When I’m in the mood for ramen, I’m usually not looking for subtlety.
Sure, there is subtlety to be found if you’re looking for it. Keisuke Kobayashi, the owner of Yoroshiku in Seattle, once told me that his miso tare has 17 ingredients! Only Mrs. Kobayashi (mom, not wife) knows the exact proportions, and she comes in on weekends to make the weekly batch. Dedication! Clearly when Mrs. K is uncapping the seventeenth jar and ladling out the seventeenth sauce or powder or paste, she must be going for subtlety. She is working toward a platonic ideal, rooted in nostalgia for the miso ramen of her youth, known only to those born in the harsh winters of Hokkaido. I assume.
But I’m from LA, baby! If I’m craving miso ramen, and I probably am, it’s not because of the delicate, layered nuance of Mrs. K’s secret 17 ingredients. It’s because miso is freaking delicious, and I want to be punched hard in all my taste buds all at once. In fact, make it a spicy miso, double chashu.
It’s the same story with tan tan men. It takes real complexity to balance hearty broth with spicy ground pork and rich sesame paste. But I assure you, dear reader, that complexity is nowhere on my mind when I am clumsily dredging the last sediment of pork and sesame into my umami-addicted mouth.
Ramen is not academic; it is visceral.
If nuance is your thing, perhaps you would enjoy a nice soba. There is nothing more delicate than pinching betwixt your chopsticks one, perhaps two hand-cut buckwheat noodles, gently dusting them on the bamboo tray, and dipping them into teacup of light and fragrant dashi. But wake me up afterwards, will you? And then let’s go get dinner.
Give me Michael Bay ramen. Stone Temple Pilots ramen. A stadium full of vuvuzelas ramen. Assault. My. Senses.
But every so often, a palate cleanser isn’t such a bad thing. And that’s when a place like Kitakata comes along to remind me of the simple beauty of shio ramen.
Where miso is cloudy, shio is crystal clear. Where tonkotsu coats the tongue, shio washes it clean. Shio is the violin soloist of ramen broths; it lacks the amplitude of an orchestra, but captures your attention with one trembling, resonant note.
This particular shio was garden fresh. The chicken broth was harmonized with a green chili kick that simmered on my tongue but never boiled over. It was aromatic, served with cabbage and a Mt. Fuji eruption of shredded scallions piled on top. The chashu was tender, the fat rendered down into pure flavor. The egg was good. Oddly, the noodles were the one miss, overwatered and mushy with the mouthfeel of spaghetti-o’s. Shame, it seems so fixable. Next time I will order my noodles firm and report back.
The nice thing about a light bowl of shio is the room it leaves for sides. We enjoyed crispy-bottomed gyoza and a chicken karaage rice bowl, both tasty complements to the main course. I left satisfied but still able to walk, which I am told is how you are supposed to leave a restaurant.
Winter is upon us now, and while we may not live in subzero Hokkaido, the New York cold still calls for calories. I am sure my next bowl will be a flavor-blanket loaded with miso or sesame– or dare I say curry. It’s just who I am. But I’ll be back at Kitakata in the spring for another bowl of shio. Even my taste buds need the occasional spa day.