Food Report: Baikōken (Asahikawa)

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One can’t fail to be impressed by Japan’s knack for making culinary combinations that might seem daft at first – and I mean downright lunatic – yet end up working beautifully in the end.

Like wasabi-flavoured Kit-Kats, for example.

Or like miso-flavoured rāmen with a pat of butter and some corn thrown in.

OVERVIEW

Name? Baikōken (梅光軒).

Speciality? Rāmen.

Where? Basement floor of the Piazza building, about three or four blocks north of JR Asahikawa Station. Tabelog‘s map marker is right on the money.

Operating hours? Tabelog has 11:00-15:30 and 17:00-21:00 Mon-Sat, 17:00-20:30 Sun/hols. This differs from the official website, which simply lists 11:00-21:00. Irregular closing days.

How much? 700-1,000 yen for a bowl of rāmen. Half-size portions are available, but at more than half the price (500-850 yen). Extra toppings are available for 100-150 yen.

English menu? Yes – and there are pictures as well which should help make ordering easier.

Links? Tabelog has a comprehensive write-up on the store, including an accurate map – though it helps if you know a little Japanese. TripAdvisor has a few English-language reviews, but their map is so far off the mark it’s not even funny; for directions you’d be well advised to stick to Tabelog. (I sure hope there’s at least another Baikōken branch near that TripAdvisor marker, otherwise what on earth is it doing there?!) The chain’s official website (in Japanese) is here.

DIEGO’S EXPERIENCE

After spending part of the morning at the Asahibashi site of the Asahikawa Fuyu Matsuri, I decided that a nice early lunch was in order before I finished exploring the open-air ice sculpture gallery lining the Heiwa-dōri shopping street. Apart from feeling peckish, the weather was bitterly cold – no surprise as it was winter in the city that holds Japan’s all-time low-temperature record – and my veins were crying out for an urgent infusion of piping-hot nourishment.

At Asahikawa Station, I dropped by the tourist information office and mentioned to one of the staff that I’d like to try the local speciality, Asahikawa-style rāmen.

She pulled out a list of restaurants and circled one entry. It’s a good place, she said, but it’s quite popular and always crowded. I thanked her for the suggestion and set off towards the place, map in hand and appetite at the ready.

A few blocks north of the station, I came upon the Piazza building . . .

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. . . and saw a bright red banner just outside the entrance.

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Mm, they’ve been around for a while – the top line says they were established in the 44th year of the Shōwa era (1969).

So . . . whilst men were tramping about the moon for the first time in history (giant money-draining leap for mankind and all that but of no direct relevance to me), some diligent chap in a quiet corner of Hokkaidō was busy whipping up the first bowl of Baikōken rāmen.

I think I know which event I’d rather raise a commemorative ice sculpture to.

Down to the dark basement level, where a bright yellow sign reminded me why I was there . . .

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. . . and a simpler nameplate over a curtained doorway beckoned visitors over the threshold.

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A brief wait for an empty space, then an attendant directs me to take the only vacant seat in sight. A longer wait follows, this time for my camera lens to defog before I could take the first pictures. It had just spent hours in below-zero temperatures and wouldn’t stop misting over in the warm, steamy confines of the restaurant – which would explain shots like these.

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Much of the restaurant’s fairly small acreage was taken up by an open kitchen, surrounded on two sides by a red-painted counter with stools. Small tables filled the space between the counter and the walls, which were decorated with square cards autographed by some of the shop’s more famous patrons.

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One doesn’t really need much to enjoy a good bowl of rāmen – a few simple condiments, a pitcher of water, some paper napkins and disposable chopsticks.

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I do miss those individual place-shields at Ichiran, though. As a somewhat anti-social lad who values his privacy, I felt quite badly exposed here.

Let’s have a look at the menu.

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Now my mission for the day was to enjoy Asahikawa-style rāmen, and I’d already done a bit of pre-trip reading in order to know exactly what to ask for when I got the chance. Alas, due to cause or causes unknown (brain frozen over, perhaps?), by the time I sat down I had completely forgotten what Asahikawa-style rāmen was. Was it the one with the shōyu broth? Or the shio? Perhaps the miso?

In the end, with one thing in my addled mind getting mixed up with another, I chose an 850-yen bowl of rāmen in miso-based soup with butter and corn on top. (Due to the misting problem I mentioned earlier, it took a while before I managed to take a shot and much of the butter pat had melted away; it should look bigger in a freshly served bowl.)

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So, did I hit the mark?

Umm, no. Not even close. But thanks to a marvellous set of coincidences, what I actually ended up with is the perfect bowl of Sapporo-style rāmen.

It shouldn’t have been this hard. If I’d paid more attention to the menu (I claim the excuse of brain freeze for not doing so), I would have noticed the big red Osusume!! (“Recommended!”) stamp over the picture on the lower-left corner, featuring the image of a 1,000-yen bowl of rāmen in a soy-sauce broth.

That’s right – Asahikawa-style rāmen is made with shōyu. Sapporo’s is made with miso. The middle-column options in the menu, with shio-based soups, are proper to Hakodate.

Ugh, rookie mistake. But no worries, at least I didn’t accidentally end up with Hakata-style rāmen from far-off Fukuoka: a sublimely delicious variant, in fact probably my all-time favourite, but considering my present location and my mission to enjoy local cuisine it would have been laughably inappropriate, geographically speaking.

In any case, Sapporo’s just an hour and a half away by train so it’s not like we’re that far off the mark. (Again, geographically speaking.) Let’s move on and tuck in.

The noodles.

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Compared with the wire-thin, firm and straight noodles used for Hakata rāmen, these are a bit thicker, a little softer, and more wavy in shape – reminiscent of the type one gets in standard store-bought instant rāmen packs. That’s not to say that these are of lesser quality, far from it . . . they’re just different, and where my food is concerned I actually appreciate experiencing a bit of variety.

The soup was good, though it doesn’t rank quite as high as tonkotsu broth in my rāmen book. The miso was certainly a nice touch, but it (paired with the soup base) didn’t really pack as much character and flavour as the stuff that Hakata rāmen comes with, at least in the Ichiran chain.

What “made” the dish for me were the seemingly insignificant additions that came on top of the bowl; namely, the butter and the corn. The presence of these not-particularly Japanese ingredients might seem rather odd at first, but I’d say it worked out in the end. The butter added a special richness to each mouthful of noodles that passed through that delicate golden layer floating on top of the soup, and the corn kernels – with their mild sweetness – introduced a contrasting taste and texture that gave the dish a bit more depth. I liked it so much that I’ve resolved to occasionally add butter (and even corn, when it’s available) to the otherwise mundane packs of instant rāmen that I whip up for myself now and then when I’m too lazy to cook anything more complicated.

By the time I bundled up into my winter armour and prepared to head back to the freezing outdoors, the wisdom of an early lunch became frightfully manifest in the form of a queue that had begun to form just outside the entrance.

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Worry not, good people – your meal will be well worth the wait.

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3 responses to “Food Report: Baikōken (Asahikawa)

  1. Pingback: Field Report: Asahikawa (08 February 2014) | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Food Report: Ezokko (Sapporo) | Within striking distance·

  3. Pingback: Food Report: Ezokko (Sapporo) | Within striking distance·

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