Ramen Jiro – Mita

Its fans are legion, and its patrons almost exclusively men. Debates about Ramen Jiro rage across chat rooms, message boards, and spill over to the streets of Tokyo. Jiro is the Sarah Palin of ramen joints. You either love Ramen Jiro or you despise it. There are no ambivalent attitudes to be found regarding this Tokyo mini empire.

The queues are long and they move glacially slow for a ramen-ya. Once you sit down for a bowl of their ramen you’ll know why. This is not fast food. This is a 15 round winner take all fight to the finish. And it will take all 15 rounds. The light of heart or of digestion need not apply. Things can get real ugly.

There are more than 30 Ramen Jiro branches spread across the Tokyo metro area. It’s that popular. I sampled the original location in Mita right in the shadow of Keio University. I’m told it’s the oldest and still the best of all the Jiro outlets. One things for sure, its success certainly hasn’t spilled over into their interior design. This branch is as sparse as probably the day it opened. There’s counter space for about 20 seats. The only “decoration” is a bunch of vintage Keio University placards on the wall.

The setup is the ubiquitous ticket machine system. You pre-pay for your ramen from the machine, a ticket spits out, and you hand your ticket to the counter person once you sit down. As with most cult ramen joints there’s not a lot of choices. You get order the the tonkotsu ramen (in various sizes), extra chashu, cabbage, bean sprouts, and chopped garlic. That’s about the full depth of your options.

Ramen Jiro produces the most “unique,” bowl of noodles I’ve ever eaten, or more accurately, tried to eat. The “soup” is tonkotsu based but there’s a also a heavy oil slick layer of pork fat. I would conjecture that if you allowed the gravy (and it’s more gravy than soup) to cool to refrigerator temperature the liquid would form a solid fatty mass. The noodles themselves are as thick as udon and perhaps twice as heavy. Then there’s the chashu that’s more fat than meat. Add a healthy dose of  wilted cabbage, and bean sprouts. Perhaps there as a de-greasing agent? Top all this off with a liberal (and I mean lunatic fringe) optional amount of chopped garlic. This is  a bowl Ramen Jiro.

I don’t know if I should characterize this stuff as food, or the most diabolical/efficient calorie delivery vehicle ever devised by man. Many cannot finish their first bowl of Ramen Jiro. I know I couldn’t finish my first (and last) bowl. Heck, I couldn’t finish half of it. Eat a bowl of this stuff and you won’t be hungry for the next 24+ hours.

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Porkfat-a-palooza. I have re-occuring nightmares about this ramen. It is the greasiest, ungliest, vilest, filthiest, bowl of ramen that I’ve ever attempted to eat. If this ramen were sex it would rated beyond triple-x, and banned internationally as crime against humanity. We are talking way beyond bukkake or DP. I feel ashamed just remembering the experience.

Needles to say, I am not a fan of Ramen Jiro. And I can’t fathom why anyone would be other than the sheer gross out and challenge factor. People who like Ramen Jiro are the same people who try to eat 10 pound hamburgers.

And yet, people genuinely love this place. Rameniac gave Jiro perfect 10s across the board! And he’s not the only one. You don’t get to 30+ locations without a loyal fan base. Honestly, this place leaves me scratching my head bewilderment. I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Ramen Jiro
2-16-4 Mita, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Near Keio University

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Jangara Ramen – Harajuku

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.

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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…

 

 

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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.