eating like a pro: ramen at nagi golden gai

“Ramen for lunch?” I texted. I know I didn’t even have to put a question mark at the end of that statement, but I like to keep up the façade that maybe I can be accommodating to other people’s preferences. In this case, as I was talking to a gastronomical twin, it was wholly unnecessary. An enthusiastic response was sent back and plans to meet in Shinjuku promptly made.

Though Japan is often equated with both sushi and ramen, the problem with the latter is that, unlike sushi, you can’t just follow the [Michelin] stars. Whole books and blogs are devoted to the subject of ramen in Tokyo, which makes choosing just one place a bit overwhelming. On top of that, when you’re on limited time in Tokyo, you want something that consistently delivers but isn’t so famous you can get it in New York. I’d heard enough about Ramen Nagi to assume that this would fit the bill.

Despite its location in Golden Gai, a small area in Shinjuku crammed with tiny bars [including a favorite of Tarantino], I wasn’t quite ready for how cramped the space really was. Behind a simple door, a wall of a tiny staircase leads up to a ticket vending machine, where you make a selection and hand the tickets to the guys behind the counter. The restaurant [if it can really be called that] is narrow enough to demand the creative use of space: customers’ backs are almost against a wall of cardboard boxes and tissue boxes are suspended from the top of the bar. When Adam and I were called up from the alley where we were instructed to wait, I was directed to a seat next to a giant bag of rice, some empty bottles, and a keg. Adam tried to squeeze his legs under the ledge that served as the table. It didn’t work very well but at the very least, he wasn’t seated next to anyone else.

In minutes, though, we had two giant bowls of noodles to distract us from our seating situation. We’d ordered the standard ramen, plus an order of tsukemen. Tsukemen – the new noodle dish darling of Tokyo – consists of cold ramen noodles that are served with a concentrated version of regular ramen broth. The noodles are dipped into the broth before being eaten. It’s different from ramen, but equally good.

Probably because the ramen at Nagi Golden Gai is very good. Chewy, curly-edged noodles are served in a dense broth with a thick cut of pork, a few sheets of seaweed, and a marinated, soft-boiled egg. It’s the kind of food you can’t hate and hits that gastronomical trifecta of comforting, filling, and “holy shit, that’s good.” It’s the ideal bowl of sustenance to take the edge off a night of binge drinking in Golden Gai, or simply a good, cheap lunch with a favorite friend.

I can’t quite remember what we talked about after our bowls of deliciousness arrived, probably because I was too busy enthusiastically slurping noodles [while Adam ate like a normal, well-mannered human being]. When I finally came up for air because there was nothing left to eat, I mentioned that I was surprised that no one had recognized Adam. He shrugged in response as we edged our way towards the stairway, squeezed between a wall of boxes and the customers lined along the bar.

A guy sitting at the counter looked up briefly at me as we passed, before turning towards Adam: “Are you Adam Hansen?” he asked.

We looked at each other in mutual surprise and disbelief at the serendipitous timing of the question.

Adam shook hands with the guy before we stumbled down the steep staircase, laughing at what had just happened. Soon we were back on the street, headed back into Tokyo to continue eating like a pro.