Ramen Shops That'll Bowl You Over

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By Daniel Shumski
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 3, 2008

In Japan, ramen is more than just a quick meal. It's a phenomenon. There are ramen magazines, ramen Web sites, even ramen celebrities. Most important, there are the shops serving ramen -- thousands of them in Tokyo alone.

If the ramen you know comes in a foam cup, or from a disturbingly uniform brick of dry, wavy noodles, you have a whole new world of ramen to discover.

Noodles and broth are constants, but variations abound. Noodles come in varying degrees of thickness and firmness. Broth styles include shio (clear broth), shoyu (darker broth with soy sauce), miso (broth with the fermented, salty paste of the same name) and tonkotsu (a slow-cooked pork broth). Shops typically charge between $6 and $8 for a bowl, with some offering lunch specials.

For a crash course in ramen, head about an hour outside of Tokyo to the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum (2-14-21 Shin-Yokohama, Kohoku-ku), where a pamphlet in English and a collection of displays provide history. But people don't come to the ramen museum as scholars; they come as diners, eager to eat at any of the eight ramen shops gathered under one roof. The eateries, like many across the country, operate on a ticket system. March up to the ticket machine, study the pictures next to the buttons and make your selection. The machine spits out a ticket to present to your server. (The pictures on the machine make ordering less intimidating, but the tiny photos can start to look alike.) The museum's pamphlet gives blurbs on each shop, but if you don't know Japanese, you might not know exactly what you're eating until the bowl is in front of you, and perhaps not even then.

Back in Tokyo, Ramen Jiro has multiple locations and serves a rich, fatty bowl not for the faint of heart. The Ikebukuro location of Jiro (2-27-17 South Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku) offers an intense ramen experience a few steps off the area's brightly lit main streets. The shop serves patrons on stools around a U-shape counter in sparsely decorated, tight quarters. The service is polite but streamlined: Your order is taken before you sit down, and once you grab a seat, the focus is on eating, not chatting. The firm noodles, slightly thicker than spaghetti, sit under a mound of bean sprouts and several thick slices of pork. The broth is a marriage of two styles: shoyu and tonkotsu, the latter providing the deep pork taste. As your chopsticks pluck noodles from the bowl, globules of fat bob up and down in the rich brown broth.

Another ramen shop, Ippudo, is a livelier place that recently caused a splash by opening a branch in New York. The Ueno location (3-17-5 Ueno, Taito-ku) is about a 10-minute walk from the museums and shopping around the rail station and offers a friendly atmosphere with a long wooden bar and a few tables. A bowl with the spicy miso broth makes a satisfying meal. You can fine-tune your order by choosing from four levels of heat and five degrees of noodle firmness. A medium-low spice level gives the broth some zing without inflicting damage, and medium firmness gives the thin noodles a pleasant bit of chew. Served on the side are a half soft-boiled egg, two small pieces of pork and a mound of rice, which can be plopped into the broth once you've polished off the noodles. Top it all off by piling on spicy bean sprouts or crushing a clove of fresh garlic using the garlic press on the table.

If you run out of noodles before you run out of broth here (as at many other ramen shops), you can request kaedama, another order of noodles.

Most ramen shops are good destinations for those eating alone, but one shop makes solo dining its business. Up a flight of stairs from a convenience store called AM/PM is the Roppongi branch of Ichiran (4-11-11 Roppongi, Minato-ku). Here the focus is squarely on the ramen, and Ichiran has gone to extreme lengths to remove distractions. Wooden dividers at the counter create individual booths, and a curtain in front of you conceals the server and kitchen staff. Once seated, you're invited to customize your ramen by filling out an order sheet (available in English). The restaurant recommends ordering a broth of medium richness and strength on the first visit, to get an idea of its base-line ramen.

With the sheet filled out, press the red button in the booth and slip the order through the narrow opening below the curtain. When the server returns with your food, he drops a second curtain, closing the small opening and leaving just you and your steaming bowl of ramen. The gimmick alone would probably draw customers, but fortunately Ichiran delivers on the food, too. Garnished with thin slices of green onions and a sprinkling of hot sauce, the slightly chewy noodles sit in a rich pork broth, served with two thin slabs of pork off to one side.

As you reach for your chopsticks, ready to tackle the ramen, here's one more thing to enjoy: slurping the noodles. It's perfectly acceptable.

For a comprehensive English-language blog on Tokyo ramen, check outhttp://www.ramentokyo.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company


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