One of the fun things about exploring places to eat in Tokyo is that it often takes you to neighborhoods that you would not otherwise visit, especially if you’re a foreigner. After all, great food doesn’t need to be limited to those areas that are well-known or the most popular. That’s certainly the case when I went to a restaurant called Maruchi for tonkatsu (which I wrote about here) and, in an even more recent trip, to an awesome ramen joint called Matador (マタドール) in the Kita-Senju neighborhood. Both are located on the outskirts of Tokyo, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that many people asked “why would you go all the way out there” when I told them about my plans.
So why would I want to take (for me) a nearly 30 minute subway ride to an otherwise unremarkable part of Tokyo just to have ramen? Because this place has gotten rave reviews from the local ramen-gensia (the ramen-nati?), with four of its menu items having received high honors in a recent edition of the Tokyo Ramen of the Year magazine, the most by any restaurant ever. And it achieved this with something unusual: beef-based ramen.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard of a place that served beef ramen until I came upon Matador. I actually find it a little odd that beef ramen is so uncommon given the widespread popularity of beef-based noodle soups in the rest of Asia, notably Vietnamese pho and Taiwanese beef noodles. Perhaps it’s because beef has historically been an expensive ingredient in Japan, or maybe it’s more challenging to make compared to other types of ramen. But given the country’s affluence over the past several decades and the competition to churn out ramen that stand out from the rest of the pack, I’m surprised that you don’t find more beef ramen amid the myriad noodles places in Japan.
Like a lot of noodle joints in Tokyo, Matador is small. Really small. There are only seven counter seats (no tables) that face the kitchen where two chefs work their magic. It is so small that there was already a line when I arrived just a few minutes after the shop opened at 11:30am.
There are several beef noodle options to choose from, but the four award winning ramen are the original, the shoyu (soy sauce), the shio (salt), and the tsukemen (dipping noodles). I noticed a couple of customers eating what appeared to be mazemen, soupless ramen noodles coated in sauce and served with several toppings, including (of course) beef. All of them looked great.
I ordered the shoyu beef ramen, which was dominated by two large and succulent slices of roast beef, pink and tender on the inside. Underneath the beef slices was a ball of shredded, marinated beef that tasted like it might have been beef jerky, due to the dryness of certain pieces of the meat and the intense taste. Very interesting! Rounding out the toppings were a poached egg, scallions, bamboo shoots, and garlic. The noodles had a very nice chew.
Tying everything together was the beef broth, which was excellent and unlike anything else I’ve had in a bowl of ramen. The stock made from beef bones has an underlying lightness and sweetness, in the same way you would find in a bowl of Vietnamese pho. But then the soy sauce and mirin (a sweet Japanese rice wine used in cooking) give it additional depth without making it taste heavy. The flavor is not as complex as the broth in Taiwanese beef noodles, which draws upon an array of herbs and spices. Yet, Matador’s shoyu beef broth still tastes sublime in its simplicity. Ramen zen? Yeah, I think so.
I went with my friends TC and DT, who both got the tsukemen (it was another humid, 90+ degree day and they were not in the mood for hot soup). The dipping sauce was similar to the soup in my beef ramen, except for the addition of vinegar and a more intense flavor as you would expect from tsukemen. The noodles, beef, bamboo shoots, and poached egg looked pretty much the same as the ones in my bowl except they were served separately on the side. TC and DT both loved it.
Is Matador worth the trek to the northern reaches of Tokyo? If you live in Tokyo, definitely. If you’re a visitor, it’s perhaps a less clear cut answer as Kita-Senju is a bit out of the way from the center of town and all of its major attractions. But if you like ramen, I think you will enjoy the uniqueness and excellence of what Matador has to offer.
Peace, love and ramen, my friends!