Restaurant reviews: A tale of three ramen shops
Some of the city's most popular ramen chains suffer by focusing more on gimmickry than flavour and substance
Jason Y Ng
In 2010, restaurateur Chandler Tang recruited chef Ikuta Satoshi and opened a small ramen shop on a back alley in Lan Kwai Fong. Butao, one of the few authentic ramen joints in Hong Kong at the time, had only 15 seats and served no more than 200 bowls of Hakata-style noodles daily.
The queue outside the hole-in-the-wall would snake around the block and the wait time would average 90 minutes.
The creation of Butao marked the beginning of a citywide ramen craze in Hong Kong and its success didn’t go unnoticed. Tang not only inspired local copycats but also invited competition from Japan, including the country’s largest noodle restaurant chain Ippudo, which now runs five locations across the city.
Not to be outdone by Ippudo, Butao has branched out to Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Sha Tin. A fifth shop is being planned for one of the “new towns” in the New Territories. Last July, the Central restaurant moved to a bigger space on Wellington Street, doubling its seating and making it easier to get to.
This past Friday I visited the Wellington Street shop at 11am to beat the rush. I got seated at the counter without incident and chatted with the friendly staff about the ramen revolution in Hong Kong and how citizens are willing to wait hours just for a bowl of noodles. One of the staff members offered me a tip: arrive before 11.45am, which is when the line starts to get insanely long.
At Butao, an order of ramen with a half-boiled egg costs just over HK$100. The thin noodles, characteristic of the Hakata area (a district in southern Japan), are cooked al dente, although the hardness can be adjusted according to the customer’s preference indicated on the order form.
The creamy tonkotsu soup base is MSG-free and prepared overnight in a factory in the New Territories for at least eight hours. Other soup base options include black (squid ink), red (chilli oil) and green (olive oil and grated cheese). Every day, the chef serves 30 bowls of the daily special, which changes once a month.
Butao gets my vote as one of the best ramen shops in the city. I give it high marks for the authenticity it offers, not only of the food but also of the straightforward experience of slouching over a dimly lit counter and slurping steaming hot noodles without fanfare or fuss.
Ramen is not a gimmick and a ramen shop doesn’t need to become a theme park. Butao understands that.
Ramen chasers in Hong Kong have reasons to be excited: they no longer need to fly to Tokyo to experience Ichiran, one of Japan’s best known chains and Ippudo’s arch-rival in the pig-eat-pig world of tonkotsu ramen.
Founded in 1964, Ichiran opened its first overseas branch in Hong Kong last summer. It was such a big deal that the Hong Kong government issued a press release to welcome its arrival.
Ichiran is open round the clock, but that does little to shorten the queue outside its Jaffe Road shop all day, every day. Friends had warned me about the three-hour wait, and so I decided to show up at 3.30pm last Saturday. I figured: who would eat ramen at 3.30 in the afternoon? I was wrong. By the time I arrived, the line was already 40-people deep.
At 4.15, I finally walked through the front door, only to discover that the line continued inside the shop. But at least I could kill time by checking out the offering of Ichiran paraphernalia at the cashier. I wondered: who would want anything with the Ichiran logo on it? I was wrong again. The young couple standing behind me purchased two T-shirts.
The hallway where I waited was covered with pictures showing long lines of customers outside Ichiran restaurants in different Japanese cities, as if to say, “See, you are just as crazy as these crazy people queuing up for our food!”
There is some truth to that. I looked around and realised that everyone around me came here for the same reason: novelty.
It was 4.30 by the time I was seated, exactly an hour after I arrived. The dining area is modelled after the Ichiran restaurants in Japan, which makes the space faithful to the original design but it doesn’t make it good. The interior looks like a public bathhouse out of an old Yasujiro Ozu movie.
I sat down at one of the 36 eating booths, which are walled off from each other so that customers will focus on the food instead of talking to each other. It was a good thing I didn’t bring a hot date that afternoon.
To further discourage human interaction, there is an order form to fill out and a button to summon a waiter. I followed all the steps printed on the instruction sheet, and within 30 seconds a waiter showed up to take my order – although I had no idea what he looked like because he was standing on the other side of the wall.
The guy – at least he sounded like a guy – mumbled a few Japanese words he learned during training, grabbed my order form through a small window and rolled down the bamboo curtain. That was the last I saw of or heard of him. Eating in North Korea would have been more fun.
The comparisons with the socialist state do not end there. Ichiran has no menu and serves only one thing: tonkotsu ramen. If I want more noodles, I have to use a refill form and press that same button again.
The restaurant calls it the kae dama system, but it feels like rationing. And if I want more pork, well, I can’t get more pork! Sorry, there is no kae dama for pork.
By 5pm, I was discharged from the gulag and found myself back on noisy Jaffe Road. I would have forgiven the gimmicky set-up if the ramen had knocked me out of my socks. Sadly, it didn’t.
The soup base was not particularly flavourful and the pork was overcooked and tough. The half-boiled egg was cold inside, and the outside was dripping with tap water. I had no idea what all the hype was about. All I knew was that I felt cheated – those were 90 minutes of my life I’d never get back.
Travellers to Kyoto know there is one place every guidebook recommends. Gogyo near the Nishiki food market made a name for itself by inventing the kogashi (burned) ramen. Its secret? Adding charred pig fat to the soup base to give the ramen a unique smoky flavour.
Critics have given it mixed reviews: while some are blown away by the burned soup, others find the restaurant more a tourist destination than a culinary Mecca.
Cashing in on the ramen craze in Hong Kong, Gogyo, which is owned by the Ippudo group, came to Hong Kong last December. It took the space at the IFC Mall previously occupied by another ramen shop which no one seems to miss.
Gogyo Hong Kong has gone high-end, evidenced by its gold-and-silver decor designed by Japanese firm Glamorous (which also did the W Hotel in West Kowloon).
It is an unusual choice for a ramen shop. The layout lacks the small-town coziness that ramen lovers have come to expect from a Japanese noodle house. Sitting around the kitchen sink on a barstool makes it feel like being in a cooking class or an airport lounge.
Gogyo’s menu offers yakitori and sushi but people really just go there for the noodles. The US$158 lunch set includes a small serving of sashimi over rice and a ramen of your choice.
Your instinct is to go for the signature kogashi ramen, but you will regret it for the rest of the meal. You will be shocked by how greasy the whole thing is. Not only are the noodles pan-fried in fat before they are boiled, the broth is covered by a thick layer of oil and peppered with flecks of carbon from the burned fat.
The result looks like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The restaurant has apparently received so many complaints that the staff now give every customer the same disclaimer when an order is placed: “Please consider our lighter options if you don’t fancy oily soups.”
Indeed you would be wise to heed the warning and choose something else. To be fair, the other soup bases are not bad. The problem, however, is that ordering anything other than the kogashi broth defeats the purpose of going to Gogyo in the first place.
The ramen shop will go down in culinary history as the first restaurant that tells its customers to stay away from its signature dish. It is truly a remarkable thing.
Japanese ramen is a reinterpretation of the Chinese noodle soup.
It is a street food and a comfort food. It is a perfect lunch solution for time-pressed salary men and women and a welcome treat after a night of heavy drinking.
At any given noodle house in Japan, hungry customers grind sesame, crush garlic and mix pickled vegetables. Noodles are not eaten but slurped; the soup is not drunk with a spoon but chugged down with both hands lifting the bowl.
Over time, however, ramen has become a national obsession, as one noodle chef tries to outdo another with a superior recipe.
The quest to find the best ramen in town has gone out of control – the essence of simple noodle-making is lost; hype and gimmick have taken over.
But no matter how adamantly some people argue otherwise, noodles are just noodles. If prepared properly, all ramen should, and probably do, taste the same.
For all the ramen chasers out there, stop looking and just go to Ippudo or Butao. These places are good enough.