The vast majority of the ramen we tend to eat is from local, mom-and-pop style stores. You can only get that style of bowl from one shop, in one place. However, more popular and widespread ramen styles exist. I wouldn’t call them “chains,” but there are stores with many locations, and bowls that are common to many places. Recently, we’ve decided to try out some of these more common dishes to see how they stack up to the mom-and-pop places.
First up is Sugoiniboshiramennagi (Nagi’s super sardine ramen). Nagi specializes in ramen with a niboshi (sardine) broth. Unlike most ramen, which merely uses niboshi as a background flavor to compliment either a pork or chicken broth, Nagi exclusively uses 20 kinds of sardines from all over Japan for their broth. As I’m sure you can imagine, this creates a really intense, distinctive flavor. I don’t mean to be cliché, but umami is really the best way I can describe it. Kind of meaty, and earthy, but still lighter than a pork base. I’m not sure I need to eat it again, but it was certainly worth trying. One thing we liked particularly about this bowl was the noodles. There were two different kinds: thick and kinky ramen noodles, and huge, flat wonton-style noodles.
Next up is the ever popular, and very well-known among foreigners Ichiran. Ichiran is known for serving one kind of bowl (Tonkotsu) with tons of available customizations.
Here is a customization card example:
Another unique aspect of Ichiran is that each customer sits in their own little cubicle (you can fold up the walls if you come with a friend) and your ramen is served to you through a little slot so you don’t have to see a single human being if you choose.
The experience was… mixed. The cubicle experience was interesting, but interacting with the staff through a slot was awkward. Also the kitchen is entirely hidden from view, so it’s impossible to see your dish created (something we love about the local places). As for the food, the broth was very good, and the red chili paste makes the entire dish. Seriously, that stuff is magical, get as much as you can when you order. However, the noodles were awful, they tasted like cardboard. Finally, there were no free toppings at the table. I’ve never been to a ramen place that didn’t at least have free black pepper, vinegar, soy sauce and shichimi (Japanese seven spice powder) at the counter. Most places even have free minced garlic, sesame seeds and other things as well. But Ichiran had nothing. Disappointed.
Championing the Hakata-style ramen, Ippudo’s bowl is similar to Ichiran’s (also Hakata-style) but with different toppings. Ippudo has mayu black garlic oil, chili paste, and black fungus mushrooms. Overall, we preferred Ippudo to Ichiran because the noodles were better, and mayu makes everything phenomenal, even if the chili paste wasn’t quite as good.
Susannah got the special which came with seaweed, extra meat, and an egg.Also, unlike Ichiran there were plenty of table-side toppings including three kinds of pickles.
Finally is Jiro-style ramen (not the Jiro who dreams of sushi). Jiro-style ramen is known for it’s mountain of meat and vegetables. Seriously, it’s monstrous. This is a small size:
Jiro ramen is a thick tonkotsu/soy sauce broth with fat, chewy noodles, and tons of salt and fat. You can actually get “extra fat” as a topping. Susannah only managed to eat about half of hers, and I got 3/4th through it before I had to stop. It was so filling that we didn’t even eat dinner after our 2:00 lunch. It was really good though. The veggies were bean sprouts and cabbage, and the pork was tender and juicy. Also, we got chopped raw garlic for free as a topping. The egg was mediocre but everything else was great. But be careful, this style of ramen is not for the faint of heart (literally and figuratively).