Serious Eats: Nagi Golden Gai

nagi_tsukemen_640_7932Charged recently with the responsibility of finding one unique ramen restaurant out of thousands in Tokyo, my research led me to Nagi Golden Gai. There are five Nagi restaurants in Tokyo (and two in Hong Kong), each with a different concept.

It was the style of ramen and the location that attracted me. As I was staying in the popular Shinjuku area, it was an easy and interesting walk to Golden Gai through Kabukicho—the entertainment and red light district. The Golden Gai district lies within Kabukicho and feels like old world Tokyo, with narrow alleys full of old houses that were once brothels and are now primarily bars.

The Nagi Golden Gai experience is fascinating—from the walk up and down the stairs, to the wait for a call through a tube, to the two types of noodles and the unique broth made with niboshi—dried baby sardines. With just ten counter seats in cramped quarters, you’ll be rubbing elbows with your neighbors. Order interesting sides like chicken skin in ponzu or collagen-filled tonsoku (pig’s foot), and your counter space will be full—especially if you’re dipping your noodles tsukemen-style. (I highly recommend it.)

Nagi by day and by night. Night is especially intriguing in historic Golden Gai, with its alleys full of tiny bars. Ramen is perfect after a night of drinking. Nagi Golden Gai is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch is non-smoking), and then 6 p.m. until 5 a.m., except Sunday nights, when it closes "early" at 2 a.m. (It's completely closed the third Sunday night of each month.)

Nagi by day and by night. Night is especially intriguing in historic Golden Gai, with its alleys full of tiny bars. Ramen is perfect after a night of drinking. Nagi Golden Gai is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (lunch is non-smoking), and then 6 p.m. until 5 a.m., except Sunday nights, when it closes “early” at 2 a.m. (It’s completely closed the third Sunday night of each month.)

Nagi Golden Gai is on the second floor, so you need to ascend the steep steps to the ticket machine. Choose your ramen, sides, and drinks, then pay and get your tickets. You'll have to go back down the steps and wait outside until they call you through the black tube (seen in the previous photo).

Nagi Golden Gai is on the second floor, so you need to ascend the steep steps to the ticket machine. Choose your ramen, sides, and drinks, then pay and get your tickets. You’ll have to go back down the steps and wait outside until they call you through the black tube (seen in the previous photo).

When you're called back up, you'll get one of the ten counter seats. If you understand Japanese, there's all kinds of information about the food that you can read. On the counter you'll find everything you need for your meal, including chopsticks, water, soy sauce, vinegar, spice powder, and toothpicks. Ask and you can get sansho rayu. This chili oil, spiked with numbing and earthy sansho peppercorns, will be a good complement to the bitter ramen broth.

When you’re called back up, you’ll get one of the ten counter seats. If you understand Japanese, there’s all kinds of information about the food that you can read. On the counter you’ll find everything you need for your meal, including chopsticks, water, soy sauce, vinegar, spice powder, and toothpicks. Ask and you can get sansho rayu. This chili oil, spiked with numbing and earthy sansho peppercorns, will be a good complement to the bitter ramen broth.

Not immediately in sight at the counter are the tissues. Look up. They're hanging from above. You'll want some, especially if it's a hot day, as eating hot ramen in tight quarters will make you sweat.

Not immediately in sight at the counter are the tissues. Look up. They’re hanging from above. You’ll want some, especially if it’s a hot day, as eating hot ramen in tight quarters will make you sweat.

One of the chefs measures out a noodle order on the scale. If you order regular ramen (soup), you'll get 200 grams of noodles. But if you want tsukemen (noodles that you dip in broth that's served lukewarm on the side), the ticket machine will show options of 300 or 400 grams for the same price. Choose what you like, though note that women may be asked if they prefer a more dainty 200 grams. And if that's that not enough noodles, heavyweight ramen eaters can order more: large (+100 grams) or extra-large (+200 grams).

One of the chefs measures out a noodle order on the scale. If you order regular ramen (soup), you’ll get 200 grams of noodles. But if you want tsukemen (noodles that you dip in broth that’s served lukewarm on the side), the ticket machine will show options of 300 or 400 grams for the same price. Choose what you like, though note that women may be asked if they prefer a more dainty 200 grams. And if that’s that not enough noodles, heavyweight ramen eaters can order more: large (+100 grams) or extra-large (+200 grams).

Nagi Golden Gai is all about the niboshi broth. (In fact, a sign outside says "If you don't like niboshi, please don't come in.") Niboshi are dried baby sardines, and they combine with chicken to make a bitter but delicious shoyu (soy sauce) broth. Niboshi is what makes this restaurant unique.

Nagi Golden Gai is all about the niboshi broth. (In fact, a sign outside says “If you don’t like niboshi, please don’t come in.”) Niboshi are dried baby sardines, and they combine with chicken to make a bitter but delicious shoyu (soy sauce) broth. Niboshi is what makes this restaurant unique.

Next to the scale is a big bowl full of perfectly cooked eggs. Behind, the chef prepares an order. The wall describes how the ramen is made and gives information about how to best enjoy the ramen.

Next to the scale is a big bowl full of perfectly cooked eggs. Behind, the chef prepares an order. The wall describes how the ramen is made and gives information about how to best enjoy the ramen.

Next to the scale is a big bowl full of perfectly cooked eggs. Behind, the chef prepares an order. The wall describes how the ramen is made and gives information about how to best enjoy the ramen.

Next to the scale is a big bowl full of perfectly cooked eggs. Behind, the chef prepares an order. The wall describes how the ramen is made and gives information about how to best enjoy the ramen.

Here is an order of tsukemen, with an egg (900 yen, or about $11.20). I ordered 400 grams. Note that, as with their hot ramen, there are actually two types of noodles. In addition to the thick round noodles, there's a small portion of wide, tagliatelle-type noodles that are starting to approach the size of lasagna sheets. Behind is the niboshi dipping sauce, which contains cubes of pork.

Here is an order of tsukemen, with an egg (900 yen, or about $11.20). I ordered 400 grams. Note that, as with their hot ramen, there are actually two types of noodles. In addition to the thick round noodles, there’s a small portion of wide, tagliatelle-type noodles that are starting to approach the size of lasagna sheets. Behind is the niboshi dipping sauce, which contains cubes of pork.

Here's a look at the interior of the restaurant. Seating is right across from the chefs, and especially when it's full (this was a rare moment with some empty seats), it gets warm inside. With boxes and other items in every conceivable space, it's quite a cozy restaurant.

Here’s a look at the interior of the restaurant. Seating is right across from the chefs, and especially when it’s full (this was a rare moment with some empty seats), it gets warm inside. With boxes and other items in every conceivable space, it’s quite a cozy restaurant.

Given all the noodles, I can't believe I ate the whole thing. And why not? You won't find this type of ramen in America.

Given all the noodles, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. And why not? You won’t find this type of ramen in America.

Nagi Golden Gai

G2 street, 2F
Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 1-1-10 (map)
n-nagi.com

(Originally published at Serious Eats on May 23.)

 

 

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