Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Let the Ramen Hunt Begin!

Around 100 years ago, Chinese noodles became popular in Japan. But to still consider ramen as Chinese food would be plain wrong. It's a part of Japan, a downright obsession in some sense of the word. It morphed from simple noodle soup to gourmet cuisine. Local varieties receive cult followings. We're talking Philly Cheese Steak and Chicago Pizza loyalties and analysis. A popular ramen shop can have an hour wait just to sit down.

Get some comfortable shoes and make sure you bring a book.

Ramen is NOT the instant noodles you ate daily in college. That's like comparing pasta at a restaurant on the coast of Napoli to Chef Boyardee.

The ramen "experience" has 3 factors... well maybe 4. But the 3 are the noodle, the soup, and the toppings.
  • Noodles can be thick like udon or thin like vermicelli. Curly or straight. Firm or soft. The thick ones tend to sit heavy. Don't time it so that after eating heavy ramen you have to run to catch a train to the unemployment office. It's not fun.
  • The soup for ramen can take days to make. Shio (塩) is a light salt broth. It's clear and usually made from chicken and vegetables. Shoyu (醤油) is a little less light, with soy sauce. Tonkotsu (豚骨) is the crazy stuff. It's like drinking pork. Liquid gold to some, one way ticket to religious hell for others. The last main category of soup is miso (味噌), it adds fermented soy paste to the broth. Often miso is the most flavorful.
  • Toppings are usually a slice of pork, menma which are bamboo shoots, and green onion. Be prepared, if you go to the cult status shops, for some different toppings. Sprouts, eggs, fish eggs, meatballs, seaweed.... expect anything.
  • Whats the 4th aspect of good ramen? I think it's the atmosphere. Waiting in line with excited customers, the shout of the entire staff when you enter, the seriousness of the shop master as he creates his masterpiece... it all helps.
I've been to a few really good ramen shops in Japan. That's about to change. I stumbled on this list:


The top 30 ramen restaurants in the country. Turns out over half are in the Tokyo area, even one is in Kawagoe. So I've made it a mission to visit all that I can.

Maybe I need a job.

Anyways, I've been knocking numbers off the list, navigating to obscure stations on the Tokyo Metro, and freezing my ass off in line. For now, here's some reviews of old places I went to in the past. None of these are on the "top 30".

Manbaken means lucky ticket. Like at the track. Horses and what not. Somehow this relates to ramen. This place was near Meguro station and recommended by a police officer. Here's a tip, just go to the Koban, police station, and ask where a good ramen shop is. Is this like asking an American cop about donuts? Maybe, but they always seem to know.

Manbaken was fairly empty. The ramen was Tokyo style I think, which is a shoyu soup made with fish bones. All in all this shop was just so-so. Lots of other goodies on the menu, like fried rice and meat dishes. Many ramen shops have only 3 or 4 menu items. But you go to ramen shops to eat ramen, don't you?

The Ramen Museum in Yokohama. I wrote about this place when I went about a year ago. There are about 15 different restaurants from all over Japan here. You choose one and enjoy something that you couldn't get without traveling for a day or two. I had Kyushu style ramen with was loaded with garlic. It was tasty.

Skip this place. I know I said it was tasty. Actually it was super good, but I was a bit hung over at the time. Garlic and thick pork broth are great hang over food. But this place is just too far away to bother with. There are so many superior ramen shops throughout Tokyo. Keep posted, I'll be writing about the good ones in the near future.

The Ramen Museum would have been a worthy experience if you could sample 5 or 6 types of ramen. But you can only get 1 bowl, unless you are Kobayashi then 1 is enough.

Harukiya in Ogikubo. Thats where I live! Well not in the store but near. Ogikubo is the birthplace of Tokyo style ramen, and Harukiya is the place to go. I tucked in to some wantanmen, ramen with won tons. Great broth, really strong.

Lastly is Ramen Jiro. After waiting 45 minutes, you are presented with a limited menu. Actually, it's all the same, but you can choose omori, big size, and more pork. Don't get anything but the base size and pork level. Seriously. Look at the customers inside. Most don't even finish. This is some brutal stuff.

One thing about Jiro is the process. Instead of writing myself about it, I'll point you to this English Tokyo ramen page:


I have mine yasai ninniku mashi.

How is it? It's soul crushing deliciousness. The noodles are thick thick thick. This means heavy. But the noodles aren't even the destructive past. The broth is like you took a ham and pureed it. Then simmered some pork bones in this puree for a couple days. Then maybe added just a dash of pork chops to the final product. I don't think it's kosher.

Don't plan any activities that require movement of your body after eating here. I went to the Ikebukuro Jiro, I would recommend going to the movie theater that is 50 meters away. Maybe take a taxi there. Or go sleep in the park which is just down the street.

OK. I'm off on my ramen adventures. I'll post once I knock 10 off my list. Feel free to join me.

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