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