Miracle [Dole] Whip

Back when I was around eight years old, my parents took my sister and I to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. As my mother hated rollercoasters, and I wasn’t the kind of child that liked to terrorize myself voluntarily, we avoided all the rides that seemed designed to test the strength of your sphincter in the face of a fabricated yet realistic, life-threatening situation. The spinning teacups were as dangerous as the rides got, and my family was quite happy with that.

We ended our Disney World tour at Tomorrowland. We’d checked off most of the non-rollercoaster rides, and we had one more to check out. We didn’t know what it was, but there was a long, snaking line, seemingly a hundred people deep. We joined the line and waited, wondering what was to come.

I remember a tinge of doubt when I saw a sign that indicated how tall you had to be to ride. As we shuffled closer to the front of the line, we heard screams.

“I think this is a rollercoaster,” I said.

For some reason, we didn’t beg the ride operator to let us out of the line. Or maybe my father thought this would be a good time to teach us an early lesson in commitment. We got on and after what seemed like an eternity of being bounced violently around in a dark planetarium, I got off with PTSD and an understanding of what kind of ride Space Mountain actually is.

Over 20 years later, I’m still cautious about theme parks and rollercoasters. Finding myself on a two-week vacation to Orlando, Florida I turned down Universal Studios for a slightly muddy walk around the Tibet-Butler Preserve and some face time with injured Gopher Tortoises.

gopher tortoise
tibet butler 2.jpg
tibet butler 3.jpg
tibet butler 4.jpg
tibet butler 5.jpg

But afterwards, I still got a piece of the Magic Kingdom, in a Styrofoam bowl of soft, creamy, sweetly-sour, pineapple Dole Whip.

Originally limited to Disney parks and the Dole Pineapple Plantation in Hawaii, it’s now available at Twistee Treats in Orlando and several other locations around the U.S. It’s a surprisingly vegan soft serve that doesn’t lack in creamy heft – I would have assumed there was some sort of dairy in it if I hadn’t been told otherwise – but light enough to be the kind of thing you’d want to eat all summer.

I am the kind of person who craves and/or fixates on some highly processed candy bar or food item for some indeterminate amount of time. I am also the kind of person who usually forgets about the food I’m craving after, at most, a couple of hours. After my pineapple Dole Whip experience at Island Fin Poke Company, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for over 48 hours. The question, “what do you want to do?” was usually answered with the words, “Dole Whip.”

dole whip 1
dole whip 2

Even after I’d hyped it in my head, my second cup still tasted just as delicious as the first. As I scraped the last smears of Dole Whip from the bottom of a Styrofoam bowl, I said that we should go back and order more. I was only sort of kidding.

That was nearly three days ago, and I’m leaving Orlando, once again, after having made a life-altering discovery.

Time to get more Dole Whip.

Ramenism: Kagari

Back when I was frantically training for nothing, I learned to hate baths. This made me even more unpopular with my family as my avoidance of soaking in pools of hot water somehow meant that we couldn’t go on vacations to any destination that involved an onsen. This essentially precluded all of Japan and anchored us to Tokyo, where I suspect we would all have preferred to stay, anyway.

I would have gladly gotten naked with strangers to sit in sulfurized water had baths not turned my legs into swollen, water logged sacks of plaster. Even a short dip would leave me feeling like those hot dogs offered by NYC street vendors, miserably bloated with suspiciously cloudy water. Rather than relaxed, I felt like a cheap ham that’s been injected with salt water euphemistically called brine.

food is happiness

Fortunately, in the years since my last bath, I’ve traded training for eating. When I finally caved to the abnormally cold weather this year and dipped a leg into a full bathtub, the only discomfort I experienced involved the rediscovery of the meaty excess of flesh on my body. Even then, the experience was generally enjoyable.

“Ahhh,” I thought, “this is nice.”

People often say things like “I could bathe in that,” with various edible liquids, or pretend to like pictures on Instagram of people consuming food while naked in a bath. Those statements are nearly always suspect, however, when you think of the logistics of actually following through. Kagari’s chicken paitan ramen, though, made me think twice about my own rules on mixing dead skin cells with things that are normally reserved for consumption through your mouth.

kagari
kagari kitchen

Located in Ginza station, the small, brightly lit counter at Kagari seats only eight, and its popularity means that there is always a substantial wait. Anticipating a line, I had brought a book, but as if to guarantee prolonged suffering, the faint scent of ramen would occasionally drift from the back of the shop. As if to heighten the anticipation, once a group of eight left the restaurant, the counter would be cleared, thoroughly wiped down, and chopsticks placed at each seat. The process takes approximately three minutes, and though it is one that displays obvious care, the routine can be torturous to watch for the starving.

An excruciating hour after I arrived, I was seated with a party of six tourists. Unlike most ramen spots, where you buy a ticket at a vending machine, a real person took my order off of a menu consisting of tori paitan soba (鶏白湯SOBA) and tori paitan gyokai tsukesoba (鶏白湯魚介SOBA) (this is the tsukemen version with a chicken and fish broth), with an option to add hot chili oil to either. Each person was also provided with a small dish of minced ginger and fried garlic, condiments that can be added to the ramen to taste. Minutes later, I was served my first bowl of chicken paitan ramen.

kagari chicken paitan ramen

Kagari’s regular chicken paitan ramen comes with two thin slices of chicken breast and some bright Japanese vegetables. Everything you are served both balances and complements the creamy let light broth: the noodles are on the thinner side, with just enough starchy chew, and the leanness of the chicken breast – which still manages to be impressively soft – provides a welcome contrast.

kagari ramen close up
kagari condiments

After eating half of the bowl unadulterated, I followed the instructions posted on the bar to add ginger, pepper, and vinegar. The condiments, added one at a time to taste, give the same ramen a twist. The ginger gives it a predictable kick, and the rice vinegar – my favorite – rounds out the broth with a refreshing, acidic tang.

I slurped through the rest of my ramen, feeling no shame that in a room full of tourists, I was the only one making any noise. I resisted the urge to recreate the water scene from Flashdance with the remaining broth, and paid at the back of the counter, leaving warm, happy, and sated.

Though I honestly wouldn’t bathe in it, I’d gladly give up baths for endless bowls of that chicken paitan ramen.

 

Kagari

4-1-2 Ginza Echika Fit

[Get out at Ginza station and walk towards Exit C1; you’ll see a line of people where Kagari is]

Open 11:00-23:00

Website

Ramenism: Fuunji

“The thing with ramen is,” a friend, a devoted yet reluctant ramen voyeur by virtue of being located in Germany, said, “it can look great in a photo, but taste like shit.”

He’s right, of course, but that truism applies to more than ramen. Since the introduction of the phrase “food porn,” hyper-saturated photos of indulgent casual food have – alarmingly, disappointingly – become the norm. The process of food photography has devolved into the following: select a close up of a juicy burger oozing cheese, add a runny egg, and then, to make it more blatantly sexually enticing, squeeze the crap out of it to induce maximum yolk flow for the ‘gram. Should a runny egg be unavailable, shoot a picture of a few burgers and varieties of loaded fries – enough to cause concern for the arterial and mental health of the eater – turn up the warmth on the photo, click “sharpen” a few times, and post. It’s the thottery of food photography, where food is no longer appetizing, but only notable for its off-putting excess.

Then there is the hype. That circle jerk of praise perpetuated by ignorance and expectations already swinging towards the positive, prior to the first bite. That’s not to say that customer reviews are worthless; just that often, they need to be taken with a teaspoon of salt.

I knew this, but when a friend told me he always takes friends to Fuunji for their tsukemen, I followed his advice. He was a real person, someone I trusted because he had lived in Tokyo for several years and had eaten his share of decent ramen. Google told me there was a perpetual line outside of Fuunji; could that many people be wrong in believing Fuunji was exceptional?

Apparently, yes.

fuunji tsukemen

Inching my way towards the door, I waited approximately an hour to be seated and served. The line usually continues from the door of Fuunji to the small park-like area across the street. Once inside the small restaurant, you buy a ticket at the machine, then line up behind the patrons behind served. You hand your ticket over to the girl behind the counter, tell her how many grams of noodles you’d like (200g or 300g), then wait some more.

fuunji the line
inside fuunji

The one thing you notice about Fuunji is that no one is eating ramen. Every single person is here for the tsukemen: cold ramen noodles served with a thick, rich, chicken-based dipping sauce that includes a small mound of dried smoked fish powder.

Anticipating gastronomic bliss with a punch of umami, I ordered the special tsukemen (特製つけ麺) with 200g of noodles. What I ended up choking down were noodles – appropriately thick and chewy – coated in room temperature grease and tasting mainly of salt. Though there are hints of fishy umami here – the special tsukemen also comes with a soy sauce marinated egg and thick slices of pork – the experience was incredibly underwhelming and practically nauseating. By the third bite, there isn’t much to the sauce other than an overwhelming and exhausting saltiness. I found myself trying to slurp up the least amount of the dipping sauce as I powered my way through the last of the noodles.

fuunji tsukemen
fuunji tsukemen dipping sauce

I didn’t bother thinning out the sauce to drink it down as any more salt would have probably killed me. I went home with a headache and a fear that I might throw up on the way home, in slight disbelief that people would call this “the best tsukemen I’ve ever had in Tokyo.” But, I get it; there is little subtlety in Fuunji’s tsukemen. Everything seems somehow heightened – the saltiness, the greasiness – which lends itself to be favored by those with more aggressive palates. Like Instagram thots, Fuunji presents an enticing-looking dish that turns out to be way too much.

Later, with a sufficiently settled stomach, I remembered that conversation with the ramen voyeur.

“Yeah,” I had said in response, “it’s like a relationship. You never know until you’re face deep in something and slurping things up.”

How true that is.

 

Fuunji

2-14-3 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku

(10min walk from Shinjuku Station South Exit)

Open: 11:00-15:00, 17:00-21:00, closed Sundays

Website

Ramenism: Aoba Nakano Honten

A few weeks ago, I found myself unwrapping a piece of chocolate at 9.38am, exactly 43 minutes after I had arrived at work.

It was the kind the thing that would normally make a person question the life choices that had led up to consuming a square of concentrated sugar, milk, and cocoa so soon after the start of a workday. It momentarily occurred to me that this was probably not a wise thing to do, that I should maybe opt for black coffee instead. Less than a second later, I popped the chocolate into my mouth and gulped it down, making a mental note of a new record low.

family mart coffee

I could tell you that it was a casual, adopted routine that had escalated from an afternoon treat to tempting diabetes. That it was fueled by stress and a lack of sleep, caffeine, fresh air, and exercise. Unfortunately, I seem to have retained an annoying self-awareness that I hold some agency in this matter. That I am consciously unwrapping various forms of sugar and voluntarily ingesting them in embarrassing quantities.

Though I wish I could absolve myself by saying that my weekends have been full of salads and things without sugar, salt, fat, and anything else that tastes good, gluttony apparently pairs well with sweatpants and slovenliness. When I haven’t been sick and living off orange juice (i.e., most of last month), I’ve been internalizing panic at my apathetic lack of motivation to do anything productive by devouring potato chips and donuts.

baumkuchen 2 (1).jpg

This weekend, though, I promised, would be different. I’d be better. Less sugar, less salt, less fat, less being a fatass all weekend.

So I went out for ramen.

I’d even done some research. Aoba (青葉) located in Nakano, was one train stop away and had both Michelin bib gourmande status and an instant ramen cup produced with Sanyo Foods. Should the line be overwhelmingly long, there were several other reputable ramen spots in the area. I packed my Kindle and hopped on the Chuo line.

aoba instant ramen

Ten minutes later, down a narrow alleyway off the main street, I purchased a ticket at the vending machine for a standard bowl of chuuka-soba (中華そば). Service is fast and the line, about 10 people deep by the time I got there (at around 1pm on a holiday afternoon), only resulted in a 10-minute wait. The line started outside the restaurant, but eventually I edged myself inside, to wait behind patrons already seated and dining around an L-shaped counter. Once inside, a woman asked how many were in my party and what I’d ordered. Five minutes later, I was seated, served and an active participant in the chorus of slurping that dominates Aoba.

aoba 8.JPG
aoba vending machine
line inside aoba
aoba ticket.JPG

Visually, the chuuka soba doesn’t look like much (the tokusei chuuka soba (特製中華そば) comes with a marinated, soft-boiled egg, and more cuts of chaa-su, making it look much more impressive). But the deceptively underwhelming visuals soon cease to matter. Aoba’s noodles are on the straighter side with a charactertistic texture that’s difficult to forget. Slippery on the outside, yet firm and chewy, the opposing textures make for an intriguing, and addictive, tactile experience. Similarly, while the broth is strongly fish-based – I could taste the dried sardines and bonito lingering in my mouth on the train ride home – there’s enough pork added to mellow it out. The result is soup that, when sipped, starts out almost thin and salty, then blossoms into a full-bodied, balanced broth. It was delicious.

aoba ramen

Though Aoba marries opposites beautifully, that happily doesn’t hold true for the chaa-shu (チャーシュー). The slice of pork that came with my ramen nearly fell apart when picked up with chopsticks. The fat instantly dissolved once it hit my tongue, but it was thick enough to require some chewing. It was chaa-shu – and ramen – done right.

It’s easy to be underwhelmed by Aoba. The shop is small and simple, there is no hour-plus wait, and the ramen doesn’t look particularly impressive. But perhaps its deceptiveness is part of its allure; Aoba looks like a standard, cheap ramen place, but serves an incredibly well-crafted bowl of ramen. It may not blow you away, but it easily sets a high standard for the ramen-curious novice.

The fish and pork broth also make for ramen that’s on the lighter side. A standard-sized bowl will hit the spot, but won’t leave you bloated with grease and salt, regretting the last 24 hours for the next 48. Which means you have room to indulge in more ramen. Or, as in my case, in an attempt to stay true to my promise to eat somewhat better this past weekend, more cookies.

 

Aoba Nakano Honten

5-58-1 Nakano

Open: 10:30 to 21:00 (every day)

Website

Sunday Bake Shop

I hit the gym early last week for the first time in 18 months. It felt awful.

It wasn’t the inability to lift any significant weight, the fact that I couldn’t sit without screaming for two days, or the sudden, crushing need to go to bed at 8pm. It wasn’t even the blow to my ego.

For reasons that still elude, I’ve always loved lifting at the gym. The strategic lighting that does the impossible – making invisible muscles suddenly pop and evening out sleepy skin tone without concealer, foundation, whatever – and the music of clanging plates had been a kind of sanctuary. Humming with adrenaline in the power rack, I couldn’t believe I’d left this place for so long, how fearful I’d been to crawl back.

Happy in a way I haven’t been here in Tokyo, I hit legs twice last week. “Noob move,” Josh said after I told him I did squats and deadlifts on my first day back, “I wish you were here so I could punch you in the quads.” He was right. I spent half of yesterday – my second heavy leg day in the same week – sprawled motionless on my bed, sweating and feeling clammy at the same time, tired but restless and nauseous. The stress of a few pathetic deadlifts had also touched an emotional nerve that felt intensely raw. I cried for no reason, then promptly passed out.

Through it all – the overloaded CNS manifested in utter exhaustion and a mini meltdown – I remembered a particular berry crumble cake. I remembered the chewy oats, the soft crumb of a sweet, cinnamon-scented cake contrasted against the tartness of berries, the shortbread-like bottom crust. I couldn’t move, but I would have walked to Sunday Bake Shop again if it had been open.

Open on Sunday and somewhat inexplicably on Wednesday, I’d trekked over there with my sister-in-law last week. An adorable space tucked away in Hatsudai, a long table greets customers, laden with brownies, pound cakes, carrot cupcakes, perfect cheesecakes, and small mountains of scones. The open kitchen in the back lends a view to the entire process, where trays of pastries come out of ovens and on that day, a focaccia was being prepared. Seating is limited, but the espresso machine entices lingering over baked goods with friends.

We headed home with two boxes of deliciousness. The carrot cupcakes disappeared before I got a taste, but I inhaled half of the berry crumble cake later that day. I’m still thinking about it.

“You should have tried that carrot cupcake,” my sister-in-law said a few days ago. I probably should have. Maybe after my next leg day.

 

Sunday Bake Shop

1-58-7 Honmachi

Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-00071

Map and website