For most Americans and other Westerners, “ramen” probably means those bricks of dried noodles and powdered soup packets that you cooked for a cheap meal back in college, along with some random pieces of meat and vegetables if you were really fancy. Or, it might conjure up images of Cup O’ Noodles in a Styrofoam cup – just add water, wait three minutes, and voila. But to think that this is all there is to ramen is like thinking that the epitome of Italian cuisine is a can of Beefaroni from Chef Boyardee.
I’ve tried to think of the best analogy to describe the Tokyo ramen scene, and others would probably say it is like hamburgers or pizza in America. But I think that a more apt, illustrative comparison is craft beer. Like craft breweries, there are a seemingly infinite number of ramen joints, from larger chains to small mom-and-pop operations. The level of creativity and craftsmanship with which many chefs make their ramen is phenomenal, leading to a kaleidoscope of variations based on different soups, toppings, style of noodles, and so on.
On top of that, there’s so much passion for the stuff, with magazines, books, and countless blogs devoted to discovering the latest and the best ramen restaurants out there. There’s even an entire ramen museum in Yokohama where you can try ramen from various parts of the country. I think one of the easiest ways to start a conversation in Tokyo is to discuss who serves the best ramen. There are a lot of different opinions out there, which means you’ll end up with a lot of recommendations to check out and perhaps some new friends to check them out with.
My introduction to gourmet ramen occurred several years ago during a business trip to Sendai in northeastern Japan (I was not yet living in Tokyo at the time). One of the most popular eateries among my colleagues was a ramen place next to the hotel. I ate there my first day in town and would return several more times due to the convenient location. The ramen was good but conventional, and I wondered if there was something even better out there.
A few nights later, a Japanese colleague took me and a couple other Americans to the Sendai branch of his favorite ramen joint Ippudo (一風堂), internationally renowned for its tonkotsu (pork bone soup) ramen. The experience, as I would later tell him, was “a revelation”.
I’ve had tonkotsu ramen once before in Los Angeles many years ago. It was not entirely thrilling. The pork broth is supposed to be on the rich side, but I found that particular bowl to be way too heavy for my tastes. The slices of pork and other toppings made no impression. On top of that, it tasted as if they had put a huge dose of MSG in the soup, so much so that I felt as though someone was driving a spike through my head (and I usually do ok with the stuff).
Ippudo, on the other hand, was absolutely sublime. The tonkotsu broth in the Akamaru ramen was millions of light years ahead in terms of refinement, neither too heavy nor too light. The slices of pork were tender with layers of fatty nirvana-ness. The noodles were thin but nicely firm and chewy. The strands of kikurage (black “wood ear” fungus) sitting in one corner of the bowl provided crunchy texture. The dollop of spicy bean paste gave it a good kick of spiciness, while the mysterious black puddle (garlic sesame oil) provided an additional dimension of flavor that I had never tasted before in a bowl of ramen. And no MSG headache.
Put together, all of these elements also made for a visually spectacular bowl of noodles. I had never seen a bowl of ramen look like this before:
The ramen can be doctor up with an assortment of condiments such as grated garlic, pickled ginger, and ground sesame. Help yourself to as much spicy pickled sprouts as you want…
…and to whatever this stuff is:
You can also order a small assortment of side dishes such as juicy bite-sized pieces of gyoza served with a little bean paste and roast pork stuffed in a white, Chinese-style bun like those normally paired with Peking duck. I even loved the iced rooibos tea.
And like any other tonkotsu ramen shop, if all that food doesn’t fill you up, you can always ask for kaedama, an extra helping of noodles.
Ippudo blew every other ramen experience I had up to that point out of the water. You can imagine how happy I was when I found out that there is a branch in my neighborhood in Tokyo. Ippudo is still one of my top go-to places, especially when I give visiting friends and family a tour of the local food (there’s a branch in New York City, but I’ve heard that it’s not quite as good as the ones in Japan).
But the more I’ve explored Tokyo, the more Ippudo has had to share my attention with other bowls of excellent ramen. More on those later.