On the Tonkotsu Ramen Trail: From Its Birthplace in Fukuoka to the Boom in Bellevue and Seattle
A couple of months ago, after a trans-Pacific flight to Tokyo and then a change of planes and a domestic hop in Japan, I mustered up some unexpected late-night energy and found myself seated at a tiny yatai (street food) stand in Fukuoka. To my left: three hair salon working dudes from Nagoya. To my right: four workers attending a Kewpie mayonnaise meeting. All were eating steaming bowls of tonkotsu ramen. And why not; after all, Fukuoka is the birthplace of this Hakata-style ramen that features thin, straight noodles bathing in creamy, porky broth.
I didn’t order any, as I had put together a perfect ramen-eating itinerary starting the next day, and I’m not one to disrupt a plan. (Well…I did succumb to noodle desires, unable to resist a unique fried ramen noodle dish.) The guys to my left were a jovial bunch, tickled to see a gaijin (foreigner) going for authentic Japanese food, particularly motsunabe (pork intestine hot pot). I asked them what they like about ramen, specifically tonkotsu, and they exclaimed, somewhat slurring, that it’s delicious when you’re drunk. I later asked the same question of the Kewpie crowd, and they said that besides being delicious, that it’s fun to compare the ramen served in so many places in Fukuoka. I’d be starting my comparisons just a few hours later.
There was no time for sleeping in the next morning, as I was meeting a guy who goes by the name Inazuma Johnny, or Johnny Lightning when translated from Japanese. Johnny’s a prominent ramen blogger in Fukuoka, and I was eager to meet this kindred spirit and share some noodle time with him. So why not start with breakfast? We had made plans to meet for morning ramen at Ganso Nagahama, or what he shortens (as Japanese people like to do) to Mor-Gan. “We’re having Mor-Gan Freeman your first day,” he had messaged me on Facebook, to which I replied, “Well, on that day, it will be Mor-Gan Friedman, not Freeman.” Just the start of our silly conversations, though we were typically quiet while eating our ramen, putting full focus on the noodles, slurping them down before they got too soft. (No lingering over noodles while sipping cocktails in Japan!)
Ganso Nagahama is located where the fishermen come in, so it needs to open early to satisfy their hunger. And it needs to be cheap, though ramen in general is cheaper in Japan than in the United States. There are actually three competing Ganso Nagahama ramen joints in stone’s throw of each other; the story includes something about a family dispute and trying to price each other out of popularity. They all look similar: ticket machine at the entry, a few large, communal tables, and an open area where broth is on simmer and bowls are readied for orders. The “expensive” place is 500 yen (about $5), with the others dropping to 450 yen and 400 yen. You can order kaedama and get extra noodles for just 100 yen and really fill up. (A half portion and full portion are the same price, so I couldn’t resist the full as a better value.) The broth is quite porky (with an oil slick on top) though not terribly heavy, and you can add pickled ginger (and dashi) from your table to help cut the fattiness. This is far better than a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, though with an opposite effect on your cholesterol.
The next day, for lunch, I went (without Johnny) to Mengekijo Genei for lunch. Men means noodles and gekijo means theater; indeed, this restaurant is like a ramen theater. Seats (not many—just a few rows of about 4 seats each) slope upward so that everyone has a view of the chef making ramen in the front of the room. I would almost call this neo-ramen, as in contrast to Ganso, the noodles are made in-house and are more refined, as is the tonkotsu broth, which has frothy oil bubbles and a deep golden color. This was not nearly as heavy as the previous day’s ramen, so it was refreshing to feel unstuffed at the end of the meal. If I found myself living in Fukuoka, I could eat this tonkotsu ramen more frequently than the others since it feels less fatty.
On the third day, I met up again with Johnny, this time late night at a place called Hacchan for what he warned me for weeks would be “hard” ramen. I wasn’t exactly sure that that meant until we met in person, when he explained that this ramen would be especially smelly and porky and fatty (cooked with all kinds of crazy pig parts, from what I’m told), and difficult for Westerners to eat. Some Westerners, that is. Little did Johnny realize that the super-porky thoughts make ramen-dorky me salivate.
I knew we were nearby when I could smell a virtual pig sty across the wide street. We waited for one of the precious seats at the counter (this place would apparently be busy until the wee hours of the morning) and when the chef placed the bowl in front of me, I ate up the intensity with my nose as much as my mouth. The bowl was no match for me, as I downed the noodles and broth with great gusto. I’ll always remember the smell more than the flavor of that ramen, but it was fun to experience and gave me a third sampling of the variety of tonkotsu ramen to be found in Fukuoka. (More intriguing than the robustness of the ramen was the daintiness of the gyoza that they serve at Hacchan. Johnny thinks they might be the smallest in all of Japan.)
So those were my three bowls of tonkotsu ramen in three days. (Confession: I actually sampled two more bowls the next two days. Getaway day to Tokyo, I ate at Ichiran, a chain that’s based in Fukuoka and which features individual “privacy booths” so you can focus exclusively on your ramen without distraction. I’d been to Ichiran in Tokyo during a previous trip, but one branch in Fukuoka was offering a special Kamadare-style tonkotsu ramen with amped-up pork flavor, and I couldn’t resist trying it. Then, the following day in Tokyo, I went to Fukuoka’s other famous ramen chain: Ippudo. The tonkotsu there was quite good, but I was more enchanted by the kogashi miso, with a burnt fermented flavor.) Having enjoyed my tonkotsu immersion, I asked Johnny what he likes about ramen, and why he thinks it’s so popular. He struggled a bit with his answer (he said he’s never really thought about the exact reasons), but ultimately said that it’s cheap, tasty, fast, and fun—and that he has the capacity to eat a lot.
I, too, have the capacity to eat a lot, so upon my return to Seattle, I was interested in trying three new restaurants in the area that specialize in tonkotsu ramen. The current ramen boom here is fascinating, though it has me thinking about the initial boom started by Samurai Noodle many years ago. Samurai was my first voyage into non-instant ramen—where I lost my ramen virginity, if you will. I recall taking a sip of the tonkotsu broth and proclaiming it “liquid bacon” for its porky richness. But since Samurai has become quite inconsistent in terms of quality, I was eager to see if the new restaurants could offer something better. Here’s my initial insight, based solely on the ramen I’ve sampled at each place to date:
1. Hokkaido Ramen Santouka is a true Japanese chain that’s expanded to numerous Asian countries. After opening several outlets in the United States (and Canada), they’ve opened their first free-standing American restaurant (the previous have been based in Japanese supermarkets) in Bellevue. The word “Hokkaido” in the name is a bit deceiving, as that island is more known for miso ramen than Kyushu Island’s tonkotsu style. But don’t be fooled: This is high quality tonkotsu ramen. You can get shoyu, miso, and spicy miso flavored tonkotsu, but Shio Ramen ($10.96) shows off the pork broth best. (Shio is also the one that comes with the pickled red plum.) The noodles aren’t true straight type, but in a break from “authenticity,” I enjoy the slight waviness to catch more of the broth while slurping. Asked how the overall ramen here differs from their Japanese shops, Santouka’s Chief of Sales Takahiro Igo said, “We cook the noodles just a few seconds longer over here.” Despite the slight softness, this is the best bowl of restaurant-quality ramen in Seattle. (I’m looking forward to trying Santouka’s tsukemen, which they started serving this summer—perfect for the warmer weather. Maybe Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson will be there as well?)
2. Jinya Ramen Bar is a Japanese-based restaurant that found success in Los Angeles and is now spreading in North America, with manager David Lim at the helm in Bellevue. Lim told me that while Japanese customers comprise 30% of the customer base, 40% are Chinese—who prefer softer noodles and lighter flavors. Therefore, he said, the ramen is geared a bit toward Chinese preferences, resulting in noodles that are softer than Santouka’s. (Lim’s observed that Westerners tend to let the soup cool, then complain that the noodles are too soft. “They need to slurp, but that’s a cultural thing,” he lamented.) The menu dances around a traditional tonkotsu preparation. Of the four “tonkotsu” ramen bowls, 3 have an egg, 2 have thick noodles, and 1 is a combined chicken and pork broth. Tonkotsu Red ($10.80) comes closest to traditional, though with non-traditional thick noodles (which I personally like better), but I preferred the garlicky flavor of the Tonkotsu Black ($11.80)—and if not going for authenticity, I am always happy to have a nicely seasoned soft-cooked egg. The ramen is good overall, but would be even better if the broth had more depth of flavor, and the noodles were more al dente.
3. Shibumi Izakaya is actually a Santa Fe import. Chef Eric Stapelman moved his restaurant to Seattle and serves up tonkotsu ramen as part of an extensive menu that includes ippins (small starter plates), agemono (fried food items), kushiyaki (grilled skewered food), and more. While not falling prey to the prevalent Wramen problem, the Tonkotsu Ramen ($15) falls short in quality in so many ways. To start, despite cloth napkins, the chopsticks are cheap disposables, therefore lacking weight and creating balance issues. Related to this, the paddle-like spoon is more messy than functional. On to more important matters, the broth is bland and lacks depth of flavor, seemingly trying to be saved by a generous sprinkling of chili oil. Worse, it isn’t hot enough. The wavy noodles, favorites of mine but not traditional for tonkotsu ramen, are simply too soft. While the pork (Kurobuta belly) is tender, it lacks smokiness and is relatively flavorless. I love mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), but it’s not necessarily what I need or want in my ramen. With its extensive sake, wine and spirits list, this expensive ramen seems to best appeal to Capitol Hill’s carefree cocktail-loving crowd.
So, Bellevue gets Japan, and Seattle gets Santa Fe. But the good news is that Kukai Ramen & Izakaya (became Kuzuki 1/16) is coming west from Bellevue with one or two restaurants, and Santouka is apparently already shopping for Seattle real estate. I also hear that Suika Snack Bar may expand south from Vancouver to open a Seattle spot, and while their oxtail ramen isn’t traditional, it sure is delicious.