Some of Tokyo’s best ramen is tucked away along the Seibu Ikebukuro Line

Traveling on the Seibu Ikebukuro railway line west of Tokyo – a bit like sipping a bowl of classic tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen – is a deeply nostalgic experience for me. I called more than one of his stations “home” during my first few years in Japan after moving here from Philadelphia.

As a young cook in Philadelphia, what obsessed me more than anything was ramen. While instant ramen is common in the US, the real stuff was hard to come by even six years ago. These rare bowls contained such explosive flavor – such control and complexity – that they frankly blew my mind.

Needless to say, once I found myself in Tokyo, grabbing a bowl of authentic ramen was the first thing that came to mind.

After many visits (and in various states of drunkenness), three shops in particular make me return from time to time to northwest Tokyo. They all have their own unique “punch” (a term ramen chefs use to describe intense flavor) and require a visit from any dedicated ramen chef.

The godfather of tsukemen

The story goes that in 1955, the late Kazuo Yamagishi, future owner of the now legendary Taishoken, ate noodles dipped in leftover broth seasoned with soy sauce for his staff meal as a young apprentice. He called her “mori soba— a dish now known in Japan as tsukemenor dipping ramen.

Where other shops appeal to indulgence, Taishoken stands tall; proud and fearless. Much like the reputation of its Ikebukuro neighborhood, it’s a bowl of ramen that has nothing to hide.

Cold noodles cooked to a nice, chewy bounce are plated alongside a hot bowl of heavily seasoned soup for dipping; this way, every bite is perfectly seasoned. A slice of iconic naruto the fishcake brings a sweet charm. Adding a tangy, slightly sweet vinegar packs a lip-smacking punch that keeps things light. The vinegar isn’t something you often associate with ramen, but it makes for an all the more addictive experience because of it.

the chashu pork is lean and subtle rather than gratuitous and precarious. The ultra-seasoned soup provides the perfect contrast, bringing out the meat’s natural flavor rather than cluttering the bowl with fat.

the gyoza (ravioli) should also not be ignored. The size of the plump hamsters, their fluffy exterior – the bottom of which is seared to a delicious golden brown – burst with juice when you bite down. The garnish of ground pork, scallions, and garlic is wholesome, making this a platter an absolute must when visiting.

In order to innovate, you must respect what has come before you – and any self-proclaimed ramen chef should make a pilgrimage to this culinary landmark at least once during their stay in Tokyo. Taishoken has inspired industry titans like Momofuku’s David Chang and will forever hold a place in ramen history.

2-42-8 Minami Ikebukuro, Toshima Ward; nearest train station: Seibu Ikebukuro

Ramen Gottsu’s modern exterior gives a hint of the immaculate cuisine inside. | W. TANNER KIRK

Award-winning technique

Go in Gottsu Ramen for the first time, it feels like stepping into a trendy James Beard competitor in Manhattan. The kitchen is open, its stainless steel cooking equipment spotless – something you don’t usually see in a ramen joint. The restaurant’s design and ambience, like its menu, are precise and thoughtful.

The Bib Gourmand award from the Michelin Guide is reserved for restaurants that maintain the highest standards of quality offered at an affordable price. It’s not hard to see why Ramen Gottsu, located a short walk from Nerima Station, has maintained its reputation for five consecutive years.

The “double soup” used in Ramen Gottsu bowls allows the liquid to coat the noodles in much the same way the sauce coats a bowl of pasta. | W. TANNER KIRK

Gottsu’s “double soup”, the result of mixing fish and pork broth in a masterfully controlled ratio, is a blend of flavors: the succulent, velvety base of pork contains the umami-rich essence of dried bonito and tobiuo (flying fish) which gives this bowl its punch. The soup coats the noodles the same way a sauce coats a bowl of pasta.

I can tell the egg is cooked for an interval of obsessive precision. It’s jammy and its cream-like yolk slowly oozes out after my first bite.

Slices of tender chicken breast, marinated in yuzu, come with a chāshū that’s more like a ham than the traditional versions, like I’ve never tasted before. A clever addition of yuzu paste cuts through the rich soup, providing a much-needed balance of freshness.

The store recommends adding a “spicy meatball” halfway through the bowl. It almost reminds of a sofrite — a paste composed of fermented chili, peppercorns, yuzu and ground pork. The unexpected but welcome element of floral heat transforms the soup, invigorates the bowl and keeps the meal exciting throughout.

If you’re looking to impress, dining at Gottsu before having a drink at one of Nerima’s many jazz clubs, such as Cafe 52, would be a great date night.

29/01/16 Nerima, district of Nerima; nearest train station: Nérima

Ohban is tucked away on a street in the Hibarigaoka district of western Tokyo.  |  W. TANNER KIRK
Ohban is tucked away on a street in the Hibarigaoka district of western Tokyo. | W. TANNER KIRK

The mom-and-pop shop

Hibarigaoka was the first neighborhood I called home in Japan. Years ago, after a humid summer day of moving a fridge and unpacking boxes, I found myself craving a bowl of ramen. If I had been aware of the local news, I might have waited in line at Ramen Jiro Hibarigaoka, whose reputation draws ramen heads from afar. A completely ignorant newcomer wandering the streets of my new neighborhood, I came across Ohban instead.

Irasshaimase–cried an old man behind the counter, whom I affectionately call “Grandpa Ramen”. Unable to read the cash machine at the time, I clicked the first button that spoke to me and sat down. The counter was sticky. The water glasses were greasy. The laughter of Japanese celebrities I didn’t recognize erupted from an old-fashioned television tucked into a corner of the kitchen.

Ohban ramen gets its strength from fresh garlic added to the oil.  |  W. TANNER KIRK
Ohban ramen gets its strength from fresh garlic added to the oil. | W. TANNER KIRK

Shortly after, the biggest bowl of ramen I have ever seen was placed in front of me. “Hey, jumbosaid Grandpa Ramen, cooking next to an equally elderly lady, to whom he is presumably married, paying no attention to me.

Ohban punch comes from fresh, raw garlic added to the abura (oil) that gives a bowl of ramen its glistening shine. The soup is of a simple and clean tonkotsu variety. The chāshū is fat, tender and indulgent with a satisfying, almost gamey funk.

The flavor of the bowl changes subtly with each visit. Like reconnecting with a long-lost lover, it’s a whirlwind of overwhelming nostalgia — warm and comforting — but not exactly the way I remembered it.

On a recent visit, the noodles and soy marinated eggs were frankly overcooked for my liking. That said, the soup was still so rich and garlicky. The same tattered copies of the “Jump” comics were stacked next to the ticket machine as they always had, and I smiled as I swallowed it all. That was delicious.

Times had changed, but Grandpa Ramen was still around. And Ohban will always be worth a visit.

3-3-21 Hibarigaoka Kita, Nishi Tokyo; nearest train station: Hibarigaoka

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