We may be experiencing a ramen boom here in the United States, but that doesn’t mean Japan can’t have its own ramen boom. Evidence: Just one year ago, Tokyo Ramen Street opened in the First Avenue Tokyo Station retail center, which includes about 100 stores and restaurants. Here you’ll find “Tokyo Character Street” with gift stores selling merchandise featuring popular Japanese anime and other characters, as well as “Gift Plaza” with its traditional Japanese confections—but our focus is on the ramen restaurants.
First, you must find Tokyo Ramen Street amidst the labyrinth of passageways, shops, and restaurants that comprise the Grand Central Station-like Tokyo Station. Watch for signs, or even better, ask someone official-looking “Ramen Street, doko desu ka?”
Eight of the best were invited to open at Tokyo Ramen Street, and the response has been stunning. The restaurants are open 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. with some variation, but go during prime lunch or dinner hours, and you’ll be sure to find lines. The longest lines are always at Rokurinsha, famous for its thick noodles served tsukemen-style with dipping sauce, where people are known to wait well over an hour for a precious seat.
With historic male appeal (though that’s changing), the ramen restaurants are mostly filled with salarymen (businessmen) in their ubiquitous white shirts and dark gray jackets—some wearing paper aprons to protect from oil stains. They wait patiently in the long lines, utilizing the time to message on their cellphones. Waiting times exceed eating times, as some say you should slurp your noodles and soup in seven minutes so that the ramen doesn’t get soft. And then it’s back to the hustle-and-bustle of work life.
If you’re not a salaryman, you’ll have time to survey the scene. For non-Japanese newcomers, there’s a mix of mystery and confusion, and it may be difficult to find someone to help. Posters and even a video provide information about the types of ramen available, so check out the photos. Or look inside the shops to see what kind of noodle bowls people are eating. Choices will include broth bases of miso, shoyu (soy sauce-based), and shio (salt-based), as well as other options.
When you find what you like and decide where to eat, you’ll typically need to buy a ticket from the machine at the entryway. Look for photos of ramen bowls on the machine. If you need help, there should be a worker nearby, and if you’re not sure what to order, ask for the “ichiban no ramen, kudasai.” (It means “number one ramen, please,” but the worker will probably be confused and just point you to the first ramen on the machine.) Hopefully they’ll direct you to a good one. Ramen bowls tend to run just under sen (1,000) yen, or about $10. Other buttons on the machine will be for eggs, extra noodles, meat, or side dishes.
Given the quality here, you’re unlikely to make a bad choice–just, perhaps, not your first choice. But maybe you’ll discover something new in the process. Enter the dining room, and you’ll hear the chefs welcome you with a scream of “Irrashaimase,” the rumble of trains passing by, and the sounds of slurping from happy customers, yourself the next one.
This may be the first sign that you’re close to Tokyo Ramen Street.
Here’s the primary entrance to Tokyo Ramen Street. Lines form from the start of lunch, especially at the extremely popular Rokurinsha, pictured.
You’ll find posters and even a video providing information about each of the ramen restaurants. You may not be able to read the writing, but the pictures can help you with your difficult decision-making. After all, it’s hard for one person to eat more than one bowl of ramen, so your vote is important.
It’s difficult to be dainty when slurping noodles and broth. Do as many Japanese salarymen do, by not hesitating to don a paper apron. This is noodle couture.
Salarymen slurping in unison at Honda, an up-and-coming ramen restaurant with an original location in a distant part of northern Tokyo. There are artistic bowls in the showcase.
Honda is an excellent place to try shoyu (soy sauce-based) ramen. The broth is made from “the perfect harmony” of chicken and fish. The egg comes whole, but you’ll find a runny, orange yolk inside. The nice portion of negi (a sort of Japanese leek that is hard to find and expensive in the United States) adds fabulous flavor to broth.
A popular side dish at Honda is this rice bowl with chashu pork, menma (bamboo shoots), half of a hard-boiled egg, negi, and a little green onion. Combined with a bowl of ramen, this constitutes serious carbo-loading (and cholesterol-loading).
A look inside Hirugao, part of the Setagaya group of ramen restaurants. This is another of the more popular places at Tokyo Ramen Street.
Start here at Hirugao’s ticketing machine. This one shows you photos of your ramen choices, as well as the common gyoza sidekick. Feed your money to the slot, and the machine will issue you tickets to give to one of the attendants.
At your table, you’ll find what you need for your ramen experience. (Note the ticket halves on the table.) Hashi (chopsticks) are in the drawer. From the left is a self-serve water pitcher (ramen will make you thirsty), spice powder, vinegar, toothpicks, soy sauce, black pepper, soup spoons, and napkins.
Chefs preparing the food at Hirugao. The workers are diligent and proud of their creations. It’s hot and hectic in the kitchen, but they march on. Note the double-fisted approach of the chef on the right, pouring two noodle baskets at the same time.
Fellow comrades in slurping. Eating ramen is quick, fun, and a somewhat serious affair.
Here’s Hirugao’s shio (salt-based) ramen. This is 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 hard-boiled egg, and a sheet of nori.
Gyoza is probably the most popular side dish at a ramen restaurant. They’re crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, and you dip them in soy sauce.
At Hirugao, you can go dumpling-crazy by also ordering a dish of wontons. Eat with a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar (mix in the accompanying negi and hot sauce), or, if you like, you can add the wontons to the ramen.
For dessert, Hirugao offers annin tofu, which is like an almond pudding. This one is unique, as it has a topping of lemon jelly, adding a welcome citrus note.
If you’ve finished all of your food, next on your to-do list is likely a need for lots of thirst-quenching water, a bathroom, and a nap to take care of your food coma.
Tokyo Ramen Street
At First Avenue Tokyo Station (map)
B1F Yaesu South Exit
(Originally published at Serious Eats on May 16, 2012.)