With thousands of ramen restaurants and chains scattered throughout Tokyo, a newcomer to Japan may find the task of choosing and ordering a simple bowl of ramen daunting. Exploring a small street in Nishi-Gotanda (a thriving little nook that overlooks the Meguro River), I counted at least ten restaurants that served ramen—and the path I took barely measures one kilometer. Luckily though, wherever there are hungry shoppers wandering around, Ippudo Ramen is sure to lie close by – it’s a haven for all, from salarymen, to high school students and curious food bloggers.
Ippudo is a chain often missed because of its small, modest buildings. If you’re new to Japan, the wooden facade, sliding doors, and traditional atmosphere of the place may be somewhat intimidating. However, Ippudo caters to foreigners and locals alike — the restaurant provides an English menu, and the waiters are friendly and enthusiastic. In terms of convenience, it may require a bit of searching and frowning over a map to find the shop, but the quality of service and food warrants the effort.
Although not the cheapest ramen shop you can find around Tokyo, Ippudo certainly offers a good bargain, considering the mouth-watering taste of the food. The cheapest bowl of ramen at Ippudo costs 780yen, and the most expensive 1,030yen. For cheaper choices, you can order the rice and gyoza options for under 400yen.
The most essential part of a bowl of ramen is not actually the ramen itself, but the soup. After all, the taste of the wheat noodles depends on the thickness and flavor of the broth—nobody would enjoy plain gluten otherwise. Many ramen shops fail to concentrate on the soup, and end up making ramen with bean sprouts and pork that are well-cooked, but laden with grease. The Ippudo classic ramen, also known as Shiromaju Motoaji, combines white broth and slippery soba noodles to leave you feeling full, but not bloated. The tonkotsu (pork bone flavored) soup leaves a creamy aftertaste prickling on your tongue; neither salty nor greasy. And because the noodles are thin and chewable, you do not have to spend too much time untangling the heap before you. The “chewability” factor applies to the seaweed, mushrooms, and pork as well: the pork shreds easily and the seaweed seems to melt in your mouth.
Ippudo is also famous for its pork dumplings, or gyoza, served fresh off the stove and still simmering with bubbles of vegetable oil. The gyoza costs only 220yen for five pieces, or just 100yen if you order it with a bowl of ramen as part of a lunch set.
The restaurant serves mugi tea instead of water, and for good reason: the bitter aftertaste of the barley tea enhances the chicken and pork flavors of the ramen broths, somehow sharpening the creamy richness a thousandfold. In addition, in front of every seat is a box of spicy moyashi (bean sprouts) that serves as a piquant appetizer.
As for the atmosphere – a veneer of steam coats the restaurant and its polished wooden surfaces. Every minute or so, the waiters cheerfully call out for various purposes: to welcome a new customer, to communicate orders, to bid farewell. As per hakata style, you can see and hear the cooks whipping up your food, and the sizzle of the stove, the steady rhythm of the knife, the hiss of oil bursting and the scrape of pork being flipped over contribute to a bustling environment.
Ippudo is a busy restaurant for busy people; salarymen with untucked shirts and askew ties limp in after a long morning, and not long after, women with four boutique bags on each arm plop down on the seats and rest their feet. It’s loud, and especially rowdy during lunch-time rush, but not so much that any conversation is impossible.