Free-flowing sake and late night karaoke lead me to eat more than a few bowls of ramen in Tokyo. Some were precautionary, consumed in haste before a night spent at the micro bars; others were medicinal, inhaled as a post-karaoke booze mop. I knew I would hit up my fare share of slurp shops while touring the city last month, but I didn’t know I’d get an education on lesser-known ramen styles along the way.
Before traveling in Japan, I had a vague idea that ramen culture went beyond the tonkatsu style I so happily slurped in the States. I’d seen all those Mind of a Chef episodes, flipped through Ivan’s book, and plowed through noodle shops everywhere from San Francisco to NYC, but despite all that, I was still surprised by the wide varieties of ramen in Tokyo. Here’s a look at some of my most peculiar finds:
“Assari” means “light” and references the clear, thin stock that’s the hallmark of this Tokyo-style ramen. Instead of boiling pork bones for hours on end, assari stock is cooked for a considerably shorter amount of time and benefits from the lighter flavors of vegetables, chicken bones, and fish bones.
Give this one a try at Konjiki Hototogisu in Shibuya. The eight-seater draws depressingly-long lines that, sadly, do not move swiftly. Of course, the wait is worth it. The broth here is what you’ve always wanted chicken soup to taste like…if your chicken soup also had some porky notes and a saline hit from the giant clam added to the stock.
Made from soy, chicken bones, and loads of dried sardines, niboshi broth packs some serious funk. While it’s somewhat shocking when pork-topped noodles taste of the sea, the flavor of the pungent swimmers actually plays well with the fatty meat and sweet egg yolk.
The undisputed king of niboshi ramen is at Nagi, a second-story dive hidden in the maze of Golden Gai’s micro bars. While the broth here is famous, I think the fat, squidgey noodles are equally notable. Join the queue in the alley below and wait to be called upstairs via the plastic tube snaking from the window above.
Think of this as the French dip of the ramen world. You get two bowls: one with plain noodles, and one with a pork broth so deeply reduced that it becomes more sauce than stock. Dunk the noodles in the sauce one chopstick-full at a time, then sluuuuurp like you mean it.
If you’re passing through Tokyo Station, head into the basement for Rokurinsha’s ultimate tsukemen. The broth/sauce here is made with a pretty wild combo of pork, chicken, sardines, bonito, and vegetables, and the noodles are the humungous, chewy kind that I love most. This is a major thoroughfare and lines are always long, but they move at a hopeful clip.
I’ll be swinging through Kyoto next month and plan on hunting down a bowl or two of that city’s famed kotteri-kei ramen, a spicy affair boosted with chili bean paste and white pepper. If you know where I can find the best bowl, hit me up in the comment section!