This is a bowl of ramen whose spice level goes up to 20. But your mouth won’t feel a thing.
I’m a great fan of Anonymous Paul, part of the triumvirate over at the great website Table For Three, Please, one of the few local food blogs I read. I admire Paul’s photography skills and his talent as a jewelry designer – one day, I’m going to buy one of his pieces and match it with a killer outfit and heels.
What I value most about Paul (aside from the fact that he’s a loyal DCF reader) are his food recommendations. He manages to sniff out these finds and then he promptly tells me about them. Now that’s my definition of a friend!
Urameshi-Ya is one of Paul’s finds. “Lori, there’s this place in Little Tokyo that serves ramen,” his text goes. “And you can choose the spice level you want.”
Spice level. Ah, now there’s something I can take on. Having grown up in Indonesia, my spice threshold is a lot higher than the average person’s. So the idea of a bowl of ramen with adjustable spice levels cranks my excitement up somewhere into the stratosphere.
As a restaurant, Urameshi-Ya is very Japanese, that is – utilitarian and sectioned in private partitions with the gratuitous bookshelf bulging with Japanese manga books. My sidekick K, and I remove our shoes before we crouch and sit on cushion-lined benches at a table with a waiting and ready brazier for cooking yakiniku (Korean-style cook-it-yourself meats), which is really what Urameshi-Ya specializes in.
So on the menu, the acclaimed or dreaded – depending on one’s outlook – 20 spice-level ramen is given rather desultory treatment: Level 1 ~ Level 20 (P280). There are no red flags, no warning signs (HOT! HOT!), nothing of the sort.
I ask the server what spice level she recommends for a regular chili-head like myself. “4, ma’am,” is the surprising reply. My jaw involuntarily drops and I hear it hit the table with a dull thunk. 4? Just 4??! Thus ensues some negotiating and quibbling on my part – my machismo just will not take a Level 4 sitting down – what am I, a wimp? Hmph. To her credit, the server remains calm all throughout. I assume she’s had much experience with egos saturated with capsaicin, hotheads like myself who see a Level 20 as a chance to bring it on.
And when the bowl of Level 4 ramen is indeed brought on, I must say that my much-vaunted ego takes a bruising, just on looks alone. This sucker looks scary. K and I simultaneously lean over the bowl and peer down. A venerable wave of silence passes between us.
Finally, I say something. “What color would you call that? Fiery red?”
K, who is as much of a lover of words as I am, replies, “Persimmon.”
“Florid,” I murmur thoughtfully then wave my hand dismissively. “Forget fiery, this looks furious, K!” She grins.
The rather benign-sounding “Level 4,” looks anything but. Coils of yellow soba tangled in threads of cooked egg hold up little hills of chili powder, vermilion grains vanishing, sinking under soup. This dish is ammunition, an ignition to start mouth fires and incite heated thoughts.
Or so I hope.
In reality, this dish is a dud, spice-wise. Though my brain circuits have practically overloaded from the visions I have of myself wet with sweat and breathing fire because of “Level 4,” there’s no fire in this visual inferno. Don’t get me wrong, the broth is good, a syncopation of salt and umami, but it’s quickly overshadowed by the chili powder. I’d like to say that it’s shichimi togarashi, the seven-flavor chili pepper mix made ubiquitous by the S&B brand but it’s not. In taste, it’s more like raw paprika with a bite of heat in back. When I ask the server to bring my soup up to Level 6, she just brings me more of the powder.
But more isn’t often better. When added to the soup, the powder only succeeds in thickening the broth but is a futile attempt to douse my desire for fire. Soon, I’ve got what K calls a “ramen stew” because the chili powder has sucked up all the liquid. I soon ditch my soup spoon and eat the rest with chopsticks. This is spice for sissies.
Urameshi-Ya has other “no-level” ramens, just straight-up soups for the more straightforward: syouyou (soyu or soy sauce), sio (salt), and miso (all P200) which is what K has. Hot and full of delightful little things like bean sprouts, chopped leeks, and kernels of corn, it’s a milder version of the miso ramen that the Ramen Nazi serves at Ukokkei.
It’s the sesame seeds and grains of salt that really make this pork pop.
I recommend trying the yakiniku specialties since Urameshi-Ya does them so well. I especially like the buta bara (pork belly; P400) that K and I have great fun grilling. When I’m in the mood for it, I really enjoy at-table cooking; there’s nothing like the spiritedness it evokes with people who appreciate food as much as I do. If you get the buta bara, grill it – don’t overcook! and then spritz some of the lemon juice on it. The pork’s seasoning plays off the citrus tang quite nicely followed by the eye-rolling intoxication that only pork belly can produce.
Now I’ve got to get to Paul, my fellow chili-head, and arrange for us to go to Urameshi-Ya so we can attack Level 20 together.
Urameshi-ya Yakiniku Restaurant
2277 between Pasong Tamo and Amorsolo Streets (across Makati Cinema Square) Makati
02 813 2210
Another restaurant in Little Tokyo:
Kagura, a cute little okonomiyaki place