A male friend once noted that I never included anything about my love life in writing. Considering I am mainly a food writer, I thought that was a rather odd comment.
But since Tokyo Weekender has kindly given me this column with free reign to let my “personality” run wild, I couldn’t resist making my first entry about MEN: long, thick noodles that give me a thrill – ramen, tsukemen, tantanmen etc. – and occasionally human beings with a Y chromosome.
I have been craving bowls of noodles over the past month; I went on a four-bowl binge in one week. Maybe it’s that I am thoroughly fed up with the cold weather. Or maybe this urge signals some deep underlying Freudian meaning as I have recently started dating.
Either way, it means I have found you some very good noodle recommendations in Tokyo so read on for My Men Diary.
Divisions: Aun, Yushima (Feb 22)
Any man who dares to date me learns fairly quickly that he must compete with my love of food, especially my ultimate crush, tantanmen, the Japanese version of spicy Sichuan noodles.
Aun in Yushima is near perfection. It serves a shiruari version, thinner noodles in a rich sesame broth, and a shirunashi version, thicker springier noodles with lashings of chili oil waiting to be mixed. Both bowls are topped with minced pork and tiny dried shrimps. Your task is to choose the level of karasa, heat from chilli oil, and shibire, numbing from Sichuan pepper. I always opt for shirunashi noodles with level 5 of both.
On this fateful day, I was working my way through an omori (large) portion of my favorite shirunashi, maxed out at level 5 spice. Slurping the delightfully springy noodles, nose running, lips and mouth tingling, my throat grew so numb I could hardly swallow – in a good way. A bowl at Aun is a bowl of ecstasy.
But there was one problem. I was technically on a date and things weren’t going to plan. Spicy noodles probably aren’t the best choice of date food in general, and even less so when your date suddenly confesses to being sensitive to spice. He had ordered level 2, but was now sitting opposite me, staring into his bowl of black sesame shirunashi tantanmen like he was coming to terms with the inevitability of death.
I felt sorry for putting him through this, but it was also hard to stop the corners of my mouth from twitching upwards as I neared a spice-induced climax. Some people fake pleasure, but sometimes I just have to hide it.
Impatience: Akai Kujira, Akasaka (Feb 24)
After a morning shoot for a food-related Youtube video during which I had eaten surprisingly little food, I once again needed some hot spicy men. I tried to stop by an Akasaka favorite of mine, Uzukamaki Bekkan, only to find it shut. There was a sign on the door that seemed to be explaining something, but my impatience meant I didn’t stop to actually read it. I had a one-track mind and I rushed off down the road to find another option.
That was how I ended up at Akai Kujira, a popular store that opened in the area in the summer of 2019. The interior is filled with wooden benches and simple stools, surrounded by walls laden with jars of spices that seem to whisper promises. The menu is more extensive than many tantanmen stores, offering several soup and no-soup options, customizable spice levels, and paiko (fried pork cutlet) as a very tempting topping.
I dived into just a regular bowl with soup. The broth was incredibly thick to the point of almost feeling fatty on the tongue, and for my palate it lacked a little flavor excitement behind the spice. The grind-your-own-sesame in a personal pestle and mortar is a nice touch – fun and surprisingly easy to do – and I would definitely go back to try the cheese risotto set, because who would miss the opportunity to melt cheese into a spicy sesame soup?
Keeping things fun: Menya Imamura, Sugamo (Feb 26)
Sugamo is not exactly a famed tourist location, but when ramen store Tsuta got its Michelin star in December 2015, the crowds descended. Tsuta itself had to issue a timed ticketing system to disperse the queues. This was reportedly to avoid embarrassing the clientele of the love hotel opposite slinking in and out beneath a large stained-glass window adorned with a sacrilegious yet seemingly repentant angel.
Yet the Sugamo love affair you should be having is at Menya Imamura, which serves gloriously stomach- and soul-warming bowls of tori-niboshi (chicken-sardine) ramen. The shoyu (soy sauce) option is heavier on the sardine flavor, and I personally lean towards the shio (salt), which is more like a hearty chicken soup.
Extra fun is provided by a side of lemon-flavored ginger and marinated mushrooms that you can add to change the taste halfway through. I also like to get the green chili nikumiso (meat-miso). I recently interviewed the owner Mamoru Imamura, and he told me his ramen is all about resetting the taste in your mouth and making sure the last bite is as interesting as the first. He has mastered it.
Perhaps good ramen is like a long-term relationship: you have to keep things fresh and exciting by occasionally adding some spice.
Three-way: Menya San Francisco (Feb. 27)
When I introduced two male friends to one another, to my delight, they seemed to hit it off. Which meant we had a great three-way conversation.
Not that I had much time for chatting though, as I was busy swimming in some Premium Wagyu Tantanmen. The creamy soup is light on the spice, but still a very satisfying proposition, and the beef really is melt-in-the-mouth decadence. I recommend the side of very mochiri (chewy, squidgy) gyoza that come in a refreshing ponzu sauce.
Menya San Francisco is a reverse-import from one of the stores within Tomoharu Shono’s noodle empire. The self-described “hyper ramen creator” has several restaurants across Tokyo, one in Bangkok, and has recently just opened one in New Delhi.
The Premium Wagyu Tantanmen is a limited time special with limited portions per day, and is only available at the Shinjuku, Ichigaya, Kokubunji and Korakuen branches. Hurry up!
Age gap: Zen, Sangenjaya (Mar. 8)
Drinking in Sangenjaya always seems to end up with a trip to Zen, but it is a decision you will never regret. This time round I was dining with my much younger friend, whom I had met five years ago while he was still a university student. Ever the philosopher, he told me he’d been advising his 50-something-year-old friend on how to approach a lady in her twenties. I nodded skeptically, eyeing a giant bowl of ramen that was being carried in my direction.
Zen serves addictive tori paitan (thick chicken broth) ramen, salty and fatty, but the generous topping of organic vegetables, including pumpkin and lotus root, makes it feel like a luxurious treat for the body. I always go for the tokusei torisoba, which comes with a boiled egg, chicken and pork toppings as well as plenty of veggies. You can add seaweed and the store’s special spice mix to change the taste as you go.
Tonight, I ordered some nikujiru gyoza (meat juice dumplings) on the side which definitely delivered on the taste and the juiciness. I bit into one and it squirted enthusiastically across the table, sending me into a fit of giggles. Age certainly seems to be irrelevant in my case.
Reconciliation: Uzutan, Akasaka (Mar. 12)
Grief over the apparent closure of my Akasaka tantanmen favorite led me to research and discover that I was mourning unnecessarily: it had not closed down, but had transformed into a larger store a few minutes’ walk down the road.
Uzutan’s tantanmen doesn’t touch on the Sichuan pepper but goes for the heat of chilies, which is melded into a smooth sesame soup. The minced pork has a pleasing sweetness and is texturally distinct, accented by spring onions, all atop a sizable serving of thin noodles. It is an outstanding bowl made with care.
I remembered their noodles being mild on the spice, and so an idea bubbled up in my mind. This was my chance, I thought, to make amends with my former spice-sensitive date. Even he could learn to love tantanmen in Uzutan.
But I had made a mistake. My first slurp brought instant satisfaction, reminding me of why I had been a frequent visitor when working in the area. Then, the heat caught up, coming through much stronger than my (apparently poor) memory recalled.
I anxiously watched my date. He was slowly working his way through the bowl. A sniff. A glass of water. A sigh. More water. But – to my surprise – he drained every last drop. “It’s good!” he proclaimed, prompting a triumphant grin from me. A better tantanmen memory had been planted in his mind. I was about to claim tantanmen victory, when…
“It’s funny you like noodles so much,” he said. “I prefer rice.”
I guess I’m back to solo dates with all these men.
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