On our recent November trip to Tokyo, disruption and change were called for. We would forego our usual favourites and look for new yet well known restaurants to try. It would be a discovery of the "best of the best".
When I googled "best ramen in Tokyo", I discovered that Tokyo Station has gathered 8 of the best ramen restaurants from around Japan and put them all together in a place called "Ramen Street". Tokyo Station may be a huge and confusing place but Ramen Street is in Basement 1 of the South Yaesu entrance and thus, quite easy to find.
This poster lists the different ramen restaurants and their best dishes. They're all located, sitting side by side in one long alleyway on the basement level. These are not big restaurants, most of them are just 20 to 25 seaters so you can imagine how busy they all must be.
And true enough, at 3:30 in the afternoon, there were long lines snaking along the corridors of Ramen Street. People were walking around, choosing which restaurant to queue up for.
We however, were looking for a specific place that we wanted to try.
Rokurinsha was high up on my "must try" list. This is a relatively new ramen place.
In a country where iconic restaurants are usually several generations old, Rokurinsha was established only in 2005. Small, compact, usually just a counter type restaurant, the endless long queues attest to its overall acceptance and popularity.
The lines are usually an hour long but perhaps because it was mid afternoon and not lunch time, there were just about 20 people lined up in this branch in Tokyo Station's Ramen Street.
Naturally, Jay and I could not resist taking a "selfie" with the Rokurinsha logo in the background. The things you do to while away your time while in the queue!
The line moved pretty fast and in less than 30 minutes, we were finally seated. The open kitchen has counter seating all around, for solo diners.
Tables for groups are packed tightly beside each other. You share tables with like minded ramen fanatics. We met this lovely couple from the USA in the queue and shared a table along with great conversation on food and travel. Meeting new and wonderful people is a gift that the travel gods bestow!
This is the reason for Rokurinsha's popularity. This is the famous Rokurinsha Tsukemen. It is not your standard classic ramen with noodles in a pork bone broth. Tsukemen was invented in Tokyo and is a recent innovation but has become so popular it is now a category unto itself.
The noodles are thicker than the usual curly yellow ramen noodles -- tsukemen noodles are fatter and firmer, and consequently heavier. They come in a generous portion, with a whole boiled egg -- which has a creamy, golden yolk-y centre, just the way I like it.
There is no broth instead there is a separate bowl of a thick, rich, savoury -- I hesitate to call it "soup" since it seems almost like a gravy -- dipping sauce that comes with ground pork, vegetables, seaweed and a small mound of a brown powder -- which when tasted definitely was made of some kind of ground fish.
The trick with tsukemen is to mix up the bowl of "sauce/soup" until all the flavours -- pork broth, ground pork, powdered fish, seaweed, vegetables -- are blended into a melting pool of umami goodness.
Then, you take your noodles -- fat and heavy as they are, and dip them into the bowl before bringing them to your hungry and waiting mouth. The whole operation can be quite messy which is why waiters at Rokurinsha offer you a large paper bib to protect your clothes from the inevitable tsukemen splatter.
After my first bite -- I was in ramen heaven!
But wait -- the surprise isn't over. There is a huge piece of luscious pork chashu hiding at the bottom of the bowl! A tsukemen coup de grace!
We savour yet rush through our mid afternoon ramen delight, conscious of the fact that in a place like Rokurinsha, a seat is precious and dilly dallying is not a considerate thing to do.
While Rokurinsha may seem like a fast service ramen restaurant because of the quick turn over of its long queues -- the care and quality that goes into its tsukemen is definitely a testament to slow food cooking and the result is therefore a transformative ramen experience.