Ramen are an essential part of the culinary culture in Japan and vary from region to region, resulting in the ramen that you can eat in the southern city of Hakata tasting vastly different from those in Fukushima, just south of Miyagi. Some styles, especially those that are considered regional in the larger sense, might also find their way into other regions far away from home, where they are then regarded as somewhat exotic. While the basic composition is similar (either a salt or miso base), chefs tend to get very creative with the toppings and the tuning of their dishes – as well as the noodles themselves, of course.
Sendai also has its very own ramen heroes that have carved their path out over the years. The soLaLa Building, not so far from Sendai station, houses some of these heroes on the first floor.
Already from the outside, the ramen restaurant known under the name Tairan emits a somewhat unusual atmosphere, with a zebra that welcomes guests standing next to the entrance, and posters of the staff posing as politicians covering a large part of the glass panels that reach all the way from the ground to the ceiling.
Upon entering the restaurant dipped in a warm orange light and after an equally warm welcome by Takuya Nonaka, nicknamed Non, guests are guided to their tables or the counter, form where they can let their eyes wander through the restaurant. There is a lot to see here, too much for a single visit. Lots of odd little details and trinkets make the time until an order arrives fly by in an instant.
Tairan is a set of two ramen restaurants, one of which is located close to Sendai station, and the second in Izumi Chuo, the northern end of the Sendai subway line. The main branch in Izumi Chuo can already look back on a proud history of 17 years, while the Sendai station branch is now in its seventh year.
The original founder, Taro Mochizuki, is lovingly called “General” by his team. He still swooshes through the kitchen himself to prepare orders that are thrown at him in the energetic voices of his staff. Things can get very busy at times, and it is not unusual to wait for a seat to open. However, there do not seem to be any plans for a further expansion at the moment, even though a mysterious New York branch is noted on the website.
The menu is big and sturdy, a few sheets of paper held together by wooden panels carrying Tairan’s emblem, five eggplants arranged in a circle. The actual selection is straightforward – two pages covering the main dishes, one page with the side dishes and drinks. The rest of the pages in the menu are long letters from the staff with introductions of themselves and their history with Tairan.
Opening up is not a one-sided one process here. As one means to interact with its customers, diaries are laid out onto some tables for anybody to leave a comment in. Contents range from a simple praise of the food to artistic expressions of dumbfounding grandeur. Flipping through the pages, it becomes apparent that next to customers from the region, people from far away – perhaps on business trips – also like to drop by when they make it to Sendai.
Tairan is famous for its “Ushanmen”, ramen dipped in a mildly spicy sauce including eggplant, thinly cut pork stripes and chives. “Ushan” and two more dishes can also be ordered as a Yakisoba version or together with rice. Depending on which cook is standing behind the large stove, the spiciness changes slightly, giving repeating customers the chance to try out different settings of noodles.
Next to the regular menu, guests can also try out the limited edition ramen that makes an appearance every month, garnered with seasonal ingredients such as tomato, mushroom and even crab. In order to come up with the following month’s edition, the staff puts its heads together during the less busy work hours, tries out a number of recipes and, once they are satisfied, presents the General with their creation. With his approval, it is decided. Otherwise, it’s back to the chopping board.
The wall at the counter of the restaurant is lined with certificates. Each one is complete with a staff member’s picture, stating that they are qualified to make Chinese dumplings, or gyoza. The path leading up to this point is long and full of individual battles, with no handholding whatsoever. The staff members have to just keep on rolling, rolling, rolling those gyoza until they figure out the trick themselves. For the examination, Takuya Mamase prepared 25 of them in just over 6 ½ minutes.
Next to gyoza, the side menu includes sliced pork in a sweetish sauce topped off with chives called “Char Siu” as well as tofu covered in a VERY spicy red sauce and garnered with thinly cut cucumber, called “She She”, or “Thank You” in Chinese. How fitting – thank you for some spice in our lives.
For special occasions such as TV coverage, the anniversary events held in November and December or an occasional visit by Google Maps, the staff even has a designated costume to slip into, and yes, of course it is a giant eggplant. The original idea came from the General, and the restaurants have held onto the costumes ever since. Curious readers can follow this link to see what that looks like. The exposition has helped Tairan to become somewhat of a famous location – many people from Sendai will at least have heard of its name. A counter over the register informs everybody how many portions of Ushanmen have already been served.
If all the small little details and the undeniable affection towards its customers that shows in the picture collages decorating the walls of the restaurant do not make you want to visit again, Tairan has one final ace up its sleeve, the “Nasu Kosaku Card” or “The Eggplant Cultivation Card”. Customers get one stamp every 700 yen and receive little presents at certain checkpoints, including for example coupons for a free main dish, stickers and even a T-shirt. There are 18 cards in total with a special reward if someone clears all of them – a pictures of that person is framed and put up on the wall. Together with the diaries and other pictures of customers, they create a beautiful lineage of the Tairan family.
11:30 - 15:30 and 17:45 - 21:45
soLaLa Building 1F, Aoba Ward, Kakyoin 1-2-15, 980-0013 Sendai