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A tale of three ramen shops near Yokosuka

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 19, 2016

Ramen is hard to mess up, but easy to make boring.

Boring shouldn’t be confused with simple; shio ramen uses a simple salt base for the broth and is just as good — and I’d say better than most — of the 20 varieties or so of Japan’s beloved noodle soup.

Among the 23,250 ramen shops listed in Japan’s version of the Yellow Pages, the best add a few twists and some soul to a meal that rarely costs more than $10.

When novelty works, it gains fans quickly. Three of the highest-rated ramen-ya near Yokosuka Naval Base on Tabelog.com (http://tabelog.com/en) (think Yelp) are also some of the most unusual. They’re all within a few blocks of Yokoksuka-chuo Station and accessible using either Tabelog’s English page or a map app.

Think of this review as the advanced ramen course; two of the three shops don’t use English. If you don’t speak the language, don’t fret: it’s just soup. This is doable.

You might try all three shops, shrug and go back to the generalist fare found at the Mutsumiya chain, known on Yokosuka Naval Base as “red-door ramen.” That said, there are dozens of ramen shops within walking distance of the base.

With some experimentation, you may find a new favorite, with flavors you never expected out of a humble bowl of soup.

slavin.erik@stripes.com

 

 

Holiday ramen: Kintarou

 

I began my carb-intensive adventure at Kintarou. It’s a counter-style shop with room for about 10 people, manned by a chef who looks like he’s been doing this for a long time.

A track off the Beastie Boys 1986 “License to Ill” album played in the background, though the lunch crowd appeared too focused on their noodles to notice.

First, buy your meal from the vending machine. The beauty of this method for non-Japanese speakers is that you can’t fail so badly that you won’t get fed.

There are two big buttons. The one of the left is tsukemen, where the noodles are separate from the soup, for 750 yen (about $7.43). The other is standard ramen for 700 yen ($6.94). Put some money in, press a button and your ticket comes out.

The next row of buttons changes the bowl size, while the orange row after that adds egg, bamboo shoots or extra meat. If you’re up for real adventure, just hit a few buttons, hand the tickets over to the chef and see what happens. Who knows? You might enjoy the side of pig cartilage over rice, a Tabelog favorite.

After a few glances around the counter, I ordered the tsukemen and kindly declined a fork from the chef, who apparently isn’t used to seeing foreigners. The thick, curled noodles felt firm on the teeth, giving just the right amount of resistance. Of the three shops I tried, Kintarou had the best noodles.

Then came the sensory confusion. The slices of meat, which are nearly always some type of pork, tasted like ... turkey? No, that couldn’t be it. Turkey is rarely for sale in Japan. It was chicken. The broth tasted richer than most salt-basted broths, with a buttery texture. The whole experience reminded me of a Japanese-influenced Thanksgiving meal.

 

Punk ramen: Kamibuta

 

Kamibuta, just off Blue Street next to Mos Burger, is ramen as a dare. Its small size is everyone else’s medium. The medium is plenty for a healthy American servicemember. But let’s just skip straight to the “631 challenge,” a 2,200 yen ($21.81) bowl of insanity.

If you finish, you’ll get half of your money back, which you can use on antacids.

Successful 631 conquerors gain immortality with a place for their signatures and a message on the walls of Kamibuta, or “sea pig” in English.

Again, ordering is handled at the vending machine off to the left. This time, the sizes are listed in English, though the rest is in Japanese.

The waitress will offer you a spoonful of garlic in your soup, which I’d suggest, because there is no subtlety to be masked in this bowl of ramen.

Forget the usual, thin, fatty pieces of pork. This is a serious piece of sliced loin, though I wished it had been warmer. The pile of bean sprouts peeks well above the rim and sits atop the thick, floury noodles.

This isn’t weekly ramen, unless you’re considering a career in sumo, but it’s an experience worth a try.

 

Sea ramen: Heihachi

 

One block away from Kintarou on a narrow side street is Heihachi, perhaps the most challenging of the trio, but also the least likely to induce a food coma.

The broth here is anchovy-based, though it in no way resembles those little bits you find on delivery pizzas. There’s no doubt at first slurp that it’s a fish broth, but it doesn’t overpower the rest of the food.

The noodles here are thinner, somewhere between spaghetti and angel-hair pasta. For 700 yen, it’s a sensible lunch portion, while anyone who’s been hauling supplies on ships can upgrade to an “L size” — they’ll understand that much pseudo-English.

The catch is that there’s no machine here and no English. However, aside from specials, there are four main options. The second is a medium-sized bowl of soup, while the third, aradaki, includes some of the fish used to make the broth.

If you’re unsure about ordering, point to one of the options and add an onegaishimasu, or please.

The medium ramen at Kamibuta near Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, is plenty of food, even by American standards.
ERIK SLAVIN/STARS AND STRIPES

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