(Sorry, not sorry for the pun.)
I was wrapping up a work contract last September when I came upon some very inexpensive flights from LAX to NRT. After maybe twenty minutes of heavy deliberating, and some phone calls to my best friend and parents for emotional support, I spontaneously booked a two-week return trip for one.
There are two things that I remember very vividly about this trip. How gorgeous and warm Japan can be in November, and oh my god, the ramen.
I've been very lucky to have lived in both LA and Vancouver, where the food scene is ever thriving and growing. And as a self-proclaimed ramen enthusiast, I'm also very lucky that both cities have much to offer in this realm of noodles. LA is home to Tsujita (both Annex and L.A.), Benten, and Ramen by Omae. In Vancouver, we have Marutama, Hida Takayama, and Taishoken, amongst others. And as good as these are (in a I-would-tank-traffic-and-wait-2-hours-to-eat-there-worthy), there are two kinds of ramen that I've still never tried up to this past trip to Japan - ones that I would book flights to Japan to eat again ASAP, if the opportunity ever showed.
There are a few personal prerequisites that determine the tastiness of a bowl. The broth must have depth, swirling together layers of umami and rich fat on your tongue. The noodles, al dente, with a bouncy chew but not too much bite. The tamago must have a creamy, soft yolk that hints of shoyu. Big, heavy, overwhelming. That's the kind of ramen I like.
Niboshi ramen is, in one word, wild. It's nothing like tonkotsu, shio, shoyu, or miso - it's fishy, as the base is made of sardines. And at Nagi Golden Gai, you're probably going to walk out with some time shaved off your years, but I swear it'll be worth it. The broth, thick like gravy, is heavy with the taste of sardines and pork and glitters of fat. The hand-made noodles, which comes in a variety of thicknesses, holds the broth closely. Food writer Kee Byung-Keun says it best: "Niboshi [...] is not for everybody: it is the liquid manifestation of dried baby sardines. There is a certain “must be this tall to ride” factor in stepping up to a bowl." Not only is their ramen amazing, but walking into Nagi is like being in your own Studio Ghibli film. You walk up a set of steep stairs that don't seem to lead anywhere, before you're hit with the scent of Nagi's niboshi ramen and their small, homey space. It's worth experiencing.
Abura soba is a little different from your usual suspects, and even more so than Nagi. Your ramen noodles won't come with a broth, but it will come sitting on top of a mixture made of a special shoyu sauce and pork fat. Topped with green onion, bamboo shoots, seaweed, cha shu, and a soft boiled egg, abura soba tastes like a garlicky-spicy-fatty dream. Once you're handed your bowl of noodles, you add in however much chili oil, vinegar, and raw minced garlic of your choosing before mixing everything all together. It's a refreshing change from regular ramen, but the immense pleasure of slurping the fat-coated noodles is just as enjoyable. Just don't take your first date there, unless they're into that stinky kinda thing.
Abura Soba (literally named after the dish) is a chain with multiple locations all over Tokyo.