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It’s kind of insane how much variety you can get with something as seemingly straightforward as noodles in soup. I just came from Japan, where I ate a ridiculous amount of ramen (a ridiculous amount. I wrote about nine of the bowls I ate on this blog, and there were many more bowls I ate that I didn’t bother posting about. I’m a fan of ramen, in case you couldn’t tell).

Mak's Noodle in Hong Kong

And yet the wonton noodle soup that I just ate at Mak’s Noodle couldn’t have been more different from ramen. It’s like comparing risotto with bibimbap; it’s the same basic idea, but executed in a radically different way.

Mak's Noodle in Hong Kong

Mak’s is famous for their shrimp wonton noodle soup, and it’s very easy to see why. The broth has a very clean and subtle (but delicious) flavour. It’s kicked up (if you choose) by the fiery chili paste on the table.

Mak's Noodle in Hong Kong

The noodles are satisfyingly firm — almost crispy — but it’s those shrimp wontons that really make this something special. My word, those wontons. Each one has two perfectly cooked pieces of shrimp, and the contrast in textures between the crunchy shrimp and the chewy wrapper is ridiculous. It’s so good.

There’s a place in Kagoshima called Tmtrmnstr that sells tomato ramen, which is basically like a bizarre amalgam between a standard bowl of ramen, and spaghetti with tomato sauce.

I really did not have high hopes for this — I tried it more out of a morbid curiosity than anything else.  I just assumed it wasn’t going to be very good.

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

But surprisingly enough?  It was delicious.  It was creamy and rich like a standard bowl of ramen, but with a garlicky, tomato sauce flavour.  I guess it was essentially like a tomato soup — but way better than any tomato soup I’ve had before.

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

You choose from various add-ons; they recommend parmegiano regiano cheese.

Sure, parmesan on ramen — why not?

Tmtrmnstr in Kagoshima, Japan

The cheese really enhances it, melting and merging with the noodles in a gooey, cheesy mess.  It’s shockingly great.

One of the many (many many) things I love about ramen is how much variety you get from bowl to bowl.  There are so many different styles and types and varieties of ramen that what seems like it should be a simple dish (it’s just noodles and soup) has so much to offer.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

There are some bowls of ramen that are subtle and light; on the other end of the spectrum is the bowl of slow-cooked pork rib ramen I just had from Hanamaruken in Osaka.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

The broth here is unctuously, mouth-coatingly rich (though it thankfully never crosses the line into gravy soup territory).  It’s also intensely flavoured, with a seafoody punch rounding out the in-your-face porkiness.  There’s absolutely nothing subtle here; the flavour grabs you by the collar and screams in your face.  And yet it’s not overbearing or one-note.

But what really makes this ramen noteworthy is the slow-cooked pork rib on top, subbing in for the typical chashu.  It’s a big old hunk of deboned ribs that’s been slow-cooked until it’s so tender you can just pull chunks off with your chopsticks.  It’s also browned on the griddle to give it some additional flavour/texture.

Hanamaruken in Osaka, Japan

It’s so incredibly tender that even the cartilage has rendered down into a delicious, porky goo.  And yet the meat itself still has texture — it’s not mushy at all, which can sometimes happen with slow-cooked meat like this.

When 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.

This 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.

Pretty much every country has their version of a pancake (everybody loves pancakes).  Japan’s is called okonomiyaki — a savoury pancake that’s filled with various meats and veggies.  It’s an Osaka specialty, so yeah, obviously I had to try it while I was here.

And I clearly picked the right place to do it; I’ve had okonomiyaki a few times, and I’ve always liked it, though it’s never particularly stood out.  The one they served at Okonomiyaki Chitose definitely stood out.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

They have a few different versions on the menu.  I went with the one that’s filled with shrimp, squid, pork belly, and noodles.

The chef cooks it on a griddle right in front of you, and just watching it get made is  entertaining on its own.

It starts with a mixture of the veggies and the batter.  He also cooks the seafood on the griddle off to the side.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

Then he adds the cooked seafood to the pancake, followed by the noodles, and finally the pork (which is still raw at this point).

He adds more batter to each pancake…

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

…then deftly flips them over.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

Finally, he slathers on some mayo, adds a couple of other sauces, some seasoning, and it’s ready to eat.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

It was incredibly delicious.  The texture was perfect — previous okonomiyakis that I’ve tried have been a little bit doughy, but this featured an amazing balance of crispy exterior, fluffy interior, and chewy noodles, not to mention the perfectly cooked seafood.  The combo of the creamy mayonnaise and the slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauces compliments it perfectly.  It was ridiculous how much better it was than any okonomiyaki I’ve had before.

Considering that sushi might be Japan’s most ubiquitous food export, it’s one of those things that you pretty much have to try at least once while you’re here.

And of course, ideally you’d go to a high-end place like Jiro to taste the best of the best — the type of experience you’d never be able to have back home.  Sadly, dropping several hundred dollars on one meal just isn’t in the budget, as much as I’d like it to be.

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

There are, however, a bunch of sushi joints in Osaka that are both well-regarded and not absurdly expensive, including the one I just went to, Endo Sushi.  They have a pretty good deal where you get five pieces of sushi for about 13 bucks Canadian — not cheap, certainly, but not unreasonable either.

Sadly, the sushi was quite tasty, but not much more than that — definitely not the mind-blowing sushi experience you might hope for in Japan (I suspect I might have to spring for a Jiro type of place if that’s the goal).

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

There were a few things that I really liked, however.  Each plate had a piece of sushi with otoro tuna, and man, that stuff was good.  Otoro comes from the belly of the fish, and thanks to how fatty it is, it pretty much just melts in your mouth.  It’s like tuna butter.

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

The other highlight was, surprisingly enough, the egg nigiri.  I’ve never quite understood the appeal of this particular type of sushi — the ones I’ve had back home were always slightly rubbery and overcooked.  This one, on the other hand, was almost creamy — it was perfect and eggy, and eating it was a definite eureka moment.  Oh, that’s what that’s supposed to taste like.  Good to know.

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

Otherwise it was fine, but not much better than the best sushi I’ve had back home.  Most disappointingly, the seasoning was off.  Better sushi like this shouldn’t require the usual soy sauce/wasabi combo — it should have already been seasoned by the chef.  But some of the pieces were pretty bland, and others had wasabi applied so prodigiously they were like a roundhouse kick to my nasal passages.

From the outside, you can barely even tell that Fu-ka is a restaurant.  Tucked away in a quiet residential street near one of Kyoto’s many shrines, it’s pretty much the definition of a hidden gem.

Fu-ka in Kyoto, Japan

They have a small menu that focuses on curry; I went with the curry omurice (which, for the uninitiated, is a Japanese dish that consists of an omelette on top of a pile of rice).

Fu-ka in Kyoto, Japan

The curry had a mild but satisfying flavour, and the chunks of beef were nice and tender — but what really made this dish stand out was the omelette itself.  They say that the truest test of a chef’s skills are the way he makes an omelette, because it’s so simple to make but incredibly difficult to do well.

Fu-ka in Kyoto, Japan

If that’s the case then the chef here must be pretty amazing, because this might have been the best omelette I’ve ever had.  It was silky, creamy, and luxurious; at first glance I thought it might be a bit underdone, but there was none of the sliminess you get from undercooked eggs, just a uniformly velvety texture that was downright magical.  It was so good.

I 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.

After 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.