Recent news reports show that small shops are hurting the most.
The Nippon.com headline was ominous: “Ramen Bankruptcies on the rise.” Like most restaurants, Japan’s vibrant ramen scene is hurting as the nation continues to grapple with coronavirus. Restaurant bankruptcies overall are expected to hit an all-time high.
I scanned the English-language Japan Times and a few Reuters articles to get a clear picture, and found that while the larger ramen chains are surviving, small shops are feeling the most pain – a familiar pattern for restaurants worldwide.
Compounding the problems caused by lack of tourists and sheltering of residents are social distancing requirements. Given the usual elbow-to-elbow seating at small ramen shops, distancing further limits the number of guests they can legally handle. Some spots are using Ichiran-like dividers to serve more customers safely.
Reuters profiled Shirohachi, a small noodle shop in Tokyo. Despite not taking a salary since April and receiving over $29,000 in aid, owner/chef Tashiro Haga recently closed his shop. The foot traffic upon which he depended simply isn’t there anymore. Other shop owners would rather close than raise prices.
While I enjoy ramen at Japan’s chains like Nagi, Ippudo and Taishoken, it’s the single, mom-and-pop locations that, for me, speak to the soul of ramen and often surprise me with their quality, attention to detail and friendliness. One such place is Menya Nukaji, a tiny spot run by a married couple located on a quiet street a short walk from the bustling Shibuya crossing.
The place has fewer than ten seats, a limited menu, great craft beers and a friendly vibe. The tsukemen there was wonderful, in the same league as Taishoken. Scanning Google Maps, I was pleased to see that it remains open, as the latest review (five stars) was just a few days old.
Amidst the carnage, this was a small but optimistic sign. With the vaccine taking hold, the eventual return of tourists and more government aid, hopefully more small spots can make it through this crisis.
They are an important part of the life and culture of Japan, and of the neighborhoods they serve. As Hiroaki Nakazawa, a regular at Shirohachi for years, explained, “There’s only one place like this.”
Tonkotsu simplicity shines at this well-known ramen chain.
In Ramen Club we tend to focus on a broth’s complexity and largely base our ratings on that characteristic. More, deeper and surprise me have been my guiding principles. My bowl at Ippudo shifted my outlook solely based on the broth’s simplicity.
Ippudo, known as Hakata Ippūdō or Ippudo Shiromaru Base in Japan, is a restaurant chain with locations worldwide (Paris, Sydney, London, Beijing, among others). Ippudo is known for its tonkotsu ramen, and has been described as “the most famous tonkotsu ramen shop in the country,” though I can’t seem to source the origin of that description!
I visited Ippudo’s Umeda location in Osaka and was seated immediately at the counter. The vibe was friendly and the seats were well-padded for extra comfort (just like in NYC’s Ippudo). I started with their bite-size kyoza. Excellent! Perfect crispness on the skin, delicate wrapper and luscious filling.
I ordered the tonkotsu ramen. The presentation was simple and, at first glance, unimpressive. My first taste of the broth brought me back to my NYC Ippudo experience: simple, creamy, rich tonkotsu. Not complex, but delicious with good umami mouth feel.
The noodles were thin, firm and flavorful. Chashu was very good. Onions and burdock root strips were what you’d expect. A no frills, perfect bowl of tonkotsu ramen. The number of condiments that were available caught my attention and I started experimenting to good effect toward the end of the bowl.
Sidebar: My fellow Ramen Clubber, Michael, believes a bowl of ramen should be eaten and judged exactly as it came out of the kitchen. He thinks condiments are a crutch. I only partially agree. His is a European perspective that certainly applies to continental cuisine. The more I learn about Asian food, however, the more I realize that condiments can be an integral part of the meal, not a fix.
Tonkotsu is arguably the most popular style of ramen, so I can understand why Ichiran and Ippudo, both of which hail from Fukuoka (the originator of tonkotsu) are so well-known. My prior review assessed Ichiran’s tonkotsu as respectable, but not great. I’d give the clear edge to Ippudo, which takes this basic dish to a much higher level.
Powerful flavors abound in this elegant restaurant’s specialty: burnt miso ramen.
A first impression upon entering Gogyo is a mild blast of heat and flame coming from your left, as the chefs concoct the restaurant’s main attraction: burnt miso ramen. Using wok-like pans and open flames in the traditional Asian manner, they scorch the broth at very high heat with lard until it turns into a dark brown or black color.
My friend Kyla heard about this technique and commandeered several of us from our Ten Thousand Waves tour group. She knew the restaurant was popular so she made reservations. The way this place does reservations is pretty cool: you advance pay an extra 400¥ (less than $4) to hold the reservation, but when seated you get a special appetizer for the effort. I had the spicy chicken wings, which were good.
Kyoto Gogyo (there are five locations throughout Japan) is located a few minutes walk from the famous Nishiki Market. It’s a modern, beautifully designed restaurant with several large rooms, an outdoor section, a small rock garden and very comfortable seats. You can sit at the counter, though it might be a bit warm.
The bowl was set in front of me, and I’d never seen a broth quite like this. Inky black with many tiny dots of burnt miso flakes floating around. The first visual impression is that it will taste too oily, but that wasn’t the case for me (though some Google reviewers disagree). The broth is thin and liquidy, not thick at all, but very rich in flavor. The burnt miso has a charred, barbecue-like taste that packs a punch. Bold, but not excessive, in that the richness has a unique personality that speaks to a level of refinement. The chefs know what they’re doing.
The noodles were thicker than the usual ramen noodles and had a nice depth to them. This broth would have overwhelmed a lesser noodle, but these stood up to the rich flavors. Extra noodles are free. The chasu was very good.
Gogyo was a culinary highlight of this particular Japan trip and I count it among the best ramen experiences I’ve had. It may be too rich for some, and I certainly wouldn’t have this as my everyday ramen. It’s special. If you’re in Kyoto, I highly recommend it.
Desperate times call for desperate eating measures (and please contribute to your local restaurant worker relief funds!).
Mensho, Iza and Hinodeya are only doing takeout. Nojo is closed. That’s a quick scan of a few ramen spots we like in San Francisco. While the inability to slurp ramen is the least of our concerns these days, I’m beginning to miss the experience.
Takeout ramen is a tough sell for me, plus my wife and I are sheltering in place. So in an attempt to ease the longing, I’m trying a few of the new breed of instant ramen. Today it’s Mike’s Mighty Good, which tries to piggyback on the restaurant ramen craze by calling its product “craft ramen.”
Finding some of Mike’s products wasn’t easy last week, at least at my local Whole Foods. Today, supplies were better. I tried the fried garlic chicken first, thinking some leftover dark meat chicken would suffice for the protein topping.
The product comes with two packets: broth powder and oil. Boil water, add noodles, mix in the packets – done. Since I hardly ever eat instant ramen, I have nothing to compare to Mike’s. I was hoping to find something notable about it, even with diminished expectations. Not really.
The broth was thin, spiked with some pepper. Noodles were OK, I suppose, and I was pleased they were organic. My chicken slices and some leftover cooked spinach kept this meal from being a bore. Next time I might try adding a 6-minute egg. As a newbie to instant ramen, I’m assuming those in the know add as many toppings and flavorings as possible.
No star rating, as instant ramen isn’t really what we do here. Next time I will try one of the instant ramens that come in those large plastic bowls. Maybe I’ll find a reasonable substitute to ease my longing.
Until things open up again, I urge you to find a local restaurant worker’s relief fund in your area, or a social fund specifically for your favorite ramen place. Here’s one for Oakland’s Ramen Shop.
Or maybe purchase a gift certificate you can use in better times. Restaurants are hurting right now and some will not survive the next few months. Please do what you can.
A good bowl of ramen in a comfortable, well-designed setting. Order the upgrade!
The first thing I noticed upon entering Waraku is the decor. This is a real restaurant, where the owner put some thought into its look and feel, distinct from the spartan or cool design of many U.S. ramen places, where slurp-and-run is the implied message to customers. There are wood beams and panels that create architectural interest and appear authentic. The waitress confirmed they originated from a building in Japan.
The place was full, but no line. We waited just a few minutes for a table on a weekday evening. Noise level: blessedly, not too loud. And so we settled into a cozy booth.
The menu leads with two tonkotsu ramen choices (regular and roasted garlic), and also offers shoyu, veggie, spicy tan-tan and tsukemen.
David and I went for the tonkotsu, and Michael, for the shoyu. We all “upgraded” to the deluxe version with extra chashu and other ingredients.
Of course, we always start with gyoza. These were lackluster, primarily because the wrapper was thick and doughy – what you’d expect at a lesser Chinese restaurant. The filling was nice; well balanced and tasty, but could have been more flavorful.
Before I critique the ramen, I must note the condiments. In addition to the traditional chili oil and ubiquitous-in-Japan togarashi (blend of pepper flakes used like salt and pepper), there was a bowl of whole garlic cloves and a handy garlic crusher. I’ve seen raw pre-crushed garlic before, but never whole cloves.
The ramen arrived and the bowl certainly looked abundant with the upgrade to “deluxe.” I’d call the broth a standard tonkotsu: flavorful, a bit creamy, but – for me – in need of some condiments to boost the flavor. By itself, the broth wasn’t particularly complex. If you’ve had Ippudo’s tonkotsu broth before, Waraku’s will be familiar.
The noodles were good quality and sufficiently firm. The ingredients were fresh. The highlight of the bowl for me was the chashu and the braised pork belly (kakuni) that came with the upgrade. They were both tender and flavorful, with a nice char and just enough fat content.
As I neared the bottom of the bowl, I started adding condiments (I passed on the whole garlic cloves), which elevated the broth. I’m still figuring out my relationship with ramen condiments; do I always use them? At the start? Towards the end? Is my assumption that “the bowl” should stand on its own?
Though our socks remained on during the meal (😉), I’d say this is a really good bowl of ramen with high quality ingredients. And extra points for the comfort, decor and good service.
All in all, we enjoyed our meal and our time at Waraku. We will definitely go back, though with Hinodeya just around the corner, we will more consistently choose the latter.
Michael’s take on Waraku:
I went with the shoyu ramen, and actually got extra noodles – thinking they might not have enough in the standard bowl, and because I was hungry. I didn’t need them, as Waruku fills their bowls with just the right amount.
I need to take a tangent here, as it’s critical to my review. There are countless ways to make ramen, but for me, what separates the truly great Japanese style ramen from others is their attention to ingredients, and the time they put into making their base broth.
For the broth, bones are boiled for a very, very long time in water, with vegetables and spices. There simply is no sidestepping this process – although many ramen shops do so by adding flavorings after a simpler broth has been prepared. When they do this, they sacrifice depth and breadth of flavor. Waraku’s ramen is flavored by adding sauces to each bowl as they prepare it. Some people love this style of ramen – just look at the long lines at Mensho Tokyo in San Francisco. So far, I’m not a huge fan.
All that said, Waraku’s ramen is good. The noodles were a good quality, but needed to be much more al dente. They were too soft by the end of the meal. The special pork pieces they added were absolutely delicious.
As for condiments and spices at the table, when I go out to eat, I don’t want to have to spend time adding things to my meal so that it tastes right. That’s the restaurant’s job.
I’d give the food closer to 3 stars, and only that many because the special pork was really good.
A rare transcendent ramen experience at this tiny Michelin-starred restaurant.
So much has been written about Tsuta, the world’s first Michelin star ramen spot. It has been widely heralded in many credible media and on multiple TV programs. Its popularity has led to the inevitable opening of international locations (San Francisco review coming shortly). Could it possibly live up to the hype?
Tsuta was on my agenda on my 2018 Japan trip, but I hadn’t scheduled it. One sunny Tokyo day I found myself in the Sugamo neighborhood where Tsuta is located. I arrived late afternoon, luckily the right time of day to avoid a long line. I waited 40 minutes and was in.
Tsuta is a 9-seat, counter-only ramen spot. It has a modern interior with a high level of comfort, including padded stools with lower back support. I sat at the counter with high expectations, and immediately I was struck by a few things I’d never seen before at a ramen place. There was a placecard on the counter listing all ingredients and their geographic sources.
The other notable element was the silence. No one was talking. It wasn’t a formal atmosphere, but more a casual reverence for the meal we were about to consume. This only added to my sense of anticipation. There were no condiments on the counter; interesting, in that many of the better ramen places I’ve visited in Japan have multiple condiments available.
I ordered the ajitama char siu shoyu soba with kamo wonton as a side dish. When the bowl was placed before me, I knew I was in for something special. My first taste of the broth confirmed it. It had a complexity of umami that lingered on the palette. I’m not the biggest fan of truffles, but the black truffle oil added to the uniqueness of the umami flavors.
The noodles were delicious; perfectly firm. I knew why the restaurant tagline is “Japanese Soba Noodles” – they had the rich flavor one expects from unadorned soba. The noodles are from multiple grain types and custom-made in a small room in the restaurant. The chashu was very thin, more like carpaccio. It arrived in the bowl pink, with the final cooking phase handled by the broth. It was very tasty with just the right amount of fat and char. Egg: perfect. Vegetables: perfect. The kamo wonton, which I dunked in the broth before eating, were simply luscious.
Tsuta is clearly playing at a rarified level of ramen excellence, with chef owner Yuki Onishi living up to his “ambitious desire to create truly original flavours,” as noted in its website. Up until this day, I had two ramen experiences I considered transcendent, in that it changed my perception of what ramen could be. Tsuta was my third such experience. I left feeling elevated. I spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the Sugamo neighborhood with a grin, knowing that this experience would be one of my most memorable in Japan.
Expectations were high. Maybe too high for this really good ramen chain from Japan.
I was excited about my first visit to the new Ramen Nagi US location in Palo Alto. The Yelp reviews are stellar, and this company has a great reputation in Japan. So expectations were high.
I arrived 25 minutes before its noon opening on a sunny Saturday, and there were at least 20 people in line before me. Within minutes there were 15 people behind me. A staffer handed out their menu/preference sheet and explained how it all worked.
At noon exactly, the doors opened. Very efficient and friendly staff. The restaurant is modern with comfortable seating – all with padded backs! Many ramen shops have hard, backless seating, so this was a welcome touch.
I sat at the counter and was immediately impressed by the variety of condiments. Six of them: very hot pepper mixed with greens, sweet bean sprouts, vinegar, a sesame seed grinder, and two pepper shakers with different degrees of heat. Also on the counter was a tissue dispenser, a common replacement for napkins in some Japan shops, and a self-service carafe of water.
I started with the (pork) gyoza, as usual. They were excellent, all six of them presented in a light, crusty shell top (I was hungry and forgot to take a photo).
I ordered the Original King, their basic signature tonkotsu ramen, and ordered pork belly instead of chashu. The broth was very good, flavorful though not particularly complex. The noodles were fresh and firm, as ordered, though didn’t have much personality or distinct flavor. The pork belly was tasty and moist, though a bit dry in a few places. I was looking for a layer of fat in the pork belly, though there was none. No egg included in main bowl.
I found myself experimenting with the condiments to spike the flavors. (Are condiments to ramen, like mustard/ketchup are to burgers? For some reason, I’ve started my ramen journey thinking the bowl – as served – should stand alone. More on condiments in a future post.)
I enjoyed this ramen. It was really good. And it wasn’t special. I say this with some reservation. Because my expectations were so high, I was expecting special. Plus, in looking at some of the other bowls coming out of the kitchen – they looked quite elaborate (black squid ink and others) – I think I will give Nagi another try with my Ramen Clubbers before drawing a final conclusion. So consider this review #1. For now, Nagi is certainly recommended.
Next week two ramen festivals overlap in Tokyo. If you’re there, go for a taste of ramen styles throughout Japan.
The annual Tokyo Ramen Show begins this week, running October 24 through November 4 at Komazawa Olympic Park. This overlaps with the month-long Dai Tsukemen Haku competition to crown the best tsukemen ramen in the country, running through November 3.
On my trip to Japan last fall I discovered, last-minute, that I’d be there for the Tokyo Ramen Show. What luck! The show is outdoors in an open-air promenade setting built for the 1964 Summer Olympics (some 2020 Olympic events will be held there). The show features 36 different ramen purveyors – 18 for the first six days, then the next set of 18 over the remaining 6 days. It’s free to get in, and only costs $8 USD for a ticket that entitles you to one bowl of ramen.
This is a stellar opportunity to taste some of the regional differences in ramen all in one place. The lobster ramen seemed compelling, as did the all-meatball bowl. But how to choose among 18 different booths!? Just like visiting a “ramen street” in a Japanese city, I used the standard technique: find the longest line and stand in it! It turned out to be a Sapporo-based restaurant (didn’t write down their name).
The dish I had was an “aged miso ramen.” The actual serving bowl was plastic – unfortunate, but I suppose necessary for this venue. The broth had red flakes and appeared very spicy hot. But, tasting it, there was only subtle heat that, for my taste, was just enough. The semi-clear miso-based broth was delicious with a rich flavor. The noodles were firm (thankfully common in Japan), and the pork slices – for which I had to pay extra – were thick and flavorful, though not particularly juicy.
All in all, it was a good, well-balanced, lightly spiced bowl of ramen. It certainly wasn’t one of the best I’ve had in Japan, but worth the visit to the festival, especially for the fun of it. I’m not calling this an actual review, but I suppose I’d put it in the range of 3 to 3-1/2 stars (out of 5).
I didn’t make it to the Dai Tsukemen Haku competition, but I’ve seen it covered on YouTube and elsewhere. Take a look at this 2016 video from Ramen Adventures.
A lesson I learned is to plan ahead next time, as there’s no way you can sample so many bowls in a day. And everyone served standard bowls, not the half-bowls you see offered sometimes. So I’d come in the morning, have a bowl; then take a walk before my second bowl in the afternoon. Going with some friends and sharing tastes is a better idea.
Good ramen, great service and fun vibe in a modern, casual setting.
“With all that Montreal offers, you’re eating ramen?” You bet your chashu I am! As I explored Yelp, Kinton Ramen had the best reviews here, so I gave it a try last week. I visited the Avenue Union spot, which is their second Montreal location. It’s a modern, airy space with a large bronze pig on the far wall capturing your attention as you enter.
The entire staff appears to be Japanese and a number of guests were also. You’re greeted by the chefs and wait staff as you enter, and thanked as you leave. Wait team was very friendly and helpful. The menu has seven different types of ramen and many appetizers. A few desserts too. A special menu featured their tsukemen.
I ordered the gyoza and the pork shoyu ramen with the addition of an egg (egg not included in all bowls). The gyoza were deep fried to a medium-light crisp, giving the outer skin a nice crunch. The pork and vegetable filling, however, was pretty flat. The ingredients were fresh, but had little flavor. The spicy sauce drizzled on the gyoza was fine.
The ramen bowl made a nice initial presentation and reminded me of the standard tonkotsu bowl offered at Ippudo or Mensho. The broth was a combo of tonkotsu and soy, leaning more toward tonkotsu, but not as creamy. It had good flavor. Very respectable.
The high point for me was the noodles, an element into which many places tend to put less effort (in my opinion). You get a choice between thick or thin; I got the former. They were perfectly cooked – slightly al dente, and had a nice flavor reminiscent of good egg noodles. Often the noodles aren’t a standout, but here they are.
There were two pieces of chashu, a little fatty and with good flavor. I enjoyed the first piece. However the second slice was cut noticeably thicker than the first and had less fat content. This inconsistency, albeit small, had a discernible impact, making it chewy and much less delectable than the first. I suspect I was given an end piece. If it seems I am harping on a tiny point, it’s the small things that combine to make a good dish. In this case, this one small thing was a bit disappointing. The egg was well cooked in soy with a gooey center. I liked the nori sheets. There were no other items in the bowl.
Blessedly, the seating and tables were comfortable and the entire atmosphere was clean, modern and fresh. Several customers wanted photos taken with the wait staff, and they accommodated them with pre-prepared Kinton mini-posters and hand signs. Fun!
The overall food impression was good, well-prepared and respectable, with a few gaps that kept it out of the very good to excellent category. I wanted to like Kinton more due to the atmosphere and friendly vibe. Though I will admit, without having tried some their other bowls, I’m offering a limited impression. That said, I can safely say Kinton is worth a visit.
In my first full day in Osaka last October, I wanted to have a ramen experience that wasn’t a name brand or over-reviewed.
So I came across Ramen Kikuhan in the Nakazakinishi neighborhood – close to the center city, but quiet, in an area of small streets traversed mainly by locals.
It was a small 10-12 seat place with counter seating only. No English menu and the English skills of the staff were very limited. Google Translate to the rescue….not! It just added to the confusion. I ordered what I thought was the combination chicken and pork bone broth.
What I ended up with was spicy miso combined with both chicken and pork bone broth. Their special. The meatballs in the dish were a surprise: chicken and very tasty. The pork slices were delicious and more substantive than what you might normally expect. There was corn in the dish, which worked very well. There were sliced mushrooms and the eggs were absolutely perfect. The yoke gently slid out of the egg white as you lifted it with your spoon.
The noodles were served al dente and they had substance and flavor all their own. Chewy and nutty. For me, this is a key characteristic of a great ramen. The broth was wonderful, though it was perhaps slightly more spicy/salty than I would normally like, but not too much. It was so thick it could be used with tsukemen.
The vibe of the place is small, neighborhoody and friendly. Comfortable, padded stools. I paid 850 yen, or just under 8 dollars, for a fabulous bowl of ramen. Definitely recommended.