Throw away those Styrofoam cups and hot water kettles; you’re in Tokyo now. It’s time to dig in to some real ramen: hand-cut noodles, savory soul-soothing soups, and slow-cooked slices of piquant pork. As the nation’s capital, Tokyo offers a little bit of every taste in the ramen lexicon. So tuck in to some gritty tonkotsu (pork bone), mellow shoyu (soy sauce), refined shio (salt), or hearty miso soup.
Although every one of the above varieties calls a different region of Japan home, Tokyo’s the place to be to try excellent examples of all… kinda like a ramen tasting set. Of course, you could always head to one of the city’s excellent ramen stadiums (for an example, go to Shin-Yokohama’s Raumen Museum), but it’s much more rewarding to start out with the restaurants below and scour the town for your favorite spots.
Ippudo has been described by a Tokyo native as “the McDonald’s of tonkotsu ramen,” and indeed, with locations throughout Japan – and even in New York – it’s hard to miss this place. The stylized kanji (一風堂) on the sign outside any location signal a brand consistency akin to the golden arches. The similarities, however, end there. Where the fast food giant prides itself on efficiently churning out as many sad hamburgers to equally sad customers, Ippudo is all about quality and distinction. This is one of the shops, after all, that took a funky, sometimes stinky regional specialty from faraway Kyushu and turned it into a worldwide phenomenon, adding and refining the flavor of pork bone stock with such creations as black sesame oil and especially well done karashi takana (spicy, leafy greens). It may not be the quintessential bowl of tonkotsu, but it’s one of the best you’ll get outside of Hakata.
Bring your appetite – and a lot of patience – for this one. Jiro is probably the most authentically “Tokyo” ramen out there. Skyrocketed to popularity from its Keio University-side main store, Jiro has been expanding throughout Tokyo for years now. Today, there are over 30 Jiro locations in the city, but beware: not all Jiros are equal. Contrary to Ippudo’s methods, Jiro relies on a more open franchise-style expansion scheme, which means that each location may differ substantially from its brothers. All will serve up a heavy but very vibrant tonkotsu-shoyu mix soup (probably the original Tokyo-style soup), loaded with thick, curly noodles and topped with an indecent amount of garlic. The staff will invariably ask you “ninniku irimasu ka?” which means “Do you want garlic?” The correct answer here is an enthusiastic “hai!” but only if you think you can handle a head of the stuff in your soup.
Remember that this place evolved to serve university students, meaning the portions can be absolutely gigantic (order the small, and you won’t leave hungry) and the noodles are served up with no frills or ceremony. You’ll be quickly served a heaping, slopping bowl, topped with ridiculously thick slices of chashu (pork) and a mountain of moyashi (bean sprouts) and cabbage. For the original Jiro experience, head to Mita in Minato-ku (港区 三田 2-16-4; 2-16-4 Mita, Minato-ku).
As the name suggests, Sapporo Ramen is originally from the city of Sapporo in frosty Hokkaido, the birthplace of hearty, satisfying miso ramen. A ramen trekker who travelled to Hokkaido to find the perfect bowl of miso came back to Tokyo and admitted that Sapporo Ramen’s Shibuya location was just as good as the stuff he’d been eating. Located right on Shibuya’s main strip (Center-Gai), it’s hard to miss this place.
Go on a cold, rainy (even better, snowy) day and order the full experience: thick, curly and chewy noodles swimming in a savory, deep miso-based broth, topped off with a soft-boiled egg, corn, and a little pat of butter (along with the other standard ramen toppings, of course). Add scallops or other famous Hokkaido seafood specialties, if you’re willing to pay the price. Another solid choice would be the kara-miso (spicy miso) ramen.
Perhaps a little bit off the beaten path for the average tourist, but definitely worth the trek, is this small but wildly popular establishment run by – get ready – a New Yorker. Ivan Orkin is an American changing the ramen scene in Tokyo with his modern, upscale take on the classics: shoyu and shio. The old guard of Tokyo ramen may not like to admit it, but Ivan is one of the best noodlers in town; his place has consistently been on the top of many a respected ramen reviewer’s list. It’s because of his flawless attention to detail and tradition that he has garnered so much respect in his field. Order the shio for a prime example of what can be done with this seemingly simple salt-based recipe: light, clear, and even refreshing, it’s a perfectly balanced soup that other shops often can’t seem to get right.
Because he’s usually working behind the counter on any given day, schmoozing with customers and directing his cooks in excellent Japanese, Ivan is an accessible and interesting host to guide the first-timer through their ramen rites. He’ll also enthusiastically describe his unique meshi (side dishes) – like the pork/roast tomato plate – that are not to be missed.