I once read that there are over 20,000 ramen restaurants in Tokyo. That’s a lot of noodle slurping for one city. We’re talking about dedicated ramen shops, with primary focus on just one food item, like many restaurants in Japan. When you go to a ramen shop, you get in line, order, eat while the soup is hot and before the noodles get soft, and get out. No cocktails, no lounging about with your friends, no lingering. A recommended seven minutes to finish your ramen, then hit the road. (Yes, I’m a bit bitter about the two-hour wait at Ippudo that prevented me from trying the ramen during a recent trip to New York City.)
Furthering my love of ramen in Japan, many of these restaurants specialize in just one type of broth. For example, some serve only tonkotsu (like liquid bacon, made with pork bone broth), while some serve only shoyu (soy sauce based, typically made from chicken bones and using wavy noodles, and my personal favorite). Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised to find an old-fashioned niboshi broth, made from dried baby sardines (see more about broths and flavorings in our ramen style guide).
With so many quality restaurants serving ramen at reasonable prices (you’ll rarely pay more than $10 for a bowl), it’s tempting to travel throughout Tokyo tasting bowls of noodles. For me, stomach space and concerns about cholesterol become the biggest obstacles. After sampling my fair share over the years, I present eight of my favorite ramen bowls to try in Tokyo:
Honda, at Tokyo Ramen Street, has a showcase which displays artistic soup bowls. The artistry extends to the ramen inside the bowls of this restaurant. This is an excellent place to try shoyu (soy sauce-based) ramen. The broth is made from what they describe as “the perfect harmony” of chicken and fish. The egg comes whole, but you’ll find a runny, orange yolk inside. A nice portion of negi (a sort of Japanese leek that’s hard to find and expensive in the United States) adds fabulous flavor to broth. Consider also Honda’s popular side dish: a rice bowl with chashu pork, menma (bamboo shoots), half of a hard-boiled egg, negi, and some green onions. Combined with a bowl of ramen, this constitutes serious carbo-loading (and cholesterol-loading).
Hirugao is another of the more popular places at Tokyo Ramen Street. The shio (salt-based) ramen features a delicate broth made from chicken, niboshi (dried sardines), and kaibashira (adductor muscle of the scallop)—and happens to be the best shio broth I’ve ever tasted. The bowl includes chashu, menma, negi, a boiled egg, and a sheet of nori. You can order crispy-on-the-outside and juicy-on-the-inside gyoza, but I noticed a number of people getting a dish of wontons, which you can eat with a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar (mix in the accompanying negi and hot sauce), or add to the ramen as others do.
When a friend told me he ate mapo ramen at an open-air, Chinese-style restaurant along a “Piss Alley” in Nishi Shinjuku, I had to know more. When that same friend happened to be in Tokyo at the same as me this spring, I insisted he take me there, as this dish combines two of my favorite foods: mapo tofu and ramen. It turns out the place is called Gifuya , and deep into the night the counter seats fill up with late-working salarymen (at varying levels of inebriation) and a variety of other hungry diners. I watched as the cook prepared mapo tofu in a giant wok, then did assembly of broth and ramen noodles in a bowl, followed by a layering of the chili-tinged (though not as spicy as I would have liked), silky tofu concoction. The quality was good at best, but the experience was great fun.
There are five Nagi restaurants in Tokyo, each with a different concept. I especially like the one in Golden Gai, a district which feels like old world Tokyo, with narrow alleys full of old houses that were once brothels and are now primarily bars. Nagi Golden Gai requires a wait at the base of some stairs until they call your name through a tube. Once inside, you’ll share cramped quarters at one of ten counter seats. The egg and niboshi ramen comes with thick and chewy round noodles in a uniquely bitter shoyu broth made with chicken bones and dried baby sardines. The egg yolk has the golden yellow color you find throughout Japan, and there’s also a slice of chashu pork, negi (Japanese leek), and a sheet of nori.
Hototogisu may be a type of cuckoo native to Japan and beloved for its singing, but more important it’s a ramen shop just off the main shopping street in Hatagaya, two stops from Shinjuku Station. While it’s only a one-minute walk from my mother-in-law’s house and has made many top 10 ramen lists (even nationally), I visited for the first time only last year, partly due to its quirky hours. Pictured is the shio ramen with a generously portioned order of extra chashu. There’s menma, negi, and mizuna in the bowl, but what makes the ramen special at Hototogisu is the use of clams in making the broth.
I first visited AFURI ramen several years ago at their original Ebisu location, and was so impressed that I’m not surprised it’s turned into a mini-chain with locations in Nakameguro and Harajuku, where I ate earlier this year. I was craving another taste of the yuzu shio ramen, with the Japanese citrus flavor making the broth additionally appealing to drink. This ramen is a little lighter than others, with fairly thin noodles along with menma, a sheet of nori, and yet another golden-yolked half egg. My favorite part, though, are the slices of rolled pork grilled right in front of the customers, adding a little smoky flavor to the bowl.
Ichiran came highly recommended for its classic tonkotsu ramen. Perhaps more intriguing, though, is the setting, as diners sit in individual booths with walls on the sides and a bamboo screen in front to provide privacy from the server. As the website asserts, this allows you to “concentrate on the flavor” of the ramen. The website also explains the vacant seat information panel, how to place your order, and how to customize the bowl—Ichiran lets you choose levels of broth oiliness, noodle texture, broth “heaviness,” amount of garlic, and amount of negi. (You’ll also be advised to order and eat a boiled egg beforehand to “cleanse your palate.”) And then there are the toppings, which include Ichiran’s highly touted red pepper sauce. Fill out your scorecard, ring the bell, and soon your server will offer up your milky-white ramen, bowing discreetly before lowering the screen and letting you focus on the food.
A late morning visit this year to Tokyo Ramen Street enabled me to beat the big crowds at Rokurinsha . I went with the “special recommendation” of tokusei tsukemen, Rokurinsha’s original ramen with a flavored, boiled egg and some buta hogushi (shredded pork). Here you put on a paper apron and indulge in thick, wide noodles that you dunk in a thick and creamy broth made with pork, chicken, niboshi, sababushi (dried, smoked mackerel flakes) and katsuobushi (dried, smoked bonito flakes), along with vegetables. In addition to the usual suspects, the “secret” ingredient is gyofun (dry fish powder), which adds an aggressively fishy blast of umami. Once you finish your noodles, a worker will approach and ask about adding a choice of soups to your bowl. Both contain fish broth, but I recommend asking for the one with yuzu in it, as the citrus plays nicely off of the fishy flavor.
(Originally published at Serious Eats on September 16.)