Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ramen Setagaya Haneda Airport

I was in Japan for a brief visit, stayed in a hotel away from the crowds, and hadn’t had time to do my usual noodle run. When I arrived at Haneda airport for my flight back to NY early one morning, I was facing the predicament of leaving Japan without having had a bowl of Ramen.  But, wandering about in the food court upstairs I found a Ramen shop by the name of Setagaya, with a notice that it would open at 5 a.m.  Inside, as the shop prepared for their morning opening, steam swirled up from boiling cauldrons.  There is an elemental, immediate thrill to a Ramen shop, as the customers, the cooks, and the kitchen equipment are squeezed together in this space constrained country –giving the noodles a dash of supernatural magic.  At 5 am sharp the restaurant opened and I was the first customer.  I paid thru the customary coin slot machine and settled in at the bar counter waiting for my meal.  Setugaya is a well known chain with 5 branches and their specialty is a seafood based broth.  The texture and flavor of the broth in Japan is a class apart from what is available generally in the US.  This is not hyperbole.  There is a certain depth to Ramen in Japan, like a mathematical formula with a few extra harmonic components thrown in.    At 5:05 a.m. in walked the next Ramen customer—a Japanese lady with knee high leather boots who sat next to me waiting on her order.   She was a chocolate consultant and had just flown in from Columbia.  Every time she flies back into Japan, she told me, the first thing she needed to do was get some Ramen. This is unusual because Ramen is considered more of a man’s meal in Japan.  She spoke English and helped translate the cook’s response when I queried him on the contents of the broth.  The secret to a Ramen noodle shop’s success is in the formula behind their soup, a complex process behind a deceptively simple look.  Setagaya uses seaweed, the nibushi variety of dried small fish (of higher quality than another variant, sodabushi), fermented dried tuna, chicken and pig bones. The Ramen at Setagaya in Haneda airport, was one of the best that I have had in a while.  Perhaps it was the early morning and the yearning for a bowl of Ramen after 36 hours in Japan.  The Ramen at San Francisco airport (near the gates where AA flights leave) has been one of the worst that I have had.  

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