There’s many, many different styles of ramen in the land of the rising sun. But there are only four major classifications; Shio (salt), Shōyu (soy sauce), Miso (soybean paste) and Tonkotsu (pork bone). My personal runaway favorite is Tonkotsu ramen. A specialty ramen that bears its origins from Hakata-ku, Fukuoka on the Southern island of Kyūshū. Of course, I’ve never actually been to Hakata let alone the island of Kyūshū but rather had my very first bowl of tonkotsu ramen in…wait for it…New York at an outpost of the Japanese ramen chain, Ippudo. What can I say, it was love at first slurp. But this is not a story about Ippudo.
Ippudo was my unabashed Tonkotsu ramen favorite until my girlfriend introduced me to Kyūshū Jangara in Harajuku. Only minutes away from Takeshita Dori and the legions of cosplay girls decked out in their Sunday finest is a small unasuming remen-ya serving up some of the best Hakata style ramen in all of Tokyo. A mini-chain, there are seven Jangara locations throughout the city but navigating the Japanese addressing system is so daunting I’ve only visited the Harajuku location.
The queue can sometimes be long but it moves fast even by ramen standards, and unlike many ramen-ya’s, Kyūshū Jangara does not employ the ubiquitous ticketing machine for ordering. There’s a gentleman at a cashier station that will take your order, accept your cash, and give you tokens for what you’ve ordered. They also have a menu written in English, Korean, Chinese, and French. The half a dozen or so times I’ve been there conversing in English was never a problem. As far as foreigner friendly ramen places go Jangara is the gold standard.
Once you’ve paid and received your token, you wait until a seat becomes available. You then sit down, give your token/s to the ramen expeditor, and wait. The entire process is a lesson in the efficiency of the Japanese just-in-time Kanban system. Normally, I order the Kyūshū Jangara Ramen (1,000¥), the house tonkotsu based soup base with chasu (roast pork), buta kakuni (braised pork) , a soft boiled egg, negi (Welsh onions), beni shoga (pickled ginger), mentaiko (pollock roe), menma (bamboo shoots), and thin (and very delicate) ramen noodles. It’s the ramen to order when you can’t make up your mind about which toppings to have (why not have them all!).
The tonkotsu soup is also cut with a chicken stock just enough to give the broth another layer of complexity you wouldn’t find in a straight tonkotsu soup base. There’s also a hint of sweetness and acidity. My guess is there are apples thrown in somewhere towards the end of the soup process. The noodles are thinner and far more delicate than their chewier Tokyo-style ramen counterpart. For my money, I’m a convert to the thinner noodles. I now find the more prevalent thick, yellow, crinkly noodles just too tough for my tastes.
I’ve also tried their Karabon Ramen, which is their spicy “wild,” soup base consisting of a slew of secret spices. Toppings are the same as with the Kyūshū Jangara Ramen. The Karabon is good, but being Korean, I don’t find it particularly spicy or flavorful. I much prefer the umami goodness of their tonkotsu offering. Whatever bowl you pick, you can always ask for refill of those delicious noodles for a mere 150¥ ($2). Just say, “kaedama,” (替え玉), and piping hot serving of noodles will be on its way.
Even as I write this post I’m salivating in a Pavlovian response to the memory of my last bowl of Kyūshū Jangara Ramen. It’s that good! This is the bowl of ramen I dream about on a cold Summer’s day in San Francisco. If only they’d open a satellite branch here…
[singlepic id=13 w=320 h=240 float=]Kyūshū Jangara Ramen is a short five minute walk from the Harajuku station on the Yamanote line, and is open Mon-Fri from 10:45am (10:00am on weekends) to 4am everyday.