After little deliberation we all settled on the curiously-named "Dinner Set D." There was also an E, which came with soda instead of beer, yet we were unable to find sets A through C... hmmm. This combination included a bowl of ramen, a side order of gyoza, your choice of "special of the day", and a beer. Now ordinarily a special of the day is one item, but Hakata had four or five to choose from. Initially we all went for the octopus sashimi with wasabi, but our helpful waiter suggested we all get different dishes and share. Our other choices consisted of spicy shark cartilage, fish ball tempura, or potato salad. Being the adventurous types that we are, we decided to forego the potato salad and went directly to the cartilage and fish ball. I think our waiter did a double take when he looked over what all of us white boys had just ordered.
At this point we thought our ordering process was finally complete.. but we were just getting started. When ordering ramen, you have a number of options available for customizing your meal. From noodle firmness to broth strength and oil content, it's easy to get it "just right." Since none of us had really done this before we just went right down the middle with all the settings.
Within a few minutes, our beers (nice big bottles of asahi) and strange appetizers arrived. We're all pretty adventurous as food goes, but some of this stuff was a bit of a stretch. The octopus had a texture not unlike rubber bands, but was quite tasty with a bit of a wasabi kick. The tempura fish balls were delicious, almost like a japanese fish and chips with a different texture. The spicy shark cartilage, however, was a different story. It was very strongly flavored, and a bit hard to chew. As we've said before about uni-- once you get past the texture, the taste is awful. Ok, maybe that's a little harsh... but I'll put this on the list of "japanese foods I won't be ordering again soon". Our gyoza followed the weird appetizer parade. They were fairly small, and quite tasty.
The steaming bowls of ramen arrived not long afterwards. If a four-for-a-dollar dehydrated brick with a flavor packet is the only way you've experienced ramen, I highly recommend trying out the real deal at a noodle house. The noodles are about the same, but that's where the similarity ends. The broth was very bold and thick, and the sliced pork gave it a nice touch. I would have liked some more meat in the bowl, but it was still delicious. We soon became aware of the fact that our waiter had slowly been inching his way over to our table, watching us with a certain degree of interest. As I looked up, he smiled and said "how do you guys know how to use chopsticks so well? I think you know better than some japanese people." We all explained that we eat lots of sushi and pho and things of that nature, so we've had lots of practice.
One of the other fun parts of going out for ramen is the ability to ge a "refill" of noodles for about a dollar. Hakata takes this idea to the next level though- they have a contest to see how many refills you can eat! Once you pass the 6 refill mark, you enter the "hall of fame" and get your picture put up on the wall. A close examination of the current champs shows not a single gaijin in the lot... and we made the decision to remedy this as soon as possible. I'm not sure I will be able to eat that much ramen!
So, that's about it. If you're in the HB area I highly recommend giving hakata ramen a try. You can have a bowl of noodles for around $6, but the sky's the limit... our fully featured meal ran us about $20 a person for appetizers, beer, and ramen.