Funnily enough, one of the best things I’ve eaten in Bangkok isn’t Thai at all — it’s Chinese, from a Michelin-rated restaurant in Bangkok’s Chinatown called Nai-Ek Roll Noodles.
As you’d expect from a place that’s cheap and Michelin-approved, it’s quite busy. But the line moves fast, so within ten minutes or so, I was in.
The menu is fairly extensive, but “Roll Noodles” is right there in the name. I got a bowl of noodle soup that came with minced pork, sliced pork, and crispy pork belly, along with some organs — stomach, liver, kidney, and tongue (plus, they don’t mention it in the menu, but there were also intestines in there; it was quite the cornucopia of pig innards).
It was really, really good. The soup had a bit of a kick, with a nice peppery flavour. And the noodles were kind of like a Chinese version of penne pasta.
Plus, the pork belly managed to stay crispy even in the soup, and all of the various organs were prepared perfectly — no off flavours here at all.
When I sat down to eat fish noodle soup (a Vietnamese dish called bun ca) at around eleven in the morning, I started to wonder: is this a mistake? Maybe eating a potentially very pungent fishy soup for breakfast isn’t a great idea?
Well, it turns out it absolutely was a great idea, because the bun ca that they served at a placed called Bun Ca Sam Cay Si in Hanoi was phenomenal.
The broth, in particular, was something special: it was mildly seafoody, with a zingy, almost sour flavour that was given some added depth thanks to the fresh herbs, particularly dill.
The chewy noodles and crispy veggies worked great together, and there was a very generous amount of fried fish chunks.
They must have fried the hell out of those things, because they somehow managed to retain their crunchy exterior right down to the last piece. And yet the inside was tender and flaky. I don’t know how they did it, but it was pretty amazing.
Pho may be the thousand pound gorilla of Vietnamese noodle soups — it’s the one that pretty much every single person on the planet has heard of — but it’s certainly not the only one.
Take, for example, bun bo hue. I just had a bowl of it at Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao, and it made a strong case that there should be room in your life for more than one noodle soup from Vietnam.
It’s got a zingy, ever-so-slightly sour broth that’s really satisfying; it’s much more of a face-punch of flavour than the comparatively subtle pho.
It comes with various sausagey mystery meats that are all quite tasty, and a couple of plates worth of veggies and hot peppers to customize your bowl.
I should note that those peppers are inferno hot; I added most of them to the soup, which was probably a mistake. The peppers themselves were fiery little spice-bombs, and they quickly infused the broth with their intense heat. I have a fairly high tolerance for spicy foods, but even I found this to be a bit much. I was getting pretty sweaty by the time I finished the bowl.
One of the things Hong Kong is known for is its various roasted meats — goose in particular. I checked out a couple of goose joints that happen to have a Michelin star. Yeah, they take their goose pretty seriously here.
The first one, Kam’s Roast Goose, was easily the most popular of the two. It draws some pretty intense crowds, with a 40 minute wait on this particular evening.
The goose here was seriously tender with a really great flavour, though the skin wasn’t nearly as crispy as you’d hope. It was quite good, but probably not worth the crazy wait. The Michelin star seems like overkill.
The second place was called Yat Lok Restaurant; it definitely wasn’t as slick as Kam’s, but I think it was the better of the two.
The goose was equally tender and flavourful, and the skin had that amazing level of crispiness that you’re hoping for (though getting it in noodle soup — while delicious — probably wasn’t the best idea, because it quickly sogged up that great crispy skin).
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
You choose from various add-ons; they recommend parmegiano regiano cheese.
Sure, parmesan on ramen — why not?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.