Around the world, people obsess about this seemingly simple dish. But nowhere is it taken more seriously than in and around Tokyo, the ramen epicenter of the universe. Japan is almost certainly not the place where ramen was born; experts say it originated in China at the turn of the 19th century. By the 1920s it was being sold from carts in Tokyo. The massive city holds thousands of ramen shops, most of them small, family-run operations that are generally quite good.
Think of ramen as the pizza of Japan: a quick, fortifying meal, which may involve standing in line and is then quickly devoured. Yet for some, including food-obsessed tourists, it’s a meal worth stalking and savoring while they compile a list of their trophy bowls.
The best-known varieties of the all-important broth are shoyu (soy sauce), shio (sea salt), miso, and tonkotsu, made with so many pork bones that the broth is opaque and packed with fatty goodness. That is just the beginning. It’s worth getting to know other varieties as well: Tokyo Tonkotsu, which is lightened and flavored a bit by the addition of such items as chicken and vegetables; tantanmen, which evokes dan dan noodles in its pervasive spiciness; and tsukemen, which features chilled noodles, solo, with a bowl of saucy broth for dipping.
Now, are you ready to discover the best of the best ramen? Bloomberg tapped top chefs from around the U.S. who have spent enough time in Tokyo to pick their destination counters.
Credit: Bloomberg Pursuits
Recommended by chef/owner David Chang of Momofuku & chef/owner Dominique Ansel of Dominique Ansel
According to David Chang, founder of the Momofuku empire, as reported to Bloomberg, you haven’t done ramen right until you’ve gone to Afuri, where bowls are selected from a vending machine-like system. “The order I get has a lot of yuzu in the chicken-based broth,” says Chang. “It’s light and crisp and clean, and not traditional. It’s the direction I hope ramen is going. And I like that there are a lot of locations, so you can just head to the one closest to you.”
Pastry king Dominique Ansel agrees: “It's not the newest, but the classic Afuri Ramen in Ebisu has always been one of my favorites. Their signature is a yuzu ramen, with tender cha shu (marinated pork belly), chewy noodles, that perfectly soft boiled egg. I have a real thing for a kick of citrus in my ramen.”
Recommended by chef/owner Ken Oringer of Toro
When hot weather puts a bowl of steaming noodles farthest from your mind, consider tsukemen: The deconstructed ramen is presented as a bowl of chilled noodles that you dip in a dense, flavorful broth served alongside. When in Tokyo, connoisseurs head straight to Fuunji, where amazingly rich tsukemen is served with a concise, almost creamy chicken-and-fish broth, plus sliced pork and nori (dried seaweed).
“Pre-ordering via machine guarantees fast service once you get through the long line,” advises chef Ken Oringer. “Make sure you get extra noodles and dried smoked-fish powder on top." Find it on a small street conveniently close to Shinjuku, home to the world’s busiest train station.
Recommended by Mark Rosati, culinary director of Shake Shack
As part of his job overseeing the worldwide culinary programs at Shake Shack, Mark Rosati scouted prospective Tokyo locations, and, of course, ate everywhere he could. In the process, he fell for Kagari, the first Michelin-starred ramen shop, in the glitzy Ginza district.
“Their tori paitan ramen has a chicken broth on the level of richness and pleasure as most pork-based ramens,” Rosati raves. He’s not alone. There’s a perpetual line for the eight seats at the U-shaped counter around the tiny, open kitchen. Kagari is marked simply by a ‘Soba’ sign hanging out front. (Don’t let it fool you; the place doesn’t serve soba.) Instead, the specialty is a luxurious, creamy colored broth with slices of juicy chicken breast set on top. Diners have the option of enriching it by adding a knob of shallot- or garlic-infused butter, which comes on the side and is highly recommended.
Recommended by chef/owner Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen
If there’s a New York-born Jewish guy who knows his Tokyo ramen, it’s Ivan Orkin. He lived in the city for several years and turned his ramen obsession into a popular counter spot (now shuttered). If presse to pick a favorite, Orkin shouts out “Suzuran,” which dishes up a Chinese-style ramen, as opposed to an authentic Japanese version.
“This is not an undiscovered place,” notes Orkin. “It’s right in the middle of Tokyo. I usually go there within the first day or two of being back in Tokyo. A little more expensive than some places, but they have beautiful ramen served in beautiful bowls.” Orkin adds: “When I first started making ramen, I was going to model my noodles after theirs, that’s how good they are. They’re my very favorite in Japan.” Suzuran’s Kakuni Tanmen is a dish of sumptuous, braised pork belly, served alongside a bowl of elegant thin noodles
Recommended by chef/owner Masahi Ito of Sushi Zo
Masahi Ito is best known for the exquisite fish he serves at Sushi Zo in the U.S., but he was born in Japan and adores ramen. His favorite spot in Tokyo is a little-known mom-and-pop place called Kondouya, about an hour’s travel by train. Consider coming here a culinary adventure.
“One reason I like it is that there is only one broth,” says Ito of the tonkotsu specialty, so porky it’s cloudy. “I don’t care about a place with too many broth choices. You will have the tonkotsu ramen. It’s very rich and very heavy, with wavy noodles. Your only decision is whether to have the small or large bowl.”
Source: Bloomberg Pursuits