Monday, October 29, 2007

New York Ramen Part 2 - Menchanko-tei and Menkui-tei

After our somewhat disappointing visit to Minca a few weeks ago, we've been on a little bit of a quest for good New York ramen. Before we head back downtown to Setaga-ya and maybe one or two others, my wife wanted me to try two midtown ramen shops she likes, Menchanko-tei and Menkui-tei.

I'm happy to report that it is possible to get good ramen in New York, although I honestly still haven't found anywhere that equals Yo! Teko-ya in Odaiba. And the biggest problem is still the beer!

These restaurants are within a block of each other, on 55th between 5th and 6th and 56th between 5th and 6th. (That's a whole lotta 5's and 6's.) This is not a really heavy Japanese area, but it is probably the largest business district in Manhattan, so both shops no doubt get a lot of lunch traffic from both Japanese and American customers. We went both times on a weekend evening, so neither restaurant was all that full. (Menchanko-tei was when we first got there, but it turned out to be one party of about 20 people filling up most of the restaurant. Once they left, it was pretty quiet.) By that time, the office crowd has left for the weekend, and all that remains is mostly local neighborhood foot traffic.

Menkui-tei was up first. This is a pretty dingy-looking place - perfectly authentic, to me! - with a long counter near the kitchen and some pretty basic faux-wood tables along the walls. The decor is pretty low-rent and the facade outside is absolutely filthy, but that didn't bother me - it's pretty much what I expect from a ramen shop anyway. I ordered the spicy ramen, knowing I'd probably regret it, but I just can't resist when I see that on a menu. Here's what it looked like:

The spicy ramen doesn't come with all of the vegetables and other stuff that their regular ramen does. It's got basically pork and scallions, if I remember right. My wife ordered a shio ramen, which has a little more stuff, although it's hard to see it.

My broth was not to be messed around with. It was so spicy that I couldn't even drink it on its own. It tasted really good, though, and as long as I was eating something in the broth rather than the broth itself, it was the perfect amount of spice. The noodles themselves were slightly harder than I'd like and were obviously not fresh, but they weren't bad. The pork was better than Minca's and not as fatty, but it had been stewing in the broth a bit too long and was a little too chewy. I was a little disappointed that I wasn't completely full when we left (I probably should have ordered a ramen dish that came with a bit more "stuff").

Here are the noodles themselves:

I showed some photos from Menkui-tei in my post about my quest for real Japanese beer in New York. This beer problem has become a theme now - ramen almost has to be served with beer and gyoza does too, and I can't seem to find good, or sometimes even any beer at ramen shops in New York.

Tonight, we went to Menchanko-tei, and the first thing we were greeted by was a sign saying they had lost their liquor license. I don't even know how this can happen, but they had absolutely no alcohol of any kind. The sign advised customers to just go and buy it somewhere else and bring it in. The problem is they also have a sign saying they won't seat partial parties during peak hours, so we either had to both go - and delay eating (there was a line at that point, with people behind us) - or just live without it. We decided to live without it, although neither of us were very happy about it. It was Saturday night!

Anyway, Menchanko-tei is actually originally from Japan - Hakata, apparently. It's a small chain that's owned by a parent company that also runs a few other restaurants - including several more in New York, one of which you may have heard was shut down for health violations. No, this is not that Menchanko-tei.

The place looks pretty rustic, and not faux-rustic either. I had some misgivings about whether or not it was actually a ramen place - most of their dishes are not called "ramen", and they have about an equal number of dishes on the menu called ramen as they do called udon (two each, by my count). Still, my wife assured me that everything was ramen, unless it was specifically called udon. (This is apparently a little different than most ramen shops in Tokyo, which serve nothing but ramen or udon, rarely both.)

I ordered the Tori Kara Menchanko - probably kind of a mistake:

Looks pretty good, right? Well, it was pretty good. But I didn't really like any of the stuff I got in the soup - my fault, they have plenty of combinations available and I didn't need to pick this one. Their standard Menchanko ramen comes with scary-looking shrimp still in the shell, so I wanted something else - and the Tori Kara is a fried chicken ramen. Here's the miso ramen, which comes with everything their regular ramen has:

I didn't take a picture of the noodles, but they were very thick. I had my suspicions for a while that it was actually udon, until my wife looked it up and proved to me that what's ramen and what's udon has nothing to do with thickness and everything to do with the ingredients used to make it. But these were some thick ramen noodles. They weren't bad for what they were, they just weren't really my preference.

One thing I didn't like was that the meat and vegetables in the broth had obviously been stewing in there for quite some time. They were not fresh, and the meat was tough while the vegetables were almost gelatinized. I like ramen where the broth is made separately from the rest of the dish, and then it's all combined at the end. That way, the meat stays tender, the vegetables are nice and crisp, and all of the flavors come through.

I will say that the broth at Menchanko-tei was pretty amazing. I drank nearly all of it. No, I don't think it's because they stewed all those ingredients in it. The flavor of their shoyu broth comes mostly from soy sauce, mushrooms, scallops and seaweed - all ingredients not actually in the ramen that they serve. But the downtown ramen shops could probably take a lesson or two from this place in how to make a good broth.

Oh, and I gotta mention the gyoza - this place has some of the best gyoza I've ever had. They were crispy without being crunchy or tough, they held together well when eaten, and they had a really fresh pork taste.

Well, the quest for great New York City ramen continues, although both Menchanko-tei and Menkui-tei are perfectly edible. I have a suspicion that Menchanko-tei is actually the better ramen shop, although I need to go back and order something more to my liking to confirm that.

UPDATE: We went back to Menchanko-tei, and I had the actual "ramen" (everything on their menu is ramen, but they have a few bowls that are actually called ramen). I tried the Hakata Ramen, and I'm pleased to say it's the best ramen I've had so far in New York. It really came close to matching Yo! Teko-ya.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cecel's Cafe Crepes - finally made it!

You may have read my earlier report on making your own Japanese crepes, where I mentioned being shut out of Cecel's Cafe Crepes. This is the one Japanese crepe shop I know of in Manhattan, so we headed back there this weekend to see if they'd reopened after their "renovations". They had - so what's the verdict?

I think the only grade I can really give is "incomplete". The place was obviously being run by the owner when we were there, and he had a sign up looking for help. He didn't seem all that confident in making crepes himself, and while ours tasted good, the crepes themselves were kind of a mess and they actually had too much stuff. They were a little too sweet and a little too floppy.

He's got a setup that replicates anything you'd see in Tokyo, and he's got the right flavorings, all fresh. (We cooked our fruit when we made crepes at home, but usually in Japan, it's fresh and raw.) He just needs some good crepe makers. I'll try this place again in another month or two and see if he's got himself some help.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This is why I don't like Compact Fluorescent bulbs

I understand the spirit of compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs. They save energy (and money), are more efficient and less wasteful than incandescents. And they last longer. I have several of them myself, now in use in various little-used locations around my house.

But I can't use them anywhere that I plan on being for any length of time. The light they emit still sucks, and probably always will. I tried to put one in my living room, for example, and here's the comparison:

What the hell color is that supposed to be on the left? My guitar is red, not purplish black. You can see that the amount of light between the two bulbs is roughly the same, and the color of the wall and other objects are similar (I also made sure the color temperature setting of these photos was correct), but man, the CFL is having some serious trouble rendering that red. I have not adjusted the color or saturation of these photos at all.

Here's the deal. Incandescents have a color rendering index (CRI) of 100. They're the baseline. Sunlight also has a CRI of 100, though the color temperature itself is a lot bluer (the point is it will render colors accurately given its color temperature). Both this CFL and this incandescent are rated at ~3100K color temperature, so that's not the issue here. The issue is that the CFL above has a CRI of 84, vs. the incandescent's 100. That means it will never render colors as accurately as the incandescent. Some CFL's have color rendering indexes a bit higher than that, but not by much, and not in "soft white" color temperatures. You need to go to bluish "daylight" color temperature bulbs to get CRI's over 90, and nobody wants blue light in their living room.

Some people might not notice this inaccurate color, but I can't deal with it.

I'm waiting for LED bulbs to become more practical (and better). I've given up on CFL's ever matching the quality of incandescent light.

US Japanese beer quest ends in disappointment

Part of my process in choosing what to write about here is seeing what "bubbles up" in other posts (pun intended?) - sometimes I only realize how interested I am in certain things by the fact that I seem to bring them up repeatedly. That's when I know it's time to devote a full post to a particular topic.

The latest subject that's revealed itself to me is Japanese beer. I love a good beer, and Japanese beer is just that: good. It's especially good if you get it fresh from the brewery, like the Sapporo pictured above. I might not say their beer is "world class", which usually means beer that you have ponder as you swish it around your mouth, testing yourself for various subtle hints of flavor and even texture. I don't usually like beer that I have to think about. Beer is basically an alcoholic soft drink, both historically and even today meant to give you something to do with friends, refresh yourself when thirsty, and get you drunk at the same time. It's meant be enjoyed, either alone or with food, and it shouldn't have so much or so distinctive a flavor that it overpowers whatever you pair it with. On the other hand, I also don't like beer that tastes like water or worse, which is where most American beers (at least the big brands) fall on the spectrum of flavor. In other words, "good" is the way a beer should be - under the right conditions, a good beer is a perfect beer.

Most Japanese beers are based on German models; ales and lagers for the most part, including pilsners and stouts. Most breweries also make Japanese rice lagers and "happoshu", low-malt beers that are not considered beers in the eyes of the nation's tax laws and are consequently cheaper (and therefore popular). Like the United States, Japan has several "macro-breweries" that are responsible for producing the vast majority of beer sold in the country. These include Sapporo, Asahi, Kirin and Suntory, with the first three really controlling the market. Recently, there's been a bit of a boom in previously illegal micro-breweries as well, although I confess that I don't know a hell of a lot about micro-brews in Japan. One that I do like a lot is Hitachino Nest White Ale, which is a Belgian-style wheat beer brewed in my wife's prefecture of Ibaraki. You can actually buy this beer at Dean & Deluca in New York City, as well as at certain Japanese markets.

Photo by "show and tell", released under the Creative Commons Share Alike license.

I've had three of the big four beers in Japan (by which I mean in Japan), as well as in the United States. My favorite is Sapporo, followed by Kirin Ichiban and Asahi Super Dry. Not that I dislike Asahi; it's just a little more bitter than the other two. Kirin is almost sweet; it's very light, but still flavorful. Sapporo is sort of in between the two. (I've also had Yebisu, which is at least as popular as Sapporo and more popular than Suntory, and I liked it, although it tastes similar to Sapporo, which is not surprising.) None of these brands ever seem to get "skunky" and none have any sort of aftertaste, except for Asahi with its intentional "dry" finish. I should mention that there are about 50 different Sapporo brands on the market around the world, but if you just say "Sapporo" in Japan, everybody knows you mean Sapporo Black Label. That's the only real brand they even seem to have there at this point, and it's what I'm talking about here.

Photo by Uba, released under the Creative Commons Share Alike license.

In Japan, when you order a beer in a restaurant, you're either going to get a large 650ml-700ml glass, or you're going to get a tiny little 250ml glass. Depends on where you go, but it's always either huge or tiny. Beer is almost always on tap; I have never been served a can or bottle in a Japanese restaurant. In stores, beer is almost always canned - it's rare to find bottles, mostly because of the way garbage is handled there. Garbage trucks don't go house to house - you have to bring your garbage to the neighborhood garbage center. So nobody wants to be carrying around dozens of glass bottles everywhere.

The glass bottles and American sizes are a dead giveaway that these are probably not imported from Japan.

You used to be able to get "real" Japanese beer in the United States, up until very recently. Not that it was always exactly the same as what was sold in Japan, mind you - those distinctive, large silver cans of Sapporo, for example, were always specifically for export and had a different alcohol content than the real thing. But it was still close, and it tasted pretty good. Ditto for Asahi and Kirin. (Suntory has strangely never been common here; neither has Sapporo's own Yebisu.) All of these beers were made in Japan and then exported to America.

Over the past decade, that's changed. To reduce costs and grow their business, all three of the breweries with large presences in the United States have now either bought or made deals with breweries in North America. Kirin is now brewed by Anheuser-Busch in Los Angeles - it's basically Budweiser. Sapporo is brewed by the newly converted Sapporo Breweries in Canada (formerly Sleeman Brewery). Asahi is brewed by Molson in Vancouver.

Do they taste the same as their Japanese originals? No. They're using North American ingredients and being bottled in the same plants and under the same management as other not-so-respected North American brands. Are they any good in their own right? For the most part, no. Asahi is not too terrible - because it's a "dry" (fully attenuated) beer, it has to be made with a specific process. So it definitely has a little more of a distinctive flavor than the other two brands in North America, but it still doesn't taste quite like the real thing and it's not all that good as its own distinct beer either. It's always a bit skunky, and the "dryness" can sometimes taste almost like a chemical flavoring. But if you close your eyes and try to imagine yourself in Japan, you can almost convince yourself that you're drinking an old, stale Asahi that you found in some dead guy's un-air conditioned basement.

Not so for the other two, which to me, anyway, just taste totally different than the originals. American Kirin really does taste like Budweiser - it's practically water. Totally flavorless. Sapporo tastes like skunky Kirin. Its main flavor is close to... well, sweat. And yeast.

Sapporo also sells something called "Sapporo Reserve" in the United States. This beer doesn't exist in Japan to my knowledge. Some have speculated that, because of its "All Malt" description on the can/bottle, it's actually Yebisu. That might be the case... if it was brewed in Japan. But it's not. This is a beer brewed in North America for North America, and given that its name doesn't match any Japanese beer sold by the company and it's using different ingredients, I can't say that it's actually Yebisu. The basic recipe might or might not be the same, but it's still not really Yebisu - especially given that Sapporo doesn't even think it is. I will say that it is slightly less offensive than American Sapporo - less skunk and more real malt flavor. Not great, mind you, but I'd pick it over a regular (American) Sapporo.

So what do you do if you want a real Japanese beer without buying a ticket to Japan? Well, I went out last weekend to an "Asian supermarket" that I've got near me to find out - this place is the size of a Sam's Club and all they've got is food imported directly from the Far East. If they don't have something, it's likely nobody will. From that quest, it appears you may now have one option and one option only for beer imported from Japan. And it's this specific product:


They've added some English to the can, but that's a real Asahi. It seems like the 1000ml cans are the only Asahi still imported from Japan - the 12oz bottles and cans are all Canadian.

By the way, a 1000ml can is big. That's 33.8oz, as you can see in the photo above. It's the Japanese equivalent of a 40. (They're smaller than we are, on average, so it takes less to get them piss drunk.)

I was pretty sad to see that even a large Asian supermarket that imports products directly from China, Korea and Japan only had this one size and brand of real Japanese beer - and I am in a pretty heavily Asian area. Ditto for all the Japanese restaurants I've been to here lately - it's always the Canadian/American stuff. That means for a lot of you in other parts of America, there's probably almost no hope at all. I was also disappointed that the one brand available was Asahi - Japan's most popular beer, but my least favorite of the "big three". Oh well.
(I'm interested to hear from anybody who's been to a Mitsuwa lately - please tell me they've got more than this!)

Incidentally, I do check out sites like occasionally, and all this licensed brewing is obviously screwing with their ratings system. They don't distinguish between beers brewed on one continent or the other, or by the actual brewery vs. under license. So you'll see ratings for these beers there that are literally all over the map (no pun intended), and I guarantee it depends entirely on where a person's doing their tasting. They even seem a little confused as to what brands are actually available. There is no "Sapporo Black Label" on their site, for example, even though this is standard Sapporo in Japan - "Sapporo Black" is a different beer entirely. (I don't even know what they're considering the American equivalent - the standard Sapporo here is just called "Sapporo Premium Beer", and they have no such brand listed either.) So definitely take their ratings with a grain of salt - some of those people no doubt know their beer, but they don't all know their beer brands and breweries.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Tokyo Day 5 - Akihabara Revisited

I'm gonna warn you straight up - this is a post chock full of hardcore geekiness.

I'm getting pretty late with this trip report - been almost a month since we've been back now. But I've still got one or two posts left to go. And I definitely want to say a bit about Akihabara, especially after my last post about the neighborhood, when I was almost completely down on what the area had turned into.

It is still true that "Akiba" has changed. I don't take any personal offense to this (like I do when certain neighborhoods in New York go through major changes). I have no real claim to the area, but some locals and even a lot of tourists seem to be really unhappy with what's going on there. The Japan Times, for example, posted an article about this rising discontent just after we got back.

I was disappointed on my last trip to see that the big box stores and chains were taking over the area, driving the mom and pop shops out in an attempt by the government at "normalizing" the neighborhood. This has always been an area for geeks and their various geeky interests; first with the ham radios, then the computers, then the anime and video games. A lot of that's being literally torn down, even still. But I will say that this misguided urban renewal plan seems to be backfiring on the government; if anything, Akihabara's actually getting weirder now.

I sort of hinted that this was happening in my post last year; it's even more apparent now. The most obvious indication of this is that maids are everywhere. They greet you as soon as you get out of the train station. You see them walking down the street, sometimes alone, sometimes with "customers" who have paid them to walk around arm in arm. You can't throw a rock without breaking the window of a maid cafe. I finally broke down and went to my first maid cafe on this trip - actually a fun experience - but it's almost out of control how many of these places there are now.

I was a little uncomfortable with this at first, but eventually I just learned to go with it. This is the new Akihabara, still home to everything a geek could desire. If that now includes real girls dressed up in maid costumes all over the place, who am I to judge?

That's the building that houses the maid cafe we went to. There's another one on the second floor! The third floor is like a massage place, actually, if I remember right.

(The Japanese have a word they apply to this maid obsession, though, and it's not a flattering one: "moe". Click the link and read about it. When we were on our way to the maid cafe, my wife's sister-in-law actually asked her "are you on your way to moe?")

We also got a little further off the beaten path that is Chuo Dori this time, which you really need to do these days if you want to find the remaining independent stores selling games and computer parts. It used to be that most of the good stuff was concentrated on that main avenue; now, it's almost the opposite.

I also gotta admit that this was the first time I managed to find Super Potato, the legendary used video game store. Yes, "and I call myself a gamer", blah blah blah, I know it's some sort of blasphemy to go to Akihabara and not visit Super Potato. The truth is I just could never find it before. See, Tokyo isn't like New York or really any other city in the United States. Even people in Tokyo have trouble with addresses in the city. It's an ancient city and its address system... well, it just doesn't make any sense. So even major sites in Tokyo always put a little map next to their address showing you where they are in relation to other landmarks in the area. It's the only way to find them.

I never had such a little map for Super Potato so I just missed it on all my previous trips. But I found it this time, with the help of a little thing called "the internet".

I unfortunately didn't get too many photos inside, because they don't technically allow them and I didn't want to get kicked out. Check out their web site, though, and you can see some of what they've got. It's pretty goddamn amazing. Not even like a museum, because museums only ever have one of anything. This place has about 30 of everything, including rare systems like A/V Famicoms and Famicom Twins. Downside is their prices are not very good. If you can manage to find any of this stuff elsewhere (especially outside of Akihabara), you're guaranteed to pay less.

I did take one photo inside, because I wanted to show it to someone:

That's the almost mythical Atari 2800, rarest and most prized of all Atari systems. They've got 'em sitting out on the floor at Super Potato, waiting to be kicked and bumped into by uncaring Japanese consumers on the make for that one Sega Saturn dating simulation missing from their collection.

Anime is also still huge in Akihabara, although there are fewer places to get it. That just leaves bigger crowds for the remaining stores. Check out this line (you may need to open the photo up):

That was actually for some Neon Genesis Evangelion thing - I don't even know what. Incidentally, I don't remember the name of that building, but it was amazing inside - floor after floor of wacky toys and merchandise you probably won't find anywhere else.

Evangelion was almost as common in Akihabara as the maid phenomenon this time; it was just as pervasive.

This is a series that ended 10 years ago! But there was a new Evangelion movie out that hit #1 on the Japanese box office chart while we were there (we went to see it), so interest has sparked again and now there are Evangelion ads up all over the place hawking everything from licensed video games to pachinko machines. After seeing the film, I couldn't help but get caught up in it myself. I bought a couple little Evangelion trinkets at both the Tokyo Anime Center and on the street in Akihabara (right outside the building above):

May be hard to believe for westerners with that level of detail, but that's actually a capsule toy! It came from a machine in this:

The Japanese do take their capsule toys seriously. A lot of them are pretty high quality and they come in sets. I only got Rei, which I sort of regret now. She was only 200 yen - I should have gone for the whole cast of characters. Of course, that's how they get you. They put 20 of every toy in the collection but one in that machine. That last one, they only put a single capsule right on top. You can see it there; it's tantalizing you with the final piece of the puzzle. But you can't get to it unless you buy every single capsule below it first.

I also now have two little tschotschkes hanging off my phone:

That round thing is a NERV screen cleaner from Evangelion. You use it to wipe your phone's LCD screen - the other side is soft fabric. It works like this:

Very handy! These things are pretty popular in Japan. I really have no idea why people don't buy phone accessories in the United States - they cost like $3 each and they add a little personality to your phone while even being occasionally useful. A lot of people in Japan have both a screen cleaner and a keitai strap/charm, just like I do.

Going with the "when in Rome" theme, I had to pick up a box of these when I saw them:

I actually bought a box for my co-workers too, more or less as a joke. It went over well!

Even the cookies themselves are cute. Have a look:

Different cookies actually have different pictures on them! The maid has all sorts of different moods reflected in the facial expressions on the cookie. (I'm not sure which that one is, but she's angry in one of them!) The cookies actually tasted pretty good, surprisingly enough.

The area does still pay homage to its hardcore nerd roots occasionally:

We looked in there and didn't see much that would distinguish it from any other cafe. My guess: off in a corner somewhere, they've got a PC running an unmaintained, obsolete distribution of Red Hat so their geek customers can feel comfortable.

We had fun in Akihabara this time, no doubt about it. You just have to accept the neighborhood for what it is, which it took me a year to be able to do (or maybe it took until it had gone past the tipping point - it wasn't clear when I was there last which direction it was gonna go). These days, it's gone off the deep end into "moe" on the one hand, while on the other, Chuo Dori's been taken over by chains so you really can't just concentrate on it and then consider yourself done with the neighborhood anymore. Maybe that's even a good thing in some ways, if it forces people to visit more of the stores on the side streets and keeps them in business.

I didn't actually buy any video game paraphernalia for the second trip in a row, and except for Super Potato (which caters to retro gamers), I don't really consider Akihabara the best place for game stuff anymore. I have done better on my last two trips just going to WonderGOO and BOOK*OFF in the suburbs. But for the overall geek experience, Akihabara's on top again... just in a different way than it used to be, and maybe for a different kind of geek.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Japanese crepes! The full story (and how to make your own)

Update! This post continues to get a lot of traffic from Googlers! Just to be up front, I am not attempting to give an authentic Japanese crepe recipe below, but to describe it and approximate the experience at home. There is nothing much special about Japanese crepes other than the facts that they use less butter and most of the fillings are raw. They've turned crepes into quick street food. I provide tips at the bottom to make your crepes more Japanese if you want to.

My original post starts below the photo.

Alright, so I've become obsessed with Japanese crepes. I've previously mentioned them here, and here, and here - and that's for starters! But I've decided they definitely deserve their own post, and now's the right time.

Last night, the plan was that we'd eat some ramen and then visit this Japanese crepe place called Cecel Cafe Crepe that's just off St. Mark's Place on 1st Ave. in the East Village. (That link makes it look and sound more upscale than it seemed to us - it looks like a regular Japanese crepe place.) We were trying to recreate some of the Japan trip experience - really I think my wife's probably trying to shut me up about moving there by proving to me that we've got all the same stuff here. Anyway, Cecel's ended up being closed for one-day "renovations". Well, we weren't gonna let that stand. We decided to take matters into our own hands and make our own damn crepes. And now I'm gonna document the whole thing if anybody else out there wants to try it.

(We did go back to Cecel's. For a short report, click here.)

First, a little background for the Googlers and the newbies here. What's so special about Japanese crepes? Well, imagine a French crepe but without the "haute" in "haute cuisine" - taken down about five notches on the formality and snootiness scale. The great thing about Japanese crepes is their casualness (...casualty?). You buy them on the street from little shacks, they come with about 60 different possible fillings, and they make 'em on the spot and then hand them to you like an ice cream cone. But they taste basically like a French crepe - with a few minor differences. There's less butter used, for one, and all the fillings are fresh and/or raw - not cooked.

Did the Japanese spontaneously invent crepes on their own, creating their own unique product? No, my guess is that, like a lot of western foods there, they just borrowed the idea from France and added their own twist. They've turned it into fast food. Or as Larry David once wrote, "not fast food, Jerry. Good food, quickly."

It's amazing to watch a Japanese crepe maker in action. They're completely efficient and lightning quick, and there's a zen garden-like way of spreading the batter around that I find almost hypnotic.

I found this video that shows what I mean (note that this is not my video - thanks to the guy who filmed it):

Since French and Japanese crepes are really not much different, we figured it wouldn't be too hard making some at home. We were right! There's no big mystery about making crepes of any kind. People get scared of crepes in the same way they get scared of making souffles or custards, but they're really pretty easy. Even making the "cone" shape turned out to be not too difficult, although you might want some parchment or other kind of strong paper to hold it. (We only had wax paper.)

If you want to do Japanese crepes like the pros there do, you need some specialized equipment. Get a crepe set similar to this one, or bigger if you can find one.

That's very similar to what they actually use. If you want to buy everything separately, you need a crepe pan or electric griddle, spatula and spreader. The bigger, the better - Japanese crepes are enormous. That helps make the cone shape later.

But you can make even Japanese-style crepes (with some mods) using basic multi-tasking kitchen equipment that everybody has. We started off with a crepe recipe that we found in a cookbook, although there are plenty on the internet too. (Try this one.) The batter is basically just eggs, milk, water, salt and a little flour. Some recipes add sugar as well; ours didn't, but it's a preference thing. Japanese crepes themselves are not sweet, though. You blend your batter, then you let it sit. Really simple.

The filling can be whatever you want. We wanted something easy and that we might find in Japan, so we picked apple, banana and whipped cream.

That's my wife chopping up the apples. I gave it a try, but this is why you shouldn't use sharp knives after downing two glasses of wine:

Yeah, that really hurt.

We took the apples and bananas and just fried 'em up with some butter, sugar and cinnamon - like we were making apple (or banana) pie. The apples turned out so good, I couldn't help but eat a few wedges straight out of the frying pan. (Note that the Japanese would never cook banana, but I just like 'em better that way.)

Once you've prepped your filling, it's just a matter of cooking the crepes themselves. This takes literally 2 minutes. Since you probably don't have a crepe pan, a regular non-stick pan will have to do, and it helps even more if you butter it anyway. Yes, butter. You can't use anything else; it'll taste awful. Come on, you're eating crepes - "healthy" isn't the idea here. And be pretty liberal with the butter - the last thing you want is your crepe sticking at all. These things will tear at the slightest tug. Ideally, you want your crepe to slide around on its own in the pan after it's set.

The butter also helps brown your crepe slightly, which doesn't look very Japanese, but it tastes better. Incidentally, they don't need to use so much butter because of the surface they're cooking on, which is non-stick, has no sides and is specially made for crepes. But trust me, the butter makes it taste better - it's sort of a fusion thing, a little bit more French than Japanese. And making crepes at home, you're probably gonna need some sort of grease, so it may as well be the best tasting kind.

Here I am pouring a crepe below - that's about 1/4 cup of batter for a 10" crepe. Incidentally, this is much smaller than Japanese crepes really are, and it did turn out to be kind of a problem - but we got around it. This is the largest pan we had, though.

I don't have a crepe pan or a wooden spreader to spread the batter around, so I've gotta do it the old fashioned way - rolling the pan around until the batter fills itself in and starts to set:

Flipping a crepe can be tricky. In Japan, they've got massively long metal spatulas that, when used on a raised, flat hot plate like they use, can easily get underneath an entire 20" crepe. Most people here aren't gonna have something like that - I just use a regular spatula.

Here's a little trick, though. If you've got a non-stick pan and you've buttered it like I told you to, just jerk the pan back once and the crepe will slide forward. Now you can get the spatula underneath it slightly, and once you pick the edge up, grab it with your thumb and forefinger and pull it up until you can get the spatula all the way underneath. Now you can flip it cleanly.

When I made my first crepe a few years ago, I had just as much trouble getting it out of the pan. Then I realized that - duh! - I could just slide it right out without even touching it:

Incidentally, you see how we're keeping the crepes separated there - do not stack crepes! Unless you want to turn four or five regular crepes into one really thick crepe, because that's what's gonna happen. You're never gonna get 'em apart again. Once they've cooled, you can stack them with a piece of wax paper in between each one, but you can't do that while they're hot and you definitely cannot stack them on top of each other "naked" - ever!

Now comes the really tricky part - figuring out how you're gonna roll the thing up into the ice cream cone shape.

If you have a big enough crepe, then the easiest thing to do is put the filling in one half, fold the entire thing over once, and then roll from one side to the other. That's how most people do it in Japan. You can't do that with a 10" crepe, though - I tried it. You just get a handful of malformed crepe and filling oozing out all over the place.

I did figure out a system, though. First, you've gotta imagine the shape of your final cone and mentally project that onto your unrolled crepe. Then place your filling in the upper half of where you want it to eventually end up in the cone. Like this:

By the way, yes that's homemade whipped cream. Please don't use anything else or I won't be your friend anymore. If you want to be really Japanese, you'll put some chocolate sauce on top of this - that's almost a given in a Japanese crepe, but I think it's a little too much. Ice cream and custard are optional too. Yeah, their crepes can go pretty far over the top.

It may look like the filling's right in the middle of the crepe and angled towards the center, but it's not. That won't work! It's just the camera angle here - it's more towards the right edge of the crepe and angled towards the same edge. I know, it sounds a little over-thought - but believe me, this is the only way to get a proper cone from a 10" crepe. The first fold then just covers the filling, and you just roll from there.

Yeah, you like my Casio digital watch, huh? Pure class, baby! It's all about the Electro-Luminescence.

Anyway, you see that with my system, I've got a little hole at the bottom. Unavoidable, really. With a bigger crepe and folding it the way the Japanese do, you have no hole and your filling won't spill out. With a smaller crepe, you're gonna have a hole. Just cover it up with your paper.

Here's the final result:

Yeah, not only am I wearing a Casio watch, I'm also sporting my dorky FLCL t-shirt. Hey man, tomorrow's laundry day. I'm at the end of the cycle.

Anyway, mmmmmmmmmm! This was seriously probably the best crepe I've ever had. And except for the wax paper subbing for parchment and the butter-browning, it sure looks pretty much like the crepe at the top of the post, right? Of course, with all the prep work included, it did take about 3 hours longer to make! But we wanted some crepes and goddamn if we weren't going to have them - and no regrets at all after tasting the final result.

If you want your crepes to be more authentic Japanese than ours were, a couple little tips:
  • Use less, or no, butter. This is going to make it more difficult to cook, though, and it won't taste as good.
  • Try not to cook your filling if you're using fruit. Except for things like apples and pears, but in that case, they're usually only cooked very lightly and with no added flavoring (like cinnamon). A little sugar is ok to kill the tartness.
  • Add some chocolate sauce - though I think this makes everything too sweet! Ice cream and custard are common "binders".
  • Make your crepes as big as possible so you can fold and roll them the way the Japanese do. You need specialized hardware for this.
  • Buy some heavy cone-holding paper. Parchment would probably work, and I'm sure you can get paper designed specifically to hold ice cream cones that would also be fine (if it's big enough).

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ramen Showdown: New York vs. Tokyo!

I spent a post a while back talking about how New York's East Village is now akin to a "Little Tokyo" (or maybe more appropriately, a "Little Harajuku"). You can really find almost anything there now that you can find in Japan, albeit usually not the best quality. (Hey, it is really New York and not Tokyo, after all.) On our trip to Japan last month, we'd had some truly great ramen at a place called "Yo! Teko-ya" on Odaiba, and we were missing the experience a little bit. So we decided to try one of the ramen shops that have now sprung up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, including the East Village and Alphabet City.

We settled on Minca both because it's fairly well known among the Japanese community (though not universally liked) and because it got a really good writeup in the New York Times, who I do actually trust. (It does drive me crazy how they consider Avenue A and B the "East Village", though.)

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am no expert in ramen. My wife comes a lot closer than I do, though - she's been eating at ramen-ya (ramen shops) all her life, and is a native of the Tokyo area. So I trust her opinions on this, and I will say that I at least know what I like. I'm also experienced in a lot of different kinds of authentic ethnic food, including Japanese - I'm not the kind of guy that eats at Olive Garden and thinks he's eating Italian.

That said, Minca does look the part. It's small, somewhat dingy and filled with mostly counter space around the kitchen - it looks like a proper ramen shop. The waitresses (who were oddly fashionable for a ramen shop) were Japanese. The atmosphere is mostly genuine, with the one nod to New York being the exposed brick walls on either side - not a common look in Japanese interior design.

That's the Minca exterior. One of the two fashionable waitresses is cleaning up after us in the right side window - she's even wearing a hat. The exterior of the ramen shop we visited in Tokyo is at the top of this post for comparison.

I ordered the "Minca ramen" while my wife ordered the "basic ramen" - the main difference being the broth. Hers was thicker and with a pork stock base ("tonkotsu" ramen), mine "lighter" and with more of a soy sauce base ("shoyu" ramen). Her noodles were also a little different, but I'll get to that in a second. We also ordered a plate of gyoza - Japanese dumplings - as an appetizer. These were actually pretty good, and tasted like homemade. Gyoza are one thing I do know pretty well by now.

That's my ramen. Compare to this, from our visit to Tokyo:

There are probably a couple things you immediately notice. The first is that the Tokyo ramen just has a lot more stuff. More meat, more vegetables, more everything. It's literally piled over the top of the broth. And if it all looks fresher in the photo from Tokyo, that's because it was.

The second thing, though a bit less obvious, is the beer. I'm gonna digress just a little bit to talk about that for a minute. Here's a better view of the beer from Tokyo:

That's Kirin on tap, and a big glass of it, ice cold. Minca, like most American restaurants, just gives you a 12oz. bottle, and it's the Canadian stuff. I'm always surprised by this at Japanese restaurants in the US, because beer is such a big deal at any Japanese restaurant in Japan. They drink a lot of it, and they demand that it be on draft and practically frozen cold. Beer there is cheap, plentiful and good. Canadian Sapporo is not the same as real Sapporo. It tastes almost nothing like the real thing. After having real Sapporo straight from the Sapporo brewery at the Yebisu Beer Garden, I now have a real baseline for comparison. Canadian Sapporo just doesn't cut it.

See here for a look at what a real can or bottle of Sapporo looks like. If you can't find one of those anywhere, you may be able to find a silver 22oz. can like the one in front here:

Even that's not quite the same, but it is brewed in a proper Sapporo factory, and it's currently the only size can still commonly available in the US that's brewed in Japan by Sapporo.

Anyway, back to the ramen. One thing that kind of jumped out at me in the New York Times article was this:
Mr. Kamada uses dried, portioned noodles delivered from Japan. Though crucial to ramen, the noodles are the easy part.
Whoa, warning sign! Even I know that you can't take the noodles for granted in ramen - otherwise we may as well all be eating instant, and Mr. Kamada may as well just be importing Top Ramen. In fact, for all I know, that's exactly what he's doing.

The ramen at Yo! Teko-ya in Tokyo was absolutely fantastic - that includes the spicy broth, the noodles, and the meat and vegetables. At Minca, the noodles clearly had a different texture, and one that I associate with dried pasta. I'm not sure if Yo! Teko-ya uses fresh noodles or not, but the texture of their noodles was definitely closer to fresh than dried - much "springier" without being hard, or on the other hand mushy. The noodles at Minca were hard, even after sitting in the hot broth for five extra minutes.

The broth, on the other hand, was good, but given the fact that Minca basically ignores the noodles in favor of creating the best broth possible, I had expected better. Mine tasted mainly like soy sauce. My wife's was probably better if your tastes are native Japanese, but I couldn't really eat it - it was too rich from pork bone marrow. Even the broth was not at the level of Yo! Teko-ya. Neither was the meat, which was too fatty - though I did eat all of it.

My wife actually said afterwards, "this is one of the biggest disappointments in my life." She wasn't joking!

The sad thing is the customers we saw were mostly westerners, all universally praising their ramen. I guess if they don't know any better, then it's no skin off their backs, but I wish they could know what really good ramen tastes like. It can be so much better than Minca. The New York Times is full of crap.

My advice to Mr. Kamada: work on your noodles. Use less fatty meat. The broth is probably okay, but I wouldn't mind a few tweaks - something in between my salty soy sauce and my wife's fatty, rich pork broth would be nice. And please, import some proper Japanese beer.

There are other ramen shops both on the Lower East Side as well as up in midtown near where I work. We're going to try some more, and I'll let you all know if any of them compare to Yo! Teko-ya. Minca needs to stop taking everything but the broth for granted.

UPDATE: The New York ramen quest continues. See Part 2!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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