Ask someone on the street for the first Japanese food they can think of and the answer will probably be sushi. Ramen, however, is sure to come in a close second. From cheap mom-and-pop shops to Michelin star offerings (Tokyo now boasts two 1-star ramen shops), it seems that the choice on offer is now bigger that ever. Keeping up with the latest ramen shops in Tokyo is a challenge in itself. Periodic magazines such as Ramen Walker list new openings around the city, yet while many new shops appear every month, just as many close their doors due to intense competition.
Traditional soup bases such as shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), miso and tonkotsu (pork bone) are available right across Tokyo—but for those who want to delve a little bit deeper there are some unusual flavor combinations that are certainly worth trying. Granted, not all may win you over. A shop that served pineapple ramen a few years back (now closed) divided critics, but was celebrated for its originality. The list below is some ramen shops you may want to try once you’ve had your fill of the traditional bowls. If you are a total ramen nerd, you will most likely have heard of some of these places. But for a novice, it’s a good place to start.
Green curry ramen at Bassanova
Ramen freaks in Tokyo may groan at the predictability of this being on the list, but this shop’s warming blend of green curry and traditional tonkotsu has to be tried at least once. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is just another tom-yum-style knock-off the likes of which you get at a Thai restaurant. This is fusion ramen done every well, and there’s a reason this bowl is constantly rated in ramen circles.
Tongue-numbing tantanmen at Lashohan
Tantanmen is main staple on many Chinese menus, yet a difficult dish to execute to next-level standard. For one of the—if not the—best soupless tantanmen, check out the dish at Lashohan. Beansprouts, nuts, oil and chili, all sit together on a bed of noodles which you then mix together with Szechuan numbing pepper, the secret of the dish. Unlike regular chili, this stuff actually numbs your tongue and is a strange experience in itself. The bowl disappears fast, but the flavor lingers.
Organic veggie tsukemen at Camino
Yes, ramen can be oily and fatty—for many therein lies the appeal. But for those looking something fresher be sure to check out the tsukemen at Camino, located down a cute suburban side street reachable from Ikejiri-ōhashi station.
Tsukemen features thicker noodles that you dip into the soup—the appeal of Camino being that these noodles are backed up by a full plate of colorful seasonal vegetables, grilled and steamed to perfection. Let the picture do the talking.
Junk-style ramen at Mitsuboshi
Your mom may have told you not to play with your food but that is exactly the type of thing you are encouraged to do here at Mitsuboshi. If you haven’t heard of junk-style ramen then it really has to be seen to be believed. Soupless in style, you take a bunch of ingredients you usually don’t see associated with ramen and mix them all together: cheese, butter, mayonnaise—anything goes. Try the shop’s signature dish made by mixing together ground Japanese wagyu beef; fried onions and garlic; spices; and wait for it… banana chips.
Noodles and soup at Shinosoba Tanaka Second
Noodles and soup. That’s it. Yet while the lack of toppings may leave the bowl looking visually bare, there is an elegant simplicity behind this dish, especially once you appreciate the effort and care that has gone into the stock (an intensely flavorful simmering of spiny lobsters and abalone). A bit higher than a regular cheapo would like to pay, the bowl comes in at 1,000 yen but with each sip you will see where the extra money has gone. Limited to 30 bowls a day.
Duck stock at Shibata
Whereas a few years back the trend was to use clams and other shellfish, many chefs are now turning to duck for solid umami flavors. There are a growing number of shops that are now embracing duck-based stock, with this shop in Sengawa using a blend of chicken and duck for its soup. Slightly out in the burbs, but worth the 30-minute jaunt from Shinjuku.
Insane spice at Inosho
Some like it hot, while others like it, well, scorching. If you’re brave enough, make the pilgrimage to Insoho in Shakujikoen and try their double spicy fish ramen. The soup is so red it looks like pure tomato sauce but don’t be fooled, this is lava in a bowl. Once you mix in the extra spice powder the soup becomes an intensely thick base that is only for the most hardened chili lovers.
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Tequila ramen at Kono
Is 11:30am too early for tequila? The master chef at Kono doesn’t think so, dumping a full shot of the stuff into the broth of his signature shio ramen. Other ingredients include a healthy serving of cilantro and lime, along with chashu slices covered in chili. On the surface it looks like a gimmick, but the Mexican flavors somehow work.
Artistic tsukemen at Gotsubo
An Instagrammer’s dream, Gotsubo serves up a tsukemnen not dissimilar to the concept at Camino—the difference being the presentation here which borders on fine dining. The amount of vegetables included here for the price is amazing (especially for Japan) and you even get to choose what type of soup you want to dip them and the noodles in. The shio ramen here should also get a notable mention—just wait until you see the size of the spoon. Not too far from Shinjuku Gyoen so you can go for a nice walk after your meal to add to your Instagram adventure.
There are certain times in the year that can make your visit to Tokyo less than idea.