vehicle to move a thicker broth.
So here's the thing about the broth......the flavors are pretty mild here overall and there was a ton of that black garlic sauce/oil in this, way too much as the flavor of the garlic, which really didn't have the nice sweetness of black garlic, overwhelmed the whole bowl. In addition, the temp of the broth wasn't hot enough for my taste as this just projected itself as greasy. The chashu wasn't cold and tasted nice, the egg was again excellent, in terms of being cooked and flavor....away from that broth.
I had ordered the thicker noodle, which, while not what you'd expect for a tsukemen, I preferred to the thinner noodle, I did expect something along the lines of what is served at, say Nagi Ramen. Overall, this was a bit too over the top for me....this coming from a guy who had pork backfat ramen in Narita! And at $10.95, I think it's a bit over-priced.
So, I enjoyed the service, the noodles.....it seemed that the "bloom is off the rose" here as the place was pretty much empty......so we'll see. I'll try to drop by again in a couple of months.
Yeeesh....it's been a tough week and it's only Tuesday. I need my sleep and some time to regroup, so here's a Clearing Out the Memory Card Post for ya....... Not much verbiage.....mostly photos.
While I think the Hu Tieu Nam Vang at Ly Heng has surpassed 777, you can't deny this is a good deal for $5.77......though the portion is a bit smaller now.
777 Noodle House 4686 University Avenue San Diego, CA 92105
Can this place even serve the noodles cold upon request? The noodles a bit overcooked....the place a lot over-hyped.....still, if you must, I think the Rikimaru Miso Tonkotsu Tsukemen might be the way to go. I will say, there's much more pork these days and the egg, while still overcooked wasn't tragically dry.
RakiRaki Ramen and Tsukemen 4646 Convoy St San Diego, CA 92111
Because I had to after checking out the Flagship Store in Asahikawa....yes....we caught the train there.
While the broth and the pork didn't come close to what we had (no Santouka effect this time); I still think this is the best that San Diego has to offer when it comes to ramen.
Santouka Ramen 4240 Kearny Mesa Rd(In the Mitsuwa Marketplace) San Diego, CA 92111
Not for sushi.....but I needed a break and dropped by to see Sam and grab a bowl of Soki Soba.
Nothing earth shattering mind you, but I like this style of broth....though it could be a bit richer.
Being really busy means I'm not able to hang with my friends.....I am so looking forward to doing so again soon.
Man, work has been busy. And there were a couple of cool/rainy days, where I just wanted a bowl of noodle soup, and some quiet. Here's where I went.
Pho Hut and Grill:
I didn't expect much based on my previous visits. I wasn't sure what to order and ended up going with the Mi Sui Cao, dumpling egg noodle soup, not cheap at $8.50, but based on those earlier visits, I really didn't want pho.
The bowl was generous and it was better than I thought it would be.
While the broth was a bit heavy with regards to the MSG, it wasn't bad, decent flavor. The egg noodles were done well.....the dumplings were typical, a bit on an under-performer because all of them were torn open and falling apart. Not bad....but perhaps a bit over-priced in my mind.
Pho Hut & Grill 5252 Balboa Ave San Diego, CA 92117
When I want a quiet lunch, I'll sometimes hit up Hinotez. There's usually no one sitting at the bar when I at there if it's early enough. And like other visits, the place was empty. Instead of the usual item I order; the Shio Ramen, I went with the Shoyo Ramen.
This was actually a bit better than the last couple of shio versions I'd had here in the recent past. It was piping hot, had a mild, but not too salty flavor. The egg was decent, but the chashu was again cold and dry. The standard issue noodles were prepared decently....could have been more firm, but was a tad better than average. It won't win any awards, but I wanted a quiet and peaceful meal and I did get that.....
The area look a bit smaller than I thought it would be. There's a three table and four seat "bar" looking area near the entrance and a sunken area with tables and another bar; I didn't see any seats, but am pretty sure they'll be there soon.
Upon arriving, it took a bit to be noticed. I was told to sit anywhere I wanted. The service was friendly, if a bit on the slow side.....going thru those opening jitters.
I went with the Kotteri Tonkotsu, done "Yamadaya Style", which made my bowl $12.95. Wow, more expensive than places I'd been to in Japan like Nagi, Ippudo, and Rokurinsha!
So you're basically getting one extra piece of chashu, another half an egg, and a cube of kakuni pork for three bucks. The broth was actually a bit richer and more flavorful than what I'd had on my previous couple of visits to the Clairemont location. The flavor is still not quite "there" for me. It needs a bit more porkiness and oomph. I forgot to order the noodles "katame" and was punished with weak, soggy noodles. Historically, I've not been impressed with the chashu at Yamadaya. It is often cold, dry, and flavorless. This was actually decent, it was warm, and while still not great, at least it had some flavor. That piece of kakuni was terrible though. Hard and chewy, lacking in flavor. The egg was good, just making the cut in terms of doneness, had some flavor and was also warm, which added to the enjoyment.
In spite of all my criticisms, I believe in terms of broth, this bowl was much better than what I'd recently had at the Clairemont Mesa location. I recognized two of the staff working in the kitchen, though it did take a while to get to my table.
Will I return? Well, it seems that I have jury duty every year, so maybe......if I'm in the area, perhaps. Will I be making a special trip here? Not really.....though I'm sure it's a boon for folks who work and live downtown.
Ramen Yamadaya 531 Broadway San San Diego, CA 92101
It was nice to see Narita by daylight as arriving anywhere at night makes things a bit mysterious. The vibe of the city seemed quite relaxed, it's quite hard to believe that over 35 million people pass through an airport just a few miles away. Looking out from the window we had our first glimpse of the colors of the season. Something we don't get here in San Diego. Since our shuttle back to the airport wasn't until 940 and it was only 6am, we decided to do a bit of exploring and find something to eat.
Things seemed quite calm as we walked through the JR Narita Station, which is nearly right next to the privately operated Keisei Narita Station next door. We could make out some of the streets that we thought were so confusing the previous night. There were quite a few small temples tucked along the side streets.
We decided to visit what is probably the most popular site in this part of Narita; Naritasan Shinshoji Temple which is easily found by following the signs. The street heading to the temple, Omotesando, is lined with shops and restaurants, which were all closed at this time of the morning.
The street were very quiet except for schoolkids headed off to class. One particularly feisty little girl marched off quickly in front of us. Everytime we'd speed up, so would she, when we started catching up, she broke into a full on sprint....she refused to let us pass her! It seems we had become part of the morning entertainment.
The temple grounds were quite a bit larger than we anticipated. There's was a good amount to see. Sorry to say, my photos of the Main Hall were among those that were corrupted and unrecoverable form one of the SD cards. Still, there were quite a few distinct structures like the Three Story Pagoda.
For me, the most interesting structure was the Shakado Hall, which looked both grand and imposing at the same time. This was temple's main hall until the 1960's when the larger main hall was built.
Workers were taking down plants and flowers from an autumn flower show which had concluded the previous day.
There's also a large park. The cloudiness in the photo below is not an artifact, but the mist coming off the spruce as the environment warmed up.
We climbed up the stairs next to the Shakado Hall and were greeted by folks as they walked down past us.
The Missus read a sign that basically said, "shortcut to JR East Station", so we followed the trail. And wouldn't you know, we somehow quickly ended up quite close to the station.
We started looking for something for breakfast. And according to the Missus, "a pastry and coffee is not going to cut it!"
We circled around a bit, then ended back at Keisei Narita Station, and noticed a 24 Hour Ramen place. This seemed to fit the bill of the Missus wanting "as much ramen and yakitori" as we could possibly find on this trip.
There was one person manning the shop and one customer in attendance. The typical ramen ticket machine in the corner. The Missus couldn't make out some words and the proprietor (his photo was on the posters adorning the walls) was nice enough to point to different photos on the walls so we could correlate them to choices on the machine.
The Missus read some of the signs and said this place serves "backfat" ramen.......that would be "seabura" ramen. So what the heck, I went whole hog (no pun intended) and ordered the large bowl.
The Missus went with the Tenkasu-don - those crispy bits of tempura batter on top of rice, drizzled with a tentsuyu type of sauce, along with a raw egg. She added another boiled egg for good measure.
When my bowl arrived, I could see what looked like rice porridge on top of the ramen. It quickly became clear that these were silky little minced pieces of fat. Some of which melted away, some not. It added quite a bit of richness to the broth, which, in spite off all this fat, never became greasy. It added a different dimension to what was pretty much a ubiquitous bowl of ramen. The tonkotsu broth (minus the rendered pork fat) was fairly light and on the salty side. The noodles were done adequately...the Missus said the boiled eggs were decently flavored, though a bit on the over-cooked side for Her taste. There was a huge amount of beansprouts, I enjoyed the textural contrast it added to the ramen. The broth wasn't quite hot enough for us, which would have ended up in an even richer bowl of ramen in my mind.
While not an excellent bowl, this was still good enough for us. Would be in the top 2 in San Diego......is San Diego ready for backfat ramen?