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 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.
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 flavoured by the addition of 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? Good. We tapped top chefs from around the U.S. to find out where they go—and the bowls they order.
1F UF Bld. 4,4-9-4 Roppongi, Minato-ku
According to David Chang, founder of the Momofuku empire, 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 favourites. Their signature is a yuzu ramen, with tender cha shu (marinated pork belly), chewy noodles, that perfectly soft boiled egg. I like a kick of citrus in my ramen.”
2-14-3 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku
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, flavourful 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 street close to Shinjuku, home to the world’s busiest train station.
4-4-1 Ginza, Chou-ku
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. The specialty is a luxurious, creamy coloured 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.
1-7-12 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku
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. If pressed to pick a favourite, 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 favourite in Japan.” Suzuran’s Kakuni Tanmen (hot noodles)is a dish of sumptuous, braised pork belly, served alongside a bowl of elegant thin noodles in warm broth.
1-1-39 Kitayamada, Tsuzuki-ku, Yokohama
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 favourite spot in Tokyo is a little-known mom-and-pop place called Kondouya, 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.”
2-11 Skuragaokacho, Shibuya-ku
For those looking for an unconventional ramen experience, you can’t go wrong with tantanmen, which evokes the chili-spiked Chinese dish, dan dan noodles. Here, close to the Shibuya train station, Asuka even offers tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) as a topping.
“The place is special because they offer a very crispy pork topping with a slightly curry flavour,” explains chef Michael Anthony. “Along with a really thick sesame soup and Chinese-style noodles—it’s the best marriage.” Anthony, whose own restaurant is completely dictated by seasonal ingredients, has an additional reason for liking Asuka. He notes: “In the winter, they serve hot Tantanmen, and in the summer, they serve it cold.”
2-26-2 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku
In business since 1992, Tonchin is a pioneer of Tokyo tonkotsu ramen—which includes such ingredients as chicken and vegetables in the broth, in addition to the usual pork overload. Unlike many ramen shops, this one allows customization: You have a choice of noodles cooked soft, normal, or firm, and you also select how much pork fat you want (none, normal, or, if you’re reckless, more).
“I’ve been there more than 50 times!” brags star sushi chef Daisuke Nakazawa of Tonchin’s Toshima location. “It’s cheap and tasty.” Tonchin now has seven outlets around Tokyo, as well as shops in Taiwan and Shanghai. Its first stateside location will come to New York in the fall.
Nagi Golden Gai
1-1-10 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku
There’s a lot to like about the spot favored by Top Chef Masters star Douglas Keane, including the unconventional ramen served at one of five locations—niboshi style, with a fishy broth and thicker-than-usual noodles. Keane explains: “First of all, the location in Kabukicho is epic. It’s almost always jam-packed, but it’s in the bar district, so you can drink while you wait on the street. The broth has intense, yet perfect fish flavour—it’s made from dried sardines. I always add chashu pork and an egg. And if possible, I like to sneak in some heat and add pepper oil, depending on my level of intoxication.”