Monday, December 16, 2013

2013: The Year in Ramen

While Budapest can boast a million wonders, ramen noodles are not one of them. The Queen of the Danube lacks ramen-ya, the classic Japanese ramen shops that specializes in ramen noodle soup and gyoza, the little meaty dumplings that accompany them. I can't understand why that should be the case: Hungarians love noodle soups, and they love dumplings. They are fascinated by anything Japanese. How could they let this get away from them? There are about a dozen sushi shops around town serving raw fish to avid Magyars - a people not known for stuffing raw fish into their mouths - not to mention at least a thousand ex-pat Japanese who, to be objective, would eat Japanese food all the time if given their druthers. Yes, the Japanese are as provincial about their tastes as any Hungarian. A Magyar wants a taste of paprika in everything they eat, a Japanese expects everything to taste of sloy, fermented fish and seaweed. The world is a big and wonderful place, is it not? So no ramen in Budapest for the foreseeable future. However, by a freakish stroke of luck, we spent much of the the summer in Teaneck New Jersey. Teaneck, which is affectionately referred to by many of its native sons as "Jewtown, USA" is conveniently located near the nuclear epicenter of the western hemisphere's ramen noodle production: Sun Noodle. Sun noodle is a Japanese-Hawaiian noodle manufacturer that makes a noodle that some say are among the world's best. A few years ago they set up shop in Teterboro, New Jersey to supply the demand for high quality fresh noodles among New York's booming ramen scene. Ever since Chef David Chang started the neo-ramen shop craze a decade ago with his Momofuku Ramen in New York's east village (named after the inventor of the instant ramen noodle, Momofuku Andoh, who founded Nissan Food Products) ramen shops have sprouted all over New York. You think those chewy, springy ramen noodles were carefully crafted by hand in the back of a tiny noodle shop in Greenwich Village? Think again. They were made in New Jersey. Everything is made in New Jersey. By now, most of the better Japanese ramen franchises have set up shop around the New York area as well. Pop out of a subway station or pull into a suburban strip mall and you can usually find a decent ramen-ya waiting for you.
A good ramen-ya is like a good deli: it serves a limited menu of a comfort food but it can take a fierce pride in doing that task as close to perfect as possible. Ramen is to Japan what pizza is to New York: a slightly foreign dish (Chinese vs. Italian) that has been taken to heart, improved on, and made a central pillar of the local identity. New Yorkers are adamant about pizza (as anybody who watched Jon Stewart's Daily show pizza rant knows) because in Italy pizza is just a food. In New York it is The Food. The Japanese feel that way about ramen. I like ramen. Maybe not as much as my Significant Tokyo-born Other, who would take a train to Vienna in search of a bowl of "real" noodles. Vienna, incidentally, no longer has its two classic ramen shops, meaning that the closest decent bowl of ramen would be in Berlin, or possibly in Cracow.

Handsome Guy Gourmet Tofu stand
But a summer in New York means we can get our fill of ramen. Now, I do not drive. I don't like cars. Cars do not like me. Automobiles want to kill me, and they have tried and failed many times, which makes living in a Jersey suburb pretty much impossible for me. In order to get into New York from Teaneck I have two choices: hike up to Route 4 and catch the cheap "Spanish Bus" mini vans that run into northern Manhattan, or else the NJ Transit local bus at the end of our street, which takes us to the Mitsuwa Mall

You can have Santoka Ramen or Information, but not both.
in Edgewater, NJ, from where we can catch the Mitsuwa shopping shuttle bus to the 42nd St. Bus terminal. Mitsuwa is a full size Japanese shopping mall - complete with a giant supermarket in which you can buy Japanese toothpaste as well as fermented squid guts - but it also means I am pretty well sure that my day starts with a bowl of ramen from Santoka, which is only one of about seven different restaurant window choices on offer. There is a place offering Japanese-Chinese rice plates (hamburger and gravy on rice! Gyoza dumplings! Omrice!.) Another does udon noodles, another does tonkatsu and fried food, yet another "Kaiseki" set menus. All around ten bucks, which makes the food court a major draw for Japanese families in the New York area on weekends. Not to mention the location: Mitsuwa's food court looks out over the Hudson onto the Manhattan skyline, which alone makes it one of the more stunning dining options in the metro area.
Best panorama view of NY City available for $7.00
Santoka is oneof the leading Ramen chains in Japan, and for Fumie perhaps the main draw is the side dish of a bowl of rice with a whopping helping of salmon roe dished on top - an extravagant luxury in Japan, but here in the USA it is treated like sprinkles on an ice cream cone.

Shio Ramen, spicy miso ramen, and salmon abortion on rice. 
After picking up a few (yes, there are quite a few) of the Japanese expat and local community newspapers at Mitsuwa Fumie decided to go for the trifecta: let's try all the high end ramen-ya in the area. Next stop: Setegaya Ramen in Fort Lee. Named after a Tokyo neighborhood, this is located across the street from our favorite Japanese coffee and pastry shop, a place where you can get green tea cake and cold spaghetti sandwiches. Setegaya is a tiny place that serves only ramen and gyoza, and for lunch everybody gets the combo of... ramen and gyoza.

Setegaya set lunch.
You can order the shio (salt broth) ramen, shoyu (soy) or miso broth ramen, as well as the tsukemen ramen - ramen where the broth and noodles are served separately and combined by the diner. A bit pricier than Santoka, but still cheaper than any New York ramen-ya. How do I know that? Because the next ramen-ya on the list was New York's upscale Ippudo Ramen. Ippudo has been wowing New York's yuppoisie with its ramen noodles specializing in... noodles that are not curley.

Mo' noods.
Basically, capellini in broth. And as a special added treat, you can get a second helping of noodles plopped into your bowl after you finish the first, if you wish. Go on, make your banker happy and order the extra noodles! It was good, but I don't do posh well. Here you had to take a number and wait for a seat and eventually we were taken upstairs to the semi-industrial extra dining bar above the main floor. Good noodles, but Fumie had to have the special steamed bun with pork belly "burger" ...

Present Holy grail of New York foodies.
And what's better, I get big boyfriend points for taking Fumie to a posh midtown eatery.The big news in ramen noodles this year is something that English speakers probably don't even know about. The new thing in Japan is... a new kind of ramen noodle that comes "fresh" but you can make it at home. The days of the old dried package of ramen, and the styrofoam cup'o'soup are numbered, and Fumie has been getting care packages of these new fangled ramen noodles sent from home. Not only that, but Japanese business visitors have taken to bringing packages of these along as gifts, knowing the delight that will light up the faces on their clients and tech help when they get these "nearly fresh" ramen noodles. And yes, they are pretty darn good.

Pork belly and spinach ramen. Home made. In Hungary.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

2013: The Year in Chinese Noodles

Fa La Shin
As we plow head-on into the last month of the year, it is time to take "stock" of the year in terms of Chinese noodle soups. Living in Budapest, we are often annoyed that we can not find a hot bowl of mein on every street corner, but that does not deter us. Budapest has Chinese noodle soup, in fact. And if you keep reading you will learn where. But first, the best of the bowls, the Annual Index of Chinese Noodle Soup. The Chinese noodle soup index is based on several factors, including but not limited to a) How many Chinese noodle soups did I eat this year. b) How many Chinese noodle soups were available in my general vicinity at any given point in the vast time/space continuum, which includes both New Jersey and Zugló, and c) Whether the noodle soup was prepared by a Chinese person skilled in the preparation of noodle soup. This last requirement addresses the need to differentiate between my beloved Chinese noodles in soup and other Asian noodles in soup, such as Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, and Uzbek laghman, all of which have graced the interior of my digestive system in 2013, and all of of which deserve their own separate posts. Now, it should be added that when I am traveling with my delightful and beloved better half, who is from Japan, we tend to eat a lot of noodle soup. I am going out on a limb right now and stating the obvious: I like Chinese noodles in soup best. She likes ramen. My soup rarely costs more than US$ 5.00, hers rarely cost less that US$ 10.00, mine will have chunks of meaty tendon and pig butt in it and hers has Japanese pink processed fish baloney floating in it. We are constantly constantly bickering over whether our next meal with be Chinese or Japanese, but we are both pretty sure it will be noodle soup of some Asian kind. The classic form is simple wonton noodle soup, as prepared at Wing Shook Chinese Seafood Restaurant (194 East Broadway in New York's Chinatown) the quasi dim sum place on the corner of Seward Park. Four bucks. 

Wing Shook at Seward Park
Like most Manhattan Chinatown noodle joints, this features the slightly crunchy Hong Kong style noodle with several hefty meat wontons floating in a very chicken-y broth (that I can never reproduce at home because I can't get the Chinese "blue-legged" chicken that is used for the stock) and some bok choy cabbage floating around in it to remind you to eat some vegetables. This kind of casual bowl o' noods is what keeps me going around New York City: a full blown meal for under five bucks. My favorite noodle joints had closed in the two years since I had last been to East Chinatown, but strolling around West (touristic) Chinatown I bumped into into Bo Ky on Bayard Street. Bo Ky is known as one of the cheapest places to eat in New York, and is something of an ethnographic answer to the charge that Cantonese people will eat anything that moves. They do, and it is on the menu at Bo Ky for under ten bucks. The last time we ate at Bo Ky, the waiter answered each of our menu choices with shakes of his head and  "Maybe you no like dat" which is almost a guarantee that I will like that. Today: pork bung soup.

Poop Soup
I love a restaurant that is not afraid to mince words, much less internal organs. It's hard enough to find any place outside of France brave enough to serve andouillette, an odorous but delicious poop shoot sausage, and the gentile French are never willing to expose the pig anus in all its glory in a bowl of clear broth and noodles, but there it is. Poop soup. Thick, chewy rounds of the business end of  a pig's large intestine. And yes, the entire table immediately took notice of the soup's strong aroma. A drummer buddy of mine used to tour in the road band of T-Bone Walker, the blues musician, across the southern "chiltlin circuit" of R&B bars during the 1980s. T-Bone would always go to the BBQ and steam table stands to order dinner. Pointing to the intestinal chitlins hanging above the BBQ smoke rack, he would select the biggest, fattest section and shout "Gimme that one there. The big one. Cause that's where da poo is made!" I should add that this was definitely one of the best bowl of noodles I had during 2013.

Bo Ky: $11 well spent. With soy braised pig foot.
Today, New York's largest and most interesting Chinese neighborhood is no longer in Manhatten, but out in Flushing, Queens. Its a forty minute ride on the subway, or you can find dozens of Chinese-run mini shuttle buses circling around the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway. They usually have a sign in English saying "Flushing" but the bigger sign, in Chinese characters, reads as "Fa La Shin" So it was off to Fa La Shin we went. Flushing is going to get its own blog post sometimes in the winter. Its best to arrive early in the day and pace yourself as you eat your way through it. There are snack shops along the street and food malls serving amazing, cheap regional Chinese eats all over the place. A word of advice: if you do succumb to the noodle soup urge, you are finished. The noodles soups of flushing are not to be taken lightly.

Red Bowl
I found the Red Bowl offering Taiwanese beef noodle soup and made the mistake of ordering it: a huge bowl of steak and hand pulled noodles effectively ended my day of roaming and snacking. Closer to home, Budapest has a growing and successful community of Chinese immigrants, mostly engaged in the retail trade providing affordable shoes and underwear to virtually everybody in East Europe via the huge Four Tigers Chinese Market complex out in District VIII along Kőbányai ut. We have dealt with the food scene out here in previous posts, but this year we did discover a small Chinese lunch place in the new wholesale complex offering "Xian Specialties."

Tiny Place in Budapest Chinese Market
For a while, this led the pack for local Chinese noodle soups. And the Chinese Market is in danger of being shut down by the mayor of the Eighth District, Mate Kocsis, the mean spirited little simian who was behind the plan that made being homeless a criminal act in Budapest. For the time being the market stays, but for more convenient noodles we have the Eat Sense Chinese restaurant on the corner of Dózsa Győrgy and Damjanich utca next to the city park. Eat Sense (which probably inherited the name on the front sign board from one of its previous failed restaurant incarnations) is a multi function yet nondescript Chinese food place. It offers the usual steam table fare (syrupy sweet and sour pork, brownish fried spaghetti noodles) but does its main business as a hot pot restaurant, which is actually quite good. They also offer noodle soups. At FT 1000 a pop, these are a cheap way to get stuffed in relative proximity to downtown Budapest. The beef or seafood soup is nothing to crow about, but they are Chinese, and they are noodle soups.

Eat Sense Spicy Pork Noodles
I tried the spicy pork noodles, which arrived as a bowl of noodles and ground pork swimming in hot chile oil. I finished it, but maybe this was one dish where I really should have had a waiter come and tell me "Maybe you no like..." Still, biking home at night to Zugló it is nice to have a place for a nice, big, cheap bowl of beef noodle soup right on the edge of the city park. Other Chinese choices in Budapest are limited. The best Chinese place in Budapest is, of course, the nearby Mester Wang, but they did a renovation this summer and now their prices are rising, which is never a good sign in a Chinese restaurant. And the Lanzhou, which has not gone down the tubes as much as has been purported, still has good food although they never serve decent rice. And then there are the hot pot joints like Mimosa and Eat Sense.  "Kinai Büfé" which is popular among Hungarians mainly for being cheap: a mediocre plate of rice and meat for FT 500 will attract the universally cash strapped Magyars at every city corner.All the menus are the same, and the Chinese serving them usually have no background in cooking - the büfé networks are a stepping stone on the way to an EU resident permit. Most are so small they don't even cook in house - the pre-made slop is delivered from some central steam kitchen by truck.  Every time I go to one of the many "Kinai Büfé" in Budapest I always find myself asking "When will some enterprising Chinese guy with some sense of taste start to fiddle with the menu." This week, my prayers were met. Fumie saw an ad in one of the Chinese language newspapers you can pick up in the Chinese market for a new restaurant someplace out beyond the market on Kőbányai ut. We decided to go noodle hunting.
Dare to be Great, Orient Etterem!
Sure enough... at 43 Kőbányai ut, right across the street from the Északi Járműjavító stop on the Number 28 tram that rolls out of Blaha Lujza ter, we found it. The Orient Etterem, formerly a pizza place, seems to have entered a design competition for the most nondescript building in Budapest. It had all the marks of a classic "real" Chinese foodie find: small, absolutely empty, nobody who spoke anything but Chinese except one waitress who was Hungarian and could sort of communicate with the owner-chefs in a pidgin combination of both, and illustrated menus in Chinese only. This place showed promise!

I'll have that!
There was the usual steam table offering generic "Kinai Büfé" food, but`also huge scallion pancakes as well. But Fumie can read basic Chinese and the menu was illustrated, and almost nothing seemed familiar to either of us. Vaguely edible products seemed to have been sliced and arrayed on plates next to prices. This lack of anything familiar is what sets my appetite on edge. Remember: I once ate both raw sea squirts and live sea cucumber in a single sitting at a Korean restaurant...  so... beef noodles for her, and lamb noodles for me. 
Lamb: beware the bones
And yes, we were impressed. For one thing, the two soups came with hand pulled noodles, a bit bland and soft, but authentic and it showed the owners had some skill in the kitchen. The stocks were different as well... a lot of places only use one master stock for all their soups. And a small plate of Chinese salads was also home made and showed some sense of distinctiveness that may have come from somebody's Grandma's kitchen. Their specialty is noodles and dumplings: we bought a serving of 25 pork dumplings to go which were excellent in a "hey, I'm a dumpling" kind of way. 

The menu seems to offer more than just noodles and dumps, too. We'll go back someday with friends when we can point our way through more of the menu and maybe crank up the karaoke machine. All in all, 2013 has been a fine year in Chinese noodles.