I probably could have eaten ramen everyday I was in Japan, but that would have been counterproductive to my effort to find all the great varieties of Japanese cuisine. An unfortunate reality is that ramen outside of Japan is a second-rate dish. The sheer volume of ramen joints in Japan, and Tokyo in particular, and the quasi-competitive atmosphere in which it is produced by dedicated producers, makes ramen a destination food when visiting Japan. Along the way, I picked up a Tokyo ramen book from the folks who publish the Tabearuki guides (in Japanese) to find my way to some good places. I cross-checked this book to find the recommendations I got from two reliable sources: Aki from the NY boards, and my cousin, who I found out is a real chowhound. I did find my way to 4 great ramen joints in Tokyo (out of the hundreds more I could have ventured into).
Shinagawa-ku, Nakanobu 2-15-10, tel. 03-3787-2100
This place is constantly jammed with people lined up outside. They are open for limited hours (11:30-2:00, 5:30-8:00) which must be nice for the owners after serving up bowls of ramen from opening to closing. My cousin brought me here with his two daughters, and we figured we'd try to get here on the early side on a rainy Saturday to beat the crowds. By 11am, there was already a long line, and we waited about 30 minutes to get in (being 4 people probably tacked on 10 minutes to that wait). Takano specializes in Niboshi ramen (a meat based soup flavored with anchovies). I got the plain ramen to taste it unadorned (see photo). My cousin got the goma-kara men (with added sesame and hot oil), and the two girls got the tsuke-soba, where the noodles are separate from the soup that's just a tad more concentrated in flavor. I got to sample all of these, and it was the first time I've had a niboshi flavored ramen. The niboshi flavor isn't overpowering, but it's there and adds a great flavor to the soup. Although I liked the goma-kara, you lose some of the subtlety of the niboshi. The accompanying cha-shu and the soft boiled egg were all premium ingredients.
Minato-ku, Nishiazabu 3-21-24, tel 03-3408-4775
I was told by Aki from the NY boards that this place serves the best tonkotsu ramen in Tokyo. I've had varieties of tonkotsu ramen in NY and LA and they were decent, but knew I was missing something. I was blown away by how good the soup was here. The consistency of the soup resembled a thick cream--an intensely pork flavored cream. The noodles here were on the fine side and played a pleasant second fiddle to the soup. I was so completely focused on the soup that I have no recollection of the other ingredients in the ramen bowl. Having realized that I was experiencing the real deal for the first time, I had no idea how to rate this. I was reminded of the first time I had foie gras when I was in southwestern france. I finally understood what the big deal was.
Shinjuku-ku, Nishishinjuku 1-4-10, tel. 03-3340-2727
Another of Aki's recommendations, he told me this place makes the best cha-shu -- but nothing like the cha-shu you've seen before. He was right. When you order the cha-shu ramen (not cheap, 1300 yen) you get almost a half loin of pork. I counted 3 or 4 inch-thick pieces of tender pork. Unlike at Akanoren, I was so focused on the pork, that I don't remember much about the soup or the noodles. The pork was obviously the main product here. I noticed that most people were eating the cha-shu zaru ramen (where the soup and noodles are served separately), which my ramen book recommended for their osusume (specialty) item, priced at a more reasonable 1100 yen. Unfortunately, I went to Manrai thinking I could handle a ramen as an afternoon snack after I've had lunch elsewhere. I was struggling to eat that last hunk of pork. I felt bad leaving with a half-finished bowl--a big no-no in the most respected ramen places. I made sure to apologize as I was leaving.
Chikuhou Ramen Basaraka
Shibuya-ku, Jingumae 4-29-7, tel. 03-3470-4566
I was wandering around Omotesando doori near Harajuku station while I had a few hours to kill before dinner. I pulled out my ramen guide to see where the nearest recommended ramen shop was, and there was one just blocks from where I was. While I didn't have the same reaction as I did at Akanoren, I was still in awe of the creamy tonkotsu soup at Chikuhou as well. The soup here seemed nicely balanced while the soup at Akanoren was more or less in-your-face pork. These two being the only two Tokyo tonkotsu ramen specialists I went to, I was pretty impressed with the consistency between these two spots. Nothing I've had in the US can even touch these two examples of what seem to be very fine ramen shops. I slurped my way through my plain ramen bowl (no extra cha-shu faux pas this evening before going out for a real dinner) and thanked the ramen man and was off to wander the neighborhood some more before my next meal.
While I wouldn't call myself a ramen neophyte, I feel like I'm getting an education on what "real" ramen is suppose to taste like, and how to judge them on their own merits. Visiting 4 Tokyo ramen joints certainly doesn't cut into the vast repertoire, but it's a start (I did visit three others in Okayama). I can't wait to return for my next lessons.