Laziness is one of my strong suits, and keeping true to form, I haven’t updated this blog in ages. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but work and the social life have been keeping me busy — and even though it takes a few minutes to read a blog entry, it actually takes much longer to write one. At least it does for me.
Anyways, I decided today to offer my 2 cents on the issue of rāmen. This is a crazy topic to cover because there are so many people with rāmen mania here. Luckily I have 3-4 rāmen otaku among my Japanese friends who taught me well about the virtues (and pitfalls) of rāmen. I just want to list my TOP 5 or so rāmen and make a quick statement about mistakes that most foreigners make in Japan.
ALL rāmen IS NOT CREATED EQUAL.
To the uninitiated, rāmen culture in Japan is half epicurean wet dream and mystical mumbo jumbo about rāmen chefs who put their heart and soul into a bowl of noodles. We can thank the movie industry for this impression. If you want to read something deep and profound into it, by all means go ahead. But keep in mind that just because you pass a rāmen joint on the street doesn’t mean it’s the good stuff. Japanese cities are littered with rāmen shops and the reality is most of them suck. Just because a shop is always crowded doesn’t mean it’s something special. Granted, compared to rāmen you get in the states, even shitty Japanese rāmen is superior. But just because you can eat shitty rāmen that’s better than back home doesn’t mean you should.
And this brings me to my point:
There is rāmen.
And there is NEXT LEVEL rāmen.
What I consider next level rāmen is something gourmet. A daring twist on the tried and true noodles and soup game. These shops are famous and often pricey. But these shops offer rāmen elevated to the level of high art. They will turn you into a rāmen snob. They will make you curse the day you ever put instant rāmen in your body. They will change the way you look noodles of any kind… including soba, rice noodles and even pasta.
And so without further ado, I present my Top 5 Rāmen Shops of Tokyo. Please note, that these are in no particular order because, quite frankly, I can’t decide which is better and it probably depends on which one I’m craving the most at the moment. But you can’t go wrong at any of these shops.
1. Bassa Nova
I think my #4 and #5 are probably the most famous of all these shops (Ippudo has quite a few shops around Tokyo and also a NYC shop and a rather nasty tasting instant version available at 7-11. Nantsu-ttei has a few shops too and is regularly voted best rāmen in Japan on various rāmen ranking shows on TV). I also tried to include various styles of rāmen here. So let’s take a look at what’s in store for you at each shop!
1. BASSA NOVA
You will quickly forget all about the seemingly misspelled name and find yourself eating one of the most unique rāmen in all of Tokyo. Breaking away from the typical classifications of shoyu, miso, shio and tonkatsu rāmen, BASSA NOVA offers a fusion Thai and Japanese tastes. My usual is the mix of fish stock and thai taste, usually I add nori as a topping. I always order a side of chashu. The soup is light but full of flavor and the noodles are thin (so you can eat kaedama easily if you need it). The crowning achievement, in my opinion, is the chashu which has a smokey flavor and is grilled over fire before being added to the rāmen. The shop is a bit out of the way, located in Shindaita, but well worth the trip.
This shop offers the thrill of delicious shoyu rāmen plus the added excitement of burning soup!! Fire! Fire! Fire! The specialties here are 焦がし醤油 (burnt soy sauce) and 焦がし味噌 (burnt miso) soups. My personal recommendation is burnt soy sauce, as the miso is bit heavy for my taste. The shop is classy too. You can take a date there and sit at the counter and watch the chef burn your soup!!
Famous for Yuzu Shio Rāmen. Yuzu is a kind of Japanese citrus fruit (like a sweet lemon) and shio is, of course, salt. The soup is light and if you get the low grease one, even more delicious. The noodles are thin. I like to add nori as a topping because… it goes so well with the soup. The chashu is succulent but plain to highlight the delicate taste of the soup. It’s a great place to take girls who love rāmen but don’t want to eat a heavy bowl of noodles.
To many people, tonkotsu rāmen is the epitome of rāmen. It’s a complex soup based on melting down pig bones and pig fat into a thick and fatty mixture that supposedly originated in Hakata (a city in Kyushu). And while tonkotsu (the name mean “pig bones,” not to be confused with tonkatsu which means “pork cutlet”) is loved and cherished by all, the shops are a dime a dozen. It takes a lot of searching and experience to find a special tonkotsu rāmen like Nantsu-ttei. Nantsu-ttei offers a black soup colored by mā-abura (ma oil). Don’t ask me what mā-abura is, cuz I don’t know. But it tastes damn good. This rāmen is heavy and greasy (most tonkotsu rāmen is), so I don’t recommend it in the summer. But in the winter it really hits the spot.
This shop also offers tonkotsu rāmen, but this one is more typical than Nantsu-ttei. But don’t let that fool you – this is no ordinary rāmen. This shop is hugely successful, boasting many chain shops across the country and a line a instant rāmen and even a shop in NYC. (Don’t bother with the instant version, it’s BAD!!!) I generally go for the aka-maru 赤丸, which has a little spice to it. I think this is a good “starter rāmen” – when my friends visit Japan and want to eat rāmen, I usually take them here first.
So, there you have it. My TOP 5 Tokyo Ramen Shops. I’d love to hear what your top 5 is!! Bring it on!!