I recently returned from a two week impromptu adventure to Tokyo! The inspiration for this trip was most definitely food, and I wanted to make sure to enjoy as much tasty Japanese food as my budget would allow. That being said, my budget was not going to get me into Jiro’s or any other fine dining mecca. I decided to focus on cheap eats, including the omnipresent Ramen!
It seemed impossible to walk a mile and not find an amazing Ramen shop in Tokyo. To clarify, I am not talking about the dried bricks of un-digestible instant Ramen that spring to mind, but instead the amazing, hand made noodles combined with perfectly seasoned broth, and accompanied with soft boiled egg, seasoned meats, seaweed or many other interesting toppings. Let me show you the delicious noodles I had on my trip. My apologies that many of these don’t have names or addresses.
Shio Ramen, Narita
My first meal in Japan was late night, at a restaurant in Narita, which specialized in Okonomyiaki(Savory Japanese Pancakes) during the day, and changed over to a small Ramen Menu for late night fare. It was a simple broth, with a Chicken Stock base and finished with Shio(Salt), instead of several other varieties I found on my trip such as Miso, Shoyu and Tonkotsu. What an amazing welcome this was after a long flight and walk! The broth was rich and flavorful, the noodles were nicely chewy and the piece of pork was soft, fatty and ridiculously delicious. Looking back, it was probably in the top three bowls of Ramen I tried on my trip. I’d discover the next morning, Narita, which I thought was just a place with an airport, was a nice town in it’s own right with a beautiful shrine and gardens. I’d recommend spending at least a half day there if you are flying into Narita Airport.
Tsukemen Ramen, Nakano
The next Ramen I encountered was the following day, while wandering around Nakano in the Northwest Shinjuku District of Tokyo. I met a fellow traveler named Yoshi, from Osaka, who was staying at the same hostel as me. Together we wandered around the area for a while, through the crisscrossing maze of restaurants and shops, taking in the scenery and eventually stumbling into a steamy Ramen shop that I probably couldn’t find again in 100 years. There was a vending machine with no pictures and writing all in Japanese, where you placed your order. My three weeks of self-imposed Japanese training would help me to find the Tsukemen button, but luckily I had Yoshi there to translate the other options.
Tsukemen is a different version of Ramen, which is regarded as “dipping noodles”. They cook the noodles, and then quickly shock them with chilled water to stop the cooking when they are at their best. They then serve the noodles next to a bowl of broth which has been concentrated down. You take the noodles and swirl them around in the broth, then slurp them up. This meal included some extra sides of seaweed and soft-boiled eggs, as well as pork. The noodles were terrific, and the broth was rich and concentrated. My only gripe was more about Tsukemen than the specific Ramen. The first few bites were terrific, but every bite after was less and less hot as the broth was exposed to the noodles. I suppose it’s just a sacrifice to enjoy the perfectly cooked noodles and intense broth.
Shio Ramen, Asakusa
My next Ramen was a couple of days later at, what I think, was a chain restaurant in the Asakusa area. I learned the very important lesson during this visit, that not all Ramen are created equally. Though still delicious, and probably better than most every Ramen I’ve had in the US, this pork and bean sprout Ramen was a little bit too clean, and the noodles were a bit too soft for my liking. The pat of butter on top was a nice addition that upped the game of this otherwise forgettable bowl of noodles.
Gogyou @ Nishi-Azabu Five Elements
After a long day of wandering, I found the promised land. Tucked away on a side street of the otherwise tourist-dominated Roppongi area, I found Gogyou! (note: if you’re using Google Maps, be sure to search for Gogyou Nishi-Azabu, since there is another Gogyou in Roppongi which serves Italian inspired Japanese cuisine) I learned about Gogyou after reading of it in my friend Dominic’s blog Skillet Doux. At Gogyou, they serve a fairly unique Kogashi, or burned, Ramen. They have Kogashi-Miso and Kogashi-Shoyu selections to try, as well as a standard Tonkatsu and Shio, but trust me that the Kogashi-Miso is where it’s at.
This is not only the best bowl of Ramen I tried on my trip, but one of the top things I’ve eaten all year. They burn the Miso in a fiery show and add it to the Tonkotsu pork broth just before the Ramen is sent out. There is a layer of oil on top which keeps the soup scalding hot under the surface. The noodles are thinner, and I imagined they would be in danger of overcooking, but somehow they keep their chewy bite. The real star of the meal is that burnt Miso mixed with the broth. It’s got SO much depth of flavor that you will be stuck thinking about it for hours after you stumble from the restaurant, floating on a food high. It was such a memorable experience that I went back during my second week to have it one more time before I had to come back home. On the second visit, I got to try their Gyoza, which was also the best Gyoza of my trip, as well as a marinated cucumber dish that was also fantastic. Really, this place deserves a visit if you’re in Tokyo. I can’t sing it’s praises enough.
Gogyou Nishi-Azabu five elements
Tokyo, Minato-ku, Nishi-Azabu 1-4-36 Nishi Azabu Rojiman 1F
Rokurinsha, Tokyo Ramen Street, Tokyo Station
How could I not visit the place that David Chang, superstar New York chef and mischief maker, claimed has the best Ramen in Tokyo. On the “Noodle” episode of “Mind of a Chef”, available here, Chang refers to the broth and noodles as insane multiple times, so I had my hopes up for an amazing bowl of Tsukemen. The line outside the door wasn’t as long as it could have been, and after a short 20 minutes, I was led to the machine outside the front door of the restaurant. I selected the famous standard bowl of Tsukemen, and went back into line to wait for just a few more minutes before being seated. A couple minutes later, the Tsukemen appeared and I dug right in.
Of the three bowls of Tsukemen I tried during my trip, Rokurinsha definitely reigned supreme. By a long shot. The noodles were super thick and chewy, and played perfectly against the rich broth. Rokurinsha adds powdered bonito to their rich pork broth which definitely amps up the flavor and adds extra depth that I hadn’t found in other bowls. Just like my other Tsukemen experiences, the first few bites were heavenly and amazing, but the experience dwindled slightly as the broth started to cool. Maybe my technique was wrong, but I slurped down this meal in maybe 4-5 minutes. Still, even with the cooling broth, this was a super-memorable experience, and I would definitely go back and wait in line just as long or longer for another bowl.
Rokurinsha, Tokyo Ramen Street
Tokyo-to, Chiyoda-ku, Marunochi 1-9-1, 3286-0166
Kawa Tsukemen, Random Narita Noodle shop
I had to have one more bowl of Ramen before I headed back to the US, so I stopped off at Narita station, before the final Airport stops, and wandered around until I found a Ramen shop that was open during the day. I stumbled into a shop with a friendly staff that seemed to be training a new person behind the counter. I spotted a Kawa Tsukemen, spicy red pepper broth with dipping noodles, and decided to go with it! I don’t think the noodles were freshly made in shop, but they were still tasty and nicely chewy. I was craving a thicker noodle, but the thin wavy noodles were a surprisingly good vehicle for the spicy peppery broth.
The best part about this broth was the fact that it was scalding hot and oily enough to retain it’s heat a little better than other Tsukemen I tried on my visit. The downside is that it was fairly one dimensional, though nicely spicy. I realized after devouring this peppery feast, that I was headed to the airport for an 11 hour flight, and thought to myself that maybe this was the wrong decision for a final meal. Luckily, my stomach must have grown an iron casing after trying so many other interesting and unusual treats during my visit. No indigestion or heartburn plagued me as much as the thought that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy amazing Ramen or other sensational Tokyo eats for a long while.
Now that Ramen has been covered, look for future posts about ALL the other amazing experiences during my two weeks in Tokyo and Osaka, like Takoyaki, Yakitori, Sushi and Soba! Hooray Japan!