Noodles Mess With My Head

A ramen shop destroyed a dream today.

Ramen Jiro is one of Tokyo’s more famous ramen chains. The original shop is just a few minutes away from my apartment, but I have never gone in the year and half we’ve lived here.

I never wanted to wait in the shop’s long line, so I did the only sensible thing and talked about the shop like a grandmother watching the squirrels outside of her window:

“Oh, pretty good line today. That’s at least an hour and half wait.”

“Oh, it looks like they ran out of noodles today. Did they get a new cook?”

Ang normally nods, and says something sweet like, “You know, you could just go there sometime, dum dum.”

What Ang failed to understand was that I had turned Ramen Jiro into Holy Mount Ramen. I was never hungry enough to appreciate the notoriously large portions or didn’t have enough time in the afternoon to relax in a ramen-infused daze. It had to be right, which sounds ridiculous when I say it out loud, but so does any word if you say it out loud long enough. Shark. Shark. Shark. Shark.

Yesterday, everything lined up perfectly. I woke up at noon, hungover and starving – living the dream! – and decided to call it a day right there. I cleared my non-existent calendar and to-do list. “If I can put on pants, leave my apartment, and stumble to Ramen Jiro, I can count this day as a success,” I thought.

I waited in line at Ramen Jiro for over an hour. I’m pretty sure the smirks of passersby were smirks of respect and not smirks that said, “Look at those grown men standing in line for a bowl of noodles.” Still, I was feeling good about my plan, because I was having a memorable experience, and then at the end I’d get to eat delicious ramen.

The line wrapped around the tiny, triangular building. Lots of teenagers in school uniforms coming from Saturday class, and lots of adults taking full advantage of the time they are given on this earth. I was starting to get hungry by the time I got to the front of the line and I didn’t like the way the guy in front glanced back at me. To be fair to him, I don’t think he was actually looking at me, but point-counterpoint, I was ready to hunt down his family and eat all of their faces off. Maybe that was just the low blood sugar talking. Jesus, I hope it was just the low blood sugar talking.

No matter, I was finally getting to try this ramen that dominates every English language article about ramen in Tokyo. Go on, try to find an article that doesn’t mention Ramen Jiro. I’ll wait.

Let’s draw this out some more. I’ve loved ramen since my Oriental-flavored Maruchen days…Oriental-flavored! I looked past dated, possibly racist phrases for packs of dried ramen. And now I live in Tokyo, the best ramen in the world (Sorry, China). And now I’m getting to eat at the famous Ramen Jiro. I was still hungover – living the dream! – but was a happy man when I sat down.

Ramen Jiro is a tiny shop, and you have to politely shove your neighbor’s face into his soup to get to your seat. They have a reputation for big portions, garlic, and a broth that’s practically gravy. People go nuts over it.

But when I sat down, all I saw was a giant vat of gurgling gray pork mess. The ramen chef had a tub of pork meat, and would occasionally pull out a hacked-off piece of cooked pig. The fat slid down his arms. All of his fingers were heavily bandaged. I took a sip of water to stop thinking about what his fingers looked like under those grease-trapping bandages.

I love Tokyo’s ramen shops, and I’m familiar with boiling vats and grease, but Ramen Jiro looks more like a dare than a beloved shop.

Is it possible for food to be ragged? The chef set a massive bowl on the counter in front of me. Torn cabbage, torn bean sprouts and slabs of meat still clinging to other parts of the pig spilled over the sides of the bowl.

It tasted like pig. Not pork, or chashu, but the essence of pig. It was gross, and I felt gross for being there. And goddamn it, why did that guy keep looking back at me?! Uh oh, might not be low blood sugar.

I shuffled home defeated and with a cholesterol level a few points higher. The sun was starting to go down, and the night’s chill was setting in. The fat from the broth that I had gotten on my fingers started to congeal. The ramen was taking me to a dark place. Am I wrong about all the things I thought I loved? How many times have I convinced myself I liked something that was actually awful? God, my haircut is stupid.

“Is ramen stupid?” I asked myself. Just then, in the window of the convenience store I saw the newest edition of a ramen magazine I like. It was a sign. Just because one ramen shop was disappointing, it doesn’t mean I have to stop seeking out new places. Also, I have really, really small goals.

Then I had to quicken my shuffle to a stride to get home, because of pork fat physics.

Ramen Jiro: Mita 2-16-4, Minato-ku