Some Good Ramen in Tokyo
- Eric Eto
I probably could have eaten ramen everyday I was in Japan, but that would have been counterproductive to my effort to find all the great varieties of Japanese cuisine. An unfortunate reality is that ramen outside of Japan is a second-rate dish. The sheer volume of ramen joints in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, and the quasi-competitive atmosphere in which it is produced by dedicated producers, makes ramen a destination food when visiting Japan. Along the way, I picked up a Tokyo ramen book from the folks who publish the Tabearuki guides (in Japanese) to find my way to some good places. I cross-checked this book to find the recommendations I got from two reliable sources: Aki from the NY boards, and my cousin, who I found out is a real chowhound. I did find my way to 4 great ramen joints in Tokyo (out of the hundreds more I could have ventured into).
Shinagawa-ku, Nakanobu 2-15-10, tel. 03-3787-2100
This place is constantly jammed with people lined up outside. They are open for limited hours (11:30-2:00, 5:30-8:00) which must be nice for the owners after serving up bowls of ramen from opening to closing. My cousin brought me here with his two daughters, and we figured we'd try to get here on the early side on a rainy Saturday to beat the crowds. By 11am, there was already a long line, and we waited about 30 minutes to get in (being 4 people probably tacked on 10 minutes to that wait). Takano specializes in Niboshi ramen (a meat based soup flavored with anchovies). I got the plain ramen to taste it unadorned (see photo). My cousin got the goma-kara men (with added sesame and hot oil), and the two girls got the tsuke-soba, where the noodles are separate from the soup that's just a tad more concentrated in flavor. I got to sample all of these, and it was the first time I've had a niboshi flavored ramen. The niboshi flavor isn't overpowering, but it's there and adds a great flavor to the soup. Although I liked the goma-kara, you lose some of the subtlety of the niboshi. The accompanying cha-shu and the soft boiled egg were all premium ingredients.
Minato-ku, Nishiazabu 3-21-24, tel 03-3408-4775
I was told by Aki from the NY boards that this place serves the best tonkotsu ramen in Tokyo. I've had varieties of tonkotsu ramen in NY and LA and they were decent, but knew I was missing something. I was blown away by how good the soup was here. The consistency of the soup resembled a thick cream--an intensely pork flavored cream. The noodles here were on the fine side and played a pleasant second fiddle to the soup. I was so completely focused on the soup that I have no recollection of the other ingredients in the ramen bowl. Having realized that I was experiencing the real deal for the first time, I had no idea how to rate this. I was reminded of the first time I had foie gras when I was in southwestern france. I finally understood what the big deal was.
Shinjuku-ku, Nishishinjuku 1-4-10, tel. 03-3340-2727
Another of Aki's recommendations, he told me this place makes the best cha-shu -- but nothing like the cha-shu you've seen before. He was right. When you order the cha-shu ramen (not cheap, 1300 yen) you get almost a half loin of pork. I counted 3 or 4 inch-thick pieces of tender pork. Unlike at Akanoren, I was so focused on the pork, that I don't remember much about the soup or the noodles. The pork was obviously the main product here. I noticed that most people were eating the cha-shu zaru ramen (where the soup and noodles are served separately), which my ramen book recommended for their osusume (specialty) item, priced at a more reasonable 1100 yen. Unfortunately, I went to Manrai thinking I could handle a ramen as an afternoon snack after I've had lunch elsewhere. I was struggling to eat that last hunk of pork. I felt bad leaving with a half-finished bowl--a big no-no in the most respected ramen places. I made sure to apologize as I was leaving.
Chikuhou Ramen Basaraka
Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 4-29-7, tel. 03-3470-4566
I was wandering around Omotesando doori near Harajuku station while I had a few hours to kill before dinner. I pulled out my ramen guide to see where the nearest recommended ramen shop was, and there was one just blocks from where I was. While I didn't have the same reaction as I did at Akanoren, I was still in awe of the creamy tonkotsu soup at Chikuhou as well. The soup here seemed nicely balanced while the soup at Akanoren was more or less in-your-face pork. These two being the only two Tokyo tonkotsu ramen specialists I went to, I was pretty impressed with the consistency between these two spots. Nothing I've had in the US can even touch these two examples of what seem to be very fine ramen shops. I slurped my way through my plain ramen bowl (no extra cha-shu faux pas this evening before going out for a real dinner) and thanked the ramen man and was off to wander the neighborhood some more before my next meal.
While I wouldn't call myself a ramen neophyte, I feel like I'm getting an education on what "real" ramen is suppose to taste like, and how to judge them on their own merits. Visiting 4 Tokyo ramen joints certainly doesn't cut into the vast repertoire, but it's a start (I did visit three others in Okayama). I can't wait to return for my next lessons.
My favorite ramen joint is a little yatai down the street run by an elderly couple who show up on weekend nights. OK, I'm not advocating that anyone make the trek out to my neighborhood to eat ramen, but I can't resist the fresh pickles made with vegetables from their own garden, or their hearty pork and vegetable broth. They also have the stamp of approval of the stray cats in the neighborhood who regularly check in for hand-outs of chashu. Later on in the evening, several regulars can be counted on to show up and things usually get pretty funny. The problem is that when papa has had a few drinks, his quality control sometimes suffers and the noodles get soggy...
Anyway, the following are a few thoughts on some of places that I currently like. All consistently involve the following procedure - waiting in line at least 15 minutes, the last 5 of which will involve intently watching the fortunate customers in front of you slurp and sigh through their orders, while you, crammed against the wall, are tortured by the heady scent of the broth. Finally it is your turn at the tiny bar, a steaming bowl is placed under your nose within minutes and then...
The experience is over in minutes and you leave the store slightly dazed and confused. Actually, it's a somewhat similar experience to standing in line for 20 minutes for the 3 minute payoff of a rollercoaster ride...
Erubisu - Nishi Ikebukuro. Medium thickness springy noodles, and an extravagant creamy garlicky tonkotsu broth. "Negi chashu men" contains no less than 4 big slices of fatty pork and a massive mound of green onion slivers. Not for the faint of heart. The aji-tsuke tamago (braised eggs) are gloriously runny inside but the white is firm and thoroughly savory.
Tenzo- Nishi Ikebukuro. Young musician hang out down the street from Marui. Vegetable-heavy tonkotsu broth, and the tenzo ramen features lots of stir-fried vegetables. The broth is heavy on the salt, IMHO, but the gooey bordering on runny onsen-tamago (hot spring eggs) are magnificent - how the heck do they make them?
Koumen - Higashi Ikebukuro, near the Seibu exit. Ramen with heavier Chinese influences than usual. Shio ramen comes with a scoop of XO sauce. They also do tonkotsu and shoyu broth, but have never tried them. Peanutty-piquant Tan-tan men is weird (to my tastes) but quite chow-able.
Kujira-ken - Shunkan 10thF My City, Shinjuku station. One of my favorite shio (salt) ramen to date. Very fine, springy, noodles with no hint of pungency in a clear, light broth enhanced with fresh greens. The eggs are nothing to write home about, though.
Daruma-soba. Omotesando, around the corner from the Spiral building. Their thick, chewy noodles are served dry (tsukemen) with sweet, clear broth and fixings, including excellent menma (pickled bamboo shoots). I used to think they did the best wonton I'd had in Tokyo until...
Sweet Dynasty, Aoyama. Gentrified branch of a Hong Kong tong shui (dessert) joint. OK, not ramen, but Hong Kong style wonton men is quite good. The impeccably fresh shrimp-stuffed wonton are excellent. Even better are the sui gow, which have basically the same wrappers, but twice as many shrimp and more mushrooms in the filling. The broth and noodles have definitely been toned down for local tastes, but the silken tofu in red bean soup or sesame soup are dead on. If you like silken tofu, it's definitely worth the 30min+ wait on weekends. I wouldn't bother with the bland and at the same time too salty fried noodles, or random dishes such as ma-po tofu, though.
Chibi, Thanks for your input. While it will be a some time before I'll get to sample any of these, I'll save them for a future trip. For now, I have to get accustomed to the reality that I won't be able to have really good ramen here in the US until I get back to Japan. That is one of the downfalls of eating great food in its place of origin -- the tendency to get jaded to the stuff that's available locally. That happened to me with many kinds of Spanish food after I went to San Sebastian.
Akanoren sounded really good from your desription and I really wanted to try it. But with only an address and a phone number, I am too lazy to look for it given the confusing street address system. But lucky me, they actually have another branch at Maru building. Marunochi building is the new building right in front of the Tokyo station. On the sixth floor, they have another branch of Akanoren and I got to sample it during lunch. As you aptly put it, creamy is the first word that comes to mind after the first spoonful of soup. Creamy and a bit greasy but nonetheless excellent broth. Really thin nooldes and a good complement to the hearty broth. I would rate it as the second best after one of the ramen shop I sampled in Shin-Yokohama's ramen museum. Thanks for the recommendation, now I don't have to trek all the way out to Yokohama for good ramen!
For dinner, I went to Mikawa in Roppongi Hills. This is the latest and third branch of this tempura chain and the food is excellent. The shrimp tempura is perfect. Fresh shrimps fried in a light batter, the timing is just right and the meat is succulent and fresh. Even better than cantonese steamed shrimp. The taste was so strong it reminds me of mantis shrimps. Never have something this good even at Tenichi. Some of the other highlights include anago (sea eel) and kakiage (scallop mixed with other things). All in all, the best tempura experience I have ever had. The shop is tiny and reservation is essential. There is only one menu at night.
Yeah, that broth. I still think about it. But I wouldn't call it greasy. It's about as greasy as a piece of ootoro maguro. The oiliness seemed an essential part of the soup. It makes me think what I'm missing never having gone to Kyushu for the real stuff. Regarding the ramen at the Yokohama ramen museum, I thought they rotate vendors there on a yearly basis, contracting with some of the top ramen makers around Japan to set up a satellite operation for a year at a time. Which means the ramen you had a year ago at the Ramen museum probably will not be there now. Also, the point of my original post was that good ramen is everywhere in Tokyo. You're right, you don't have to trek all the way to Yokohama for it.
Ahh, what memories. I spent a good amount of my 4 years in Japan searching for the best Tonkotsu Ramen. My favourite was in Nishi-Ogikubo.
You take the north exit of the station. There is a road that runs north/south on the east side of the station, then a little to the left of that road, there is a smaller street that also runs n/s. It's kind of nestled between shops (possibly next to a drug store?). Walk up that little street and on your left will be a little ramen shop sporting blue flags with white writing. I never did find out the name of the place :-O
The directions are the best I can do after having left Japan almost 4 years ago.
Try it! Hope you like it!