Whenever I take friends and family from out of town for ramen, I often go to my old standby: Ippudo. It’s great, reliable tonkotsu ramen that is validated by my local Japanese friends, and their various branches are nice places to hang out. But my friend and big time foodie BT has always been a big advocate for one of Ippudo’s rivals – Ichiran (一蘭). Ichiran provides one of the most unusual ramen experiences you could have in Japan.
Like Ippudo, Ichiran started in Fukuoka, the birthplace of Hakata-style tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen that is the staple of both restaurants. According to BT, its clientele was very exclusive earlier in its history – you had to have a membership in order to enjoy their ramen. But its doors have since opened to the paying masses.
What makes Ichiran really unusual is its interior layout — all of its restaurants are designed to block out distractions, so that customers will concentrate solely on appreciating the ramen. There’s only counter seating and each seat is compartmentalized with dividers on each side. It looks and feels like the library study cubicles I sometimes used back in college (one of my friends mentioned flashbacks to taking the SATs). On top of that, each seat is set up with a set of cloth and bamboo curtains in front so that you barely see the wait staff behind the counter. BT told me that, traditionally, you were supposed to be able to order without seeing or talking to anyone.
Although this is all meant to discourage people from socializing with each other, many people end up talking anyway, albeit in a more subdued manner than at other places like Ippudo. And the wait staff still say the obligatory greetings and salutations, even if they can’t do it while looking right at you.
The process at Ichiran works like this: you order your ramen, toppings, and other accompaniments at the vending machine in front, you lay the tickets out in front of you at the counter when you sit down, and then you fill out a separate slip of paper (English version available) to customize your bowl, such as firmness of the noodles, type of pork, and level of spiciness. Someone from the wait staff (or rather their disembodied hands) will eventually come and take all this stuff from you. A few minutes later they return, set out your food, tell you to enjoy your meal, bow (at least that’s what I think they’re doing… there’s a curtain in the way), and then lower the bamboo screen so that you can enjoy your noodles in solitary bliss.
It seems pretentious and a bit intimidating, yet I find these peculiarities amusing rather than off-putting. Indeed, opinions about Ichiran are polarized. Some people, like the ramen blogger Ramenate hate the setup and don’t think much of their food, either. Others like BT and some of my other friends swear by the place, peculiarities and all.
So what about the ramen? Overall, I would describe Ichiran as representing the best of old-school Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen, in contrast to the new wave exemplified by Ippudo. In fact, Ichiran’s English-language website describes its food as “classic tonkotsu ramen from the 60s.”
The tonkotsu soup is creamier and a little sweeter than the stuff at Ippudo. The pork is thinner and less fatty than the stuff at Ippudo – it’s delicious, but I tend to be partial to the fattier stuff like Ippudo’s. Ichiran’s signature spicy red sauce has what I describe as a Korean taste to it; I’m not sure what other spices are in there besides chili pepper, but it’s good. The noodles are very al dente, as traditional Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen is supposed to be.
You also have the option of ordering a small cup of their Ichiran’s black vinegar, which you can add to your soup. I think it adds a different but nice dimension to the flavor of the soup and noodles. But I would advise against adding it directly to the bowl at first. Put some soup into your spoon, add some vinegar, and try it out before you go all in.
Ichiran fans often point to the high level of customizability that Ichiran offers its customers, but it’s not the same kind of customization offered to you at other ramen joints. Ichiran’s pricing scheme starts you off with a basic bowl of noodles, soup, and pork and then you pay a few additional yen for such things as green onions, wood ear mushrooms, and whatever else strikes your fancy. As mentioned earlier, you are also asked to further customize other aspects of your bowl when you arrive at your seat. Most other restaurants tend to set the type of toppings for each ramen option, with some flexibility to add a little more here and there.
What you don’t have the option to do at Ichiran is to doctor up the flavor of your ramen however you like with such things as garlic and pickled ginger, as you could at other ramen joints. I wonder if this might be one of the reasons that folks like Ramenate found Ichiran’s ramen to be “bland” – perhaps they’re just used to altering the taste of their ramen with strong flavors. On the other hand, Ichiran’s fans seem to like the flavor of what the chef has given them and are fine with the parameters of customization they are offered. As I’ve said before, when it comes to ramen, everyone has their own opinion of what’s good.
I like Ichiran, though it hasn’t overtaken Ippudo on my personal favorites list. As a restaurant, it’s probably not the first place I would take out of towners for a first time ramen experience, and not my first choice for a place to hang out and chat over a bowl of noodles. However, if you and your companions are beyond the introductory ramen phase and are looking for classic tonkotsu ramen in a unqiue environment, Ichiran is something to consider.Ichiran Locations: Throughout the Tokyo area and other major cities. Check the Ichiran website for list of stores. Hours: Varies by store.