Review: Szechuan Aun, Yushima – Tantanmen

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“It’s like hanging out with a junkie. You’re already planning your next hit.”

My friend was surveying me with disbelief. I wasn’t paying him much attention though because I was bouncing on and off the pavement, and doing mini star jumps.

The cause of my happiness? Some really good noodles. What else?

As a matter of fact, I had eaten at Aun more than a year ago and had been itching to go back ever since. The anticipation – combined with the fact that I generally adore tantanmen – had elevated my mood to levels probably beyond that of normal human beings. I was also deliriously babbling about trying to go back the next day to eat more. Hence the druggie comparisons. I needed my next hit.

Aun (full name: Szechuan Tantanmen Aun) is just a couple of minutes’ walk from Yushima station – although they have two other outposts at Asakusa and Kitaurawa. The inside has some dark wooden and errs on the stylish end of noodle joints. The outside is fairly plain but you may see a tell-tale sign of its popularity – a temporary barrier for the queue, or a queue itself!

Sure enough, we arrived to find a small queue outside. Don’t be put off. Good noodle joints almost always have queues in Japan. Secondly, the staff seemed to be exceptionally slow at turning the tables round when we visited so there may be empty tables inside. I got inside to find almost all of the tables empty and even a space or two at the counter. Maybe the chef isn’t able to keep up with demand?

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The menu is fairly straightforward as they focus on tantanmen – noodles covered in sesame paste and chilli oil. The main items are standard tantanmen (with soup, 830 yen) or tsuyunashi tantanmen (without soup, 830 yen), for which you can select your spice level from 0 (no spice, no sichuan pepper) to 6, which costs 100 yen extra and is limited to people who have eaten level 5 before.

The soup version comes with thin noodles in a mildly creamy, sesame broth, topped with mince pork, dried shrimps, and mizuna (Japanese mustard). The soupless version comes with the same toppings, but with extra mizuna and thicker, chewier noodles coated in sesame oil and wish a dash of thicker sauce at the very bottom.

Both dishes can also be ordered as black sesame versions, but from memory I found black sesame a distraction rather than an enhancement.

Also, on the menu is a miso tantanmen (900 yen) and a seasonal special. They have just introduced a side dish of aburi char siu don (380 yen) – flame-seared pork on rice. Being greedy, I wasted no time in telling my stomach that it had room for noodles and some belly pork on rice… and it replied that it didn’t need telling!

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The char siu don, with the flame seared pork on top, arrived promptly. The meat was succulent, but I felt a third slice and a bit more sauce would have enhanced the dish, especially at the price point. Saying that, I would order it again without blinking.

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Then, our noodles arrived. I ordered spice level 4 tantanmen and found it to be warm and tongue-tingling without explosiveness. The thing with Sichuan pepper though is it builds up into a tongue-teasing pleasurable numbness over time, and it definitely caught up.

The broth was smooth and with a depth of flavour that kept me lapping more. It perhaps ever-so-slightly lacked a creamy edge to carry the spice into a flavour sweet spot, but I drained every last drop.

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Then, I tried my friend’s tsuyunashi tantanmen, and basically had a sesame-induced mouth orgasm. At only level 3, I could have upped spice to a 4 or even a 5, but the sesame, oily lusciousness had me reluctant to return the bowl to him. I sat in silence, punctuated by an occasional bubbling up of ecstatic giggles.

It was quite a high. By late afternoon, I was flagging and went home and passed out on my futon for two hours. I could have been sleep-deprived and with a slight cold, OR I could just need more noodles.

The store takes its name A-un from “a” and “um” , which are the sounds in Sanskrit for the opening and the closing of the mouth – symbolic of the journey through life or the beginning and end of all things. I would certainly die happy after Aun noodles.

So go get yourself some Aun tantanmen for me, so I can enjoy them vicariously through the pictures and we can unite through some shared gastronomic spiritual enlightenment.

Szechuan Tantanmen Aun, Yushima 4.5/5 – For sesame sensations, this is your place.

Where: 3-25-11 Yushima Bunkyo Tokyo
When: Mon – Fri 11:00~14:30, 17:30~21:45; Sat 11:00~15:00, 17:30~21:45; Sun & Hols 11:00~15:00, 17:30〜21:00
Website: http://szechuan-aun.com/

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