This is the story of how I ended up eating a bowl of spicy ramen instead of sitting on the couch watching the baseball game. This is the story of indulging in nostalgia while indulging in a meal. Don’t read on an empty stomach or without access to good food.
Where to begin…..I guess somewhere at the beginning.
Being a commuter requires scheduling and time management. A couple of minutes too late means missing a bus. In turn, that could mean anything from being late for work or having to wait at a stop for a long boring period of time–I am not sure what is worse.
Friday night, there was an unexpected subway delay. I don’t know the cause, but I do know that the subway deposited all of us two stops from my final subway destination. Fearing a rather crowded subway and being unsure of when things would start moving normally, I decided to hit the streets. I was not alone in my assumptions, so I was greeted by a larger than average crowd on the streets. I am a fast walker, but I wasn’t really dressed for fast walking and sweating profusely–yes, I walk that fast. After walking, I still would have an hour bus ride home.
My stomach started to rumble and I considered my options. My route took me past pretty much every option under the sun. Toronto has a lot of food options, and I would be walking through the newer of Toronto’s Korea towns.
I passed fast food places, and yes, I thought about eating pizza despite having had it the night before. I passed two Mexican restaurants (they seem to thrive in Koreatown–maybe it is the shared love of spiciness?) but I don’t really have an understanding of this food. I considered stopping for sashimi, but for some unknown reason, don’t really like eating sashimi by myself….I am going to have to work on that. While I passed up that thought, the idea of Japanese food was awakened in me.
I love Japanese food. Despite Toronto’s varied food culture, their take on Japanese food had mostly been limited to sushi and sashimi. Occasionally I could find some tonkatsu, some tempura, even a decent oyakodonburi, but things like okonomiyaki, yakisoba and ramen were only feebly attempted. However, it seems as of late, that ramen is the new fad. Ramen restaurants (some good some bad–all much more expensive than in Japan) have been popping up all over the city.
So that is how I found myself in a small Hakata style ramen shop on Yonge St. Okay, I passed up a rather popular ramen spot because I didn’t want to wait for a seat, and came across this one by accident. The fact that they served Hakata style ramen was what caught my eye. They had a pretty limited menu–which is actually a big plus. I hemmed and hawed before entering (in the Japanese/English hybrid language that the people I knew in Japan used, I would have called this “do shi yo”-ing).
For those not in the know, Hakata is a city that merged with Fukuoka in Japan. Their signature style of ramen is called tonkotsu ramen and features a soup made from pork bones. It is a thicker style of broth that I have liked since my visit to Ippudo (an amazing restaurant which now has locations throughout Japan–though when I went there first, I had to take the shinkansen to Hakata–It was worth the trip). Ippudo featured a spicy ramen that I really love. Ippudo’s gyoza is also fantastic–but that is a story for another time.
So, picture the scene. I am sitting in the restaurant, ordering the spicy ramen (warnings included) some gyoza, some karage and a beer–In for a penny, in for a pound as they say. The atmosphere was a little grubby, a little noisy and a little more confined than some would like. For me, it had all the elements of nostalgia. There was jazz playing in the background, and though not really my thing, made it much more authentic than if they had tried to play Japanese traditional music. For moments, brief though they were, I felt like I was back in Japan. The smells and the sounds of the staff shouting out the orders in Japanese mingled together nicely. When I closed my eyes and sipped my beer, I felt….I felt like everything was so right.
These days YouTube has shown people what Japanese restaurants are really like. Like most places in the world, they run the gamut from ostentatious to grubby, small to large, pristinely sparse to incredibly cluttered. They feature music like enka, blues or jazz. They can be garishly neon to demurely unsuspecting. When I watch old movies, I see how poorly stereotypically they had been.
Some of my favourite restaurants were grubby little holes that some people would shy away from. They had character to spare, and were often surprising in their deliciousness. At first, I might not have entered, but that soon changed. Discovery provided motivation. While I was not always blown away by the food, I did enjoy a different take on things. I remember one okonomiyaki restaurant near my workplace that was scattered with Japanese wrestling magazines, manga and sports newspapers. My co-workers didn’t like it because it was dark and grimy. However, I would argue that they missed out because that restaurant served a good meal for a very reasonable price.
Getting back to last night, my ramen was incredibly spicy, but also incredibly delicious. I had enough soup leftover that I could have ordered more noodles, but my tab was going to run high enough. Also, I didn’t want nostalgia to grow too much.
Instead, I drank most of the soup. My face and body seemed warm, and I made plans to come back when the weather was colder. Later, before boarding my bus, I noticed in the washroom mirror that my face was rather red. I could have blamed that on the hike to the station, but deep down I knew it was the ramen. Unfortunately, this probably didn’t make me look impressive to the beautiful woman in the knit dress and black leather jacket sitting across from me on the bus, but life is pretty much a win/lose proposition. I can always go back to the restaurant (especially now that I have a point card) but I probably won’t see her again any time soon.