Keizo Shimamoto personifies hustle. Like most entrepreneurs, his work never really ends. There are always new opportunities to seek, current ones to manage, and past ones to wind down. At the pace he moves, if you look away for a moment, Keizo is already a few steps further than you remember. The content of this post is now ancient history, but it captures a moment in the midst of this kinetic process that speaks to his passion for craft and attention to the experience he creates for guests. My daughter Mei and I had stopped in New York on a visit to the US to catch up with family and run a few errands. The timing was fortuitous, as this Saturday in late March was the last weekend for Keizo’s Ramen Shack pop-up at the 2016 Smorgasburg Winter Market, which was located at Industry City in Sunset Park that season.
We’ve been up since about sunrise, still shaking off jetlag, and arrive before the official opening time for the market. An organizer stops us as we try to slip in the door. I do my best Jedi hand wave and tell him that “we’re with Keizo”, which is good enough for him to let us continue on our way. Though we’re hungry already on account of an early breakfast, it’s around ten o’clock in the morning, so the ramen isn’t ready yet. Keizo is a gracious host and lets us loiter around the side of the kitchen to watch preparation work.
The first test bowl is ready.
The wooden yatai (mobile food stall) Keizo built has traveled around various indoor and outdoor venues over the past few years. This is its last appearance as a pop-up shop. (After this event, the yatai took up permanent residence at Go Ramen Go Life, Keizo’s own kitchen and base-of-operations in Long Island City. A smaller one has been built for subsequent pop-up use.)
We check out the flea market while ramen work continues—
—though before long end up back at the yatai, along with Keizo’s other fans, planning to be first in line as lunch time arrives.
As we sit and wait for our bowls, the significance of Keizo’s choice of a yatai becomes apparent. Compared with other food stalls at Smorgasburg, which are almost all takeaway sales, the small seating area of a yatai pulls you right up to the chef’s work table, along with other diners, and the noren behind you enclose everyone in an intimate space. Fukuoka’s yatai are celebrated as exemplars of this culture of shared experiences. Though their numbers are dwindling, yatai are still found throughout cities in Japan.
Mei and I both choose the day’s special offering, a tonkotsu tsukemen.
The toppings include a decadent spread of chicken, pork and beef chashu, Keizo’s parting gift to ramen fans on this final weekend. But below the flashy exterior, the fundamentals of the tsukemen show how much of Keizo’s extensive survey of ramen styles, training and practical experience during his time as a deshi and then tenchō in Japan have been borne out in these bowls, and how lucky New York is to have him there. The noodles are made locally, according to a recipe learned from one of his mentors, good and toothy. The tsukedare blends a dense tonkotsu stock with shoyu and fish products for an intense and complex flavor that, while par for the course in Japan, is still a rare find in the US. But even in Japan, the artisan methods and high-quality ingredients would differentiate Keizo’s offerings among the large market of standard fare, that’s how good it is. This is a real treasure.