The Ramen Diaries: Menkoitokoro Isoji

POP ETC frontman Chris Chu just returned from a personal trip to Japan, eating epic bowls of ramen daily. We asked him to keep a tonkotsu-splashed diary of all the action (insert slurping sound). Check back this week for more ramen, plus mixes (one is below the text), videos and more from POP ETC, which releases its debut album June 12 on Rough Trade. For more Ramen Diaries, read the second and third entries.

After arriving in Tokyo, the first order of business was to slurp some ramen. It was a nice day, so I decided to try a place in Yoyogi, right off the edge of the park, called Menkoitokoro Isoji. The name translates to cute old place.

When you enter most ramen shops, the first thing you see is one of these little vending machines. Traditionally, and especially in big cities like Tokyo, ramen is a quick lunch meal. At any given ramen joint, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., you will probably see 90% businessmen, dressed in suits, slurping down noodles at a lightning-quick pace.

Generally there is only counter space, somewhere between 10-14 seats, so people move in and out quickly. To serve people as swiftly as possible, the ramen joints are run like well-oiled machines. Three or four people behind the counter put together each bowl of ramen in an assembly-line fashion—one person cooks the noodles, one mixes the broth, one lays out the toppings. You order your choice of ramen from the vending machine, place your ticket on the counter, and within minutes you'll be scarfing down delicious porky goodness.

Anyway, back to the noodles! Looking at my choices on the vending machine menu, I decided to go with Tsukemen for my first bowl. Tsukemen is a style of ramen where the noodles and soup are served in separate bowls. The noodles are generally served room temperature or cold, and the soup is actually a concentrated ramen broth. You dip the noodles into this concentrated dipping broth, and occasionally, depending on the style, drink the soup at the end.

This style of ramen originated as a summertime rendition of ramen, an answer to the hot, humid summers of most cities in Japan. Although nowadays tsukemen has become so popular in Tokyo that is available at many ramen joints year round.

When having your first bowl of ramen in Tokyo, after stomaching the crap they pass off at most places in America as ramen, chances are anything would taste good. That said, this particular bowl of tsukemen was particularly delicious!

In general, tsukemen noodles are thicker than standard ramen noodles, but even so, these noodles were especially thick. Menkoitokoro makes their own noodles in house, and you can tell. They tasted fresh, and they are cooked to perfection. Firm, chewy, delicious.

I think for some people they might have been too thick, but I personally like a thick noodle. Especially with tsukemen; the extra surface area helps latch up more broth as you dip! Mmm.

The soup was quite good as well, although very salty. It seemed to be a standard tonkotsu (pork bone broth) and bonito (dried fish) broth. The balance between pork and fish is different with every broth, and with this broth the flavor was more pork-leaning. There were also bits of onion and yuzu (they ask if you want yuzu added when your ramen is served here), which helped add dimension to the broth. The tanginess from the yuzu in particular helped cut the porkiness in a nice way.

The toppings were simple, but good. Just a couple slices of pork (chashu) and a fish cake slice (naruto). Nothing to write home about, I suppose, but solid.

Listen to or download a mix of POP ETC originals (plus a Björk cover) via Soundcloud: