Worth the Wait

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, JapanWhen I’m searching for the best food in a particular area, I’m always hoping for a clear consensus.  If you come across recommendations for the same restaurant over and over again, then you can be reasonably assured that it’s going to be good.

Well, there’s very little doubt about it: Ramen Yashichi serves what everyone seems to agree is the best ramen in Osaka.  And holy crap, the place draws the crowds to prove it.

I showed up at around noon on a Friday; they have a system where they hand you a ticket that tells you when to come back, and I figured it’d be a half hour later.  Maybe an hour.

It told me to come back at 3:56 — almost four hours later.

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, Japan

Well, okay.  At least I won’t have to line up.

Except I absolutely did have to line up — I showed up at the allotted time to find about a dozen people waiting outside, so I spent about half an hour waiting to get in.  Then I got in and there was another line.  It took about ten more minutes.

But then I sat down and got to try the ramen, and it was like, yep.  I get it.  It’s a chicken-based shoyu ramen, and it was absurdly good.  It was a bit more oniony than normal — I’m not a fan of raw onion, so that was unfortunate — but other than that it was one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve had since coming to Japan (which means it was one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had).

Ramen Yashichi in Osaka, Japan

I mentioned that the mediocre bowl of ramen I had in Dotonbori was just one-note salty; the thing I love about the best bowls of ramen is that they seem simple, but there’s so much depth and complexity to their flavour.  That’s absolutely the case here.  With every mouthful, you discover something new.  It’s magical.

Feels Like the Very First Time

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, JapanThis is actually my second time in Osaka — the first time was about ten years ago.

While walking around Dotonbori, I came across a ramen joint with a giant cartoon dragon on the outside, and I suddenly got hit by a freight train of nostalgia.

Not only had I eaten here on my previous trip, but — and I’m not 100% sure about this, but I’m fairly confident — this is where I had my first bowl of real, non-instant ramen (you have to remember that the explosion of ramen joints in Toronto has only been in the last few years — rewind to a decade ago, and ramen was much more of a rarity in the GTA).

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Though ramen is one of my favourite dishes now, it certainly wasn’t at the time, and this restaurant failed to ignite any sort of love for the dish.  Did I just not know how to appreciate a good bowl of ramen?

Nope, it’s pretty lousy (as you’d expect from a place with a big cartoon dragon mascot in the most touristy part of town).  The noodles were actually pretty good, but the broth was just one-note salty, and the pork was dry.

Ramen in Dotonbori, Osaka, Japan

Still, the nostalgia!  Plus, how often to you get to revisit the place where you first tried one of your favourite meals?  Totally worth it.

Gravy Soup

Tenkaippin in Kyoto, JapanI didn’t think it was possible, but I may have found a bowl of ramen that’s too rich.  Because I just went to a local chain called Tenkaippin that specializes in an incredibly hearty chicken-based soup, and yowza.

Tenkaippin in Kyoto, Japan

It’s the heaviest bowl of ramen (or any soup) that I’ve ever had.  It really did taste like a bowl of gravy with noodles in it.

Tenkaippin in Kyoto, Japan

I don’t know if you can tell from that picture, but the soup was clinging to the noodles like alfredo sauce on fettuccine.  It was nuts.

Tenkaippin in Kyoto, Japan

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it — it was actually quite good.  But it still probably falls under the category of “too much of a good thing.”  I don’t think a bowl of ramen has ever left me feeling so full.

Gogyo Ramen

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, JapanAfter eating several bowls of ramen in Japan — most of them amazing — I wasn’t sure I could still have my mind blown by the dish.

Well, clearly I couldn’t have been more wrong, because I just went to Gogyo Ramen, and my mind?  Blown to smithereens.

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

They specialize in burnt ramen — I had heard that the burnt shoyu ramen was the thing to order, so that’s what I did.

I’ve never had anything quite like it.  The broth is inky black, and I won’t lie — I was skeptical.  Was it going to taste… well, burnt?

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

No — it tasted amazing.  It was kind of like the flavour you get from the grill on a perfectly barbecued piece of meat, only distilled down into a soup, and without even a hint of bitterness.  It was remarkable.

Gogyo Ramen in Kyoto, Japan

There was more stuff in here than the typical ramen — bits of cabbage, onions, and ground pork, which all perfectly complimented the intensely flavourful broth.  The noodles were satisfyingly firm and chewy, and the standard sliced pork on top might have been the best version of that I’ve ever had — addictively delicious, and so tender that the fat just melts in your mouth like butter.

Is ramen my favourite food?  Because I’m starting to think that it’s my favourite food.

That Ramen is on Fire! (No, literally, it’s on fire)

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, JapanThere’s a very distinctive ramen joint in Kyoto called Menbakaichidai that serves what they call “fire ramen.”  It’s essentially ramen flambé — they finish your bowl of ramen with a small inferno of burning oil that goes up in a spectacular burst of flames.

It’s a popular place — I showed up at around 2:00 PM assuming there’d be some kind of mid-afternoon lull, and I still wound up waiting about half an hour.  They have a system where you take a number and then can wait in a heated tent, though even that was packed.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

Aside from the various side dishes, there’s just one thing on the menu here: the fire ramen, which is a basic shoyu (soy sauce) ramen topped with slices of pork and a whole bunch of green onion.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

You’re not allowed to take pictures of the flambéing — they had a series of phone-holders hanging from the ceiling, which allowed everyone to get their own video of the fire (most people took them up on this, including me).

They also make you wear a full-body bib, and insist that you lean back with your hands behind your back during the flame-application; I just figured they were trying to make a bigger show of the whole fire thing.  But no, it’s basically a mini explosion in your face, so if you were leaning forward and trying to take a picture, a hospital visit would be in your immediate future.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

And after all that?  It’s fine, I guess.  I’ve certainly had worse ramen, but the flavour of the broth was pretty basic, and the noodles were just average.  I’m really not sure that the fire does all that much, though there is a pretty big pile of green onions on the soup and they had a really mild flavour; I’m guessing the mini inferno very quickly burned away the rawness.

Menbakaichidai in Kyoto, Japan

Still, it’s pretty clear that this place gets by mostly thanks to their gimmick.  It’s a pretty great gimmick, though.  It’s a hell of a show.

Everything Will Be Fine

Omen in Kyoto, JapanI was  wondering if the food in Kyoto could possibly live up to the non-stop greatness of Tokyo; well, my first meal in the city– an insanely delicious bowl of udon noodles — was here to pat me on the head and let me know that everything was going to be okay.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

Omen, a restaurant with three locations in downtown Kyoto, specializes in udon noodles that you dip into a bowl of broth.  You can pick from hot or cold — I heard that cold is where it’s at, so that’s what I went with.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

They present you a plate of immaculately presented veggies, a bowl of toasted sesame seeds and other spices, and, of course, the noodles and the broth.  There’s a little sign on the table that helpfully tells you what you’re supposed to do: you add a little bit of the sesame to the broth, a bit of the vegetables, then you mix it up, dip some noodles in there and enter noodle heaven.  Then you begin the process again.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

The combination of all of the various tastes and textures — the crunch of the veggies, the chew of the gloriously perfect noodles –is awe-inspiring.  If this is the calibre of food they’re serving up in Kyoto, things are clearly going to be just fine.

Omen in Kyoto, Japan

Post-Monkey Noodles

Enza Cafe in Nagano, JapanThe bus going from the Jigokudani Monkey Park to Nagano station isn’t super frequent, so after getting my fill of monkey business, I had a little bit of time to kill.

Enter: Enza Cafe, a small restaurant that specializes in ramen near the beginning of the monkey trail.

Given its proximity to such a well-traveled tourist spot (and its status as one of the few restaurants in the area), I didn’t have high hopes.  But since I didn’t have anything better to do while I waited for the bus, I figured sure, why not.

Enza Cafe in Nagano, Japan

I ordered the basic ramen, which they make with chicken broth rather than the more standard pork, and it was shockingly good.  It wasn’t quite up there with the best bowls I had in Tokyo, but from what you’d think would be a tourist trap, it’s amazing: rich, flavorful broth, springy noodles, and perfectly cooked egg.  It was the perfect capper to a very memorable morning.

Tokyo is too Sexy

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, JapanRemember that old SNL sketch from the ’90s where Chris Kattan played Antonio Banderas as the host of a talk show?  And every time he tried to unbutton his shirt, the members of his band would plead with him to stop, because he was too sexy?  Well that’s how I feel about Tokyo at this point.  It needs to stop, because it’s clearly too sexy.

Even aside from the food, there’s something about this city that’s completely beguiling.  I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else where just wandering around is so consistently rewarding, with interesting stores everywhere you look, amazing parks and temples all over the city, and a very pervasive (and endearing) love of pop culture — among many, many other things that make me want to fake my death and live here forever.

The latest place that has me contemplating buying a dummy replica of myself and throwing it over a waterfall is Fuunji Ramen, which might just have the longest food line I’ve come across in Tokyo so far.  Not only is it super long outside the restaurant (as usual), it actually continues once you get inside.

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

It’s totally worth it.

Their specialty is tsukemen ramen, which features a separate plate of noodles that you dip into a much more concentrated bowl of soup.  And oh man, the soup… I don’t even know how to describe that flavour.  It was everything at once.  It was like a magnificent fireworks show inside my mouth.  It had a bit of a fishy funk (but in the best way possible, trust me), it was a bit smoky, mildly spicy, and just the best.  It was the best.

Fuunji Ramen in Tokyo, Japan

The soup also featured some amazingly tender pork, and a perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg — the eggs in ramen shops here all have this dark orange, amazingly creamy yolk, and how do they do it?  Is it the quality of the eggs?  The way they cook them?  Or is it just the magic Tokyo fairy dust that seems to be in the air here?

It’s the dust.  I’m pretty sure it’s the dust.

The thicker-than-average noodles had a super satisfying chewiness that, when dipped in the amazing soup, were pretty much the best.

Yeah, I live here now.  Sorry, everyone back home!  Come to Tokyo if you ever want to see me again.

Beating the Line (and eating delicious food)

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, JapanYou’ve probably noticed from some of my posts, but there are lines everywhere here.  Everywhere.

They don’t bother me all that much (and in fact, sometimes I’ll seek out a line since it’s a fairly reliable indicator that a restaurant is serving tasty food).  But I was going to Kanda Matsuya, a really well-regarded restaurant that’s been serving up soba noodles for over 130 years.  There was no possible way there wasn’t going to be a line.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

So I showed up just after they opened, at around 11:20.  The place was already quite busy, but no line — success.  By the time I left, it was packed and the line was several people deep, as you can see in the photo above.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

As for the food?  Yeah, it would have been worth a line.  I ordered cold soba noodles with a sesame dipping sauce, and it was seriously delicious.  The noodles had a hearty chewiness, with a flavour that’s much more robust than, say, what you’ll find in a bowl of ramen.  When dipped in the sesame sauce, they’re delicious and addictive.

Kanda Matsuya in Tokyo, Japan

Plus, when you’re done with the noodles, they come around with a pot of boiling water and use it to dilute what’s left of your sauce.  You can then drink that like a soup, and it’s surprisingly good.

Best Ramen Ever?

Hayashi in the Shibuya district of ToykoRemember when I mentioned that the eel at Hashimoto was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten?  Well, I’ve got another dish to add to that list.

Tokyo is a magical place.

I love ramen, but apparently the ramen back home is garbage, because the bowl I had at Hayashi in the Shibuya district of Toyko was life-changing.  It’s almost implausible how good it was.  Like, did that really happen?  Did I dream it?

No, I have photos.  It happened.

It’s a tiny little restaurant, and like most ramen joints in Tokyo, you order from a machine by the door and then hand your ticket to the person behind the counter.

Hayashi in the Shibuya district of Toyko

A lot of ramen places will have condiments on the counter; not here.  You don’t need them.

The stock is a combination of pork and seafood — I haven’t had anything quite like it back home.  It’s magical.  There’s a very distinct seafoody (but definitely not fishy) flavour, which is complemented perfectly by the rich pork base.  Also, this was so subtle it might have been my imagination, but there was a hint of smokiness there.

Hayashi in the Shibuya district of Toyko

It was kind of insane how flavourful and complex it was; it felt like I was discovering something new with every mouthful.

The noodles were perfect — they had the perfect springy, chewy texture, and just the right amount of thickness.

And I mean, look at that egg.  The yolk was set, but just barely, with a delightfully creamy texture.  So damn good.

The slice of pork was the bowl’s only weak point.  It was fine, but it was a bit dry, and nothing particularly special.  But the rest of the bowl was so insanely good that it really didn’t matter.