It takes years of training, a lifetime of commitment, a bellyfull of emptiness. That’s what it takes to eat a healthy bowl of real Japanese ramen.
Top 5 Ramen of Japan:
- Kikanbo Spicy Ramen (カラシビ味噌らー麺 鬼金棒)! Loved everything about this ramen! It’s the bees’ knees. The boss hoss. And word up–they have a Tsukemen-only joint next door! I mean, they take their shit so seriously that they won’t even serve the ramen and tsukemen in the same place even though they are right next door. Ordering here is a cinch–machine–items are listed in English and easy to spot the obviously awesome diablo devil’s heat maximum numby-spicy broth. It was full-on flavor, banking not only on chili but on the love of my tongue’s life, Sichuan peppercorn (albeit the Japanese one called sansho ((did you know it existed?)). And if you dig deeper, of course you will, you find that even if you had ordered “mild,” you would have encountered one of the most sublime, deep, and unctuous bowls you had ever encountered. This is not a place that relies on salt for flavor. The depth of the broth comes from a finely honed recipe that a better blogger might have asked about in journalistic fashion. And the toppings, noodles? Both memorable, particularly the chashu, which to be fair cannot even be called chashu because we saw the rib chef carve the meat off of a rack of spareribs in front of our very eyes. The result would make a BBQ master blush. That we did not return here is testimony to our endless curiosity about the world of ramen. I’m sure we’ll be back, and as this was a standout among standouts, I highly urge anyone reading this to visit Kikanbo Spicy Ramen when in Tokyo, if you like spicy ramen. So good I forgot to take a picture.
- Ryushukin (龍旗信 なんば店). If you’re in Osaka and you love trying new ramen, go here. I would never in a million years believed that I would dig this sort of ramen, where they take a hand blender to what is basically schmaltz and whiz it about until its foamy and white and plop it into an already rich broth filled with fatty goodness, but I did. I have to admit that I almost went back for a second bowl even though we were in Osaka for only 3 days. That’s saying a lot.
- Afuri (原宿). Afuri was recommended by a friend who said, “I don’t normally eat ramen, but when I do, I eat Afuri.” I considered what he said and decided to give it a go. People who don’t normally like ramen probably don’t have the same taste as I do. Then again, the whole point of a ramenadventure is to try new flavors. So Afuri it was, and Afuri delivered me a bowl of cold yuzu ramen, their summer special. You can maybe catch a glimpse of it here on their menu page, it’s called the “Summer Limited Edition Cold Yuzu Shio” ramen. Note they have one of the best-known vegan ramens in town, which I would love to try on a later date. Josh ordered the regular shio ramen. Comparing the two at the restaurant, I much preferred Josh’s at the time. I still did not like my pork product, which was hammy and firm and nothing like the chashu that I adore. And yet, looking back on the gamut of ramen we sampled on our trip to Japan, the cold yuzu ramen was a real standout. The flavors–how can you beat yuzu in a race? So I’ll leave it at this: “I don’t normally eat cold yuzu ramen in the summer, but when I do, I eat Afuri.”
- Rokurinsha (六厘舍). Our first tsukemen! So yeah, take our opinion at face value. But I have a few things I’d like to say, honestly. One is that I didn’t understand the tsukemen while I was eating it. Second is that I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I was eating it. Taken together, I’d have to say this is one of the most memorable dishes I ate in Japan. I found myself seeking out tsukemen as soon as we returned to Vancouver (a venture that was successful and deserves to be written about in its own right at a later date). Now I realize that tsukemen is an art form. The chef reduces a ramen broth to its core components, in this case adding a kajillion types of seaflavors. I could not bring myself to add water and down the broth as many do when their noodles have been noshed, but when I return to Tokyo station I will hopefully be hungry enough to do so.
- Nagi Golden Gai. (すごい煮干ラーメン凪 新宿ゴールデン街店 本館). We hit up the Golden Gai, a notorious nightlife district, on a dull midweek evening. Nary a drink in hand, we sauntered on up to the Nagi restaurant and two other tourist couples were in line. Bad sign, I thought. A half-hour later, awaiting our ramen, I felt happy we had chosen Nagi. We had what might have been our only female ramen chef throughout our trip.
We also received a curious, overwhelmingly fishy bowl that tasted like the ocean herself puked in a bowl and served it up, with noodles. Whose to argue with that? What’s even cooler is the “Propiro” noodle–maybe the only easter egg you’ll ever find in a real Japanese ramen.
Worth a mention is the only ramen in Japan I created but did not eat: The Momofuku Ramen Instant Ramen Museum “My Cup Noodle!” The museum on the outskirts of Osaka is a great visit for kids. It was fun to design my own cup and formulate my own recipe.
So what is ramen in Japan really like? The answer is: fun.