I love tonkotsu ramen. It ranks as among my all-time favourite foods. The cloudy white soup, made with crushed pork bones, is sinfully rich and always satisfying. Served with firm, well-made noodles, perfectly roasted slices of pork, and a ni-tamago (a boiled egg with firm whites but a soft yolk), and I’m in heaven. Here in Singapore, I’ve enjoyed regularly tucking into the version served at Tampopo, located in Liang Court. And up until a few weeks ago, I thought that Tampopo’s tonkotsu ramen was pretty darned good.
But then I went to Kyushu. And discovered what really good tonkotsu ramen tastes like.
During my recent slightly-crazy dash across Japan, I was able to spend 2 nights in Fukuoka. It was just one of two places during my 16 day trip that I was able to spend more than one night. While we had two meetings to attend in Kyushu’s capital city, we also had a little bit of free time to explore the city. One of the first things I did, after checking into my hotel, was grill the hotel’s staff on what their favourite tonkotsu ramen stalls were. Experiencing great tonkotsu ramen was certainly at the top of my must-do-in-Kyushu checklist.
I was thrilled when one of the gals I spoke with quickly produced an article that she then xeroxed for me. The article listed the best tonkotsu ramen stalls in town. Of them, she said that her favourite, and the favourite of most of her colleagues, was Ichiran. She told me that while Ichiran was now a chain, the original branch was not far from the hotel. No more than a 10-15 minute walk in fact.
The next morning, armed with a map and a large appetite, my colleague D and I set off to discover Ichiran. While we found it easily enough, we were slightly befuddled by shop’s layout and ordering system. All of Ichiran’s branches have a similar and uniquely striking layout. They are narrow and long. Two long rows of seats are arranged around a central corridor. Each eating station (for lack of a better term) is cordoned off from its neighbor by wooden dividers. In front of each eating station is a red curtain, which hangs low. The open space in front of each customer is just barely big enough for the waiters and waitresses who roam the central corridor to pass food through. When seated, you can’t see your neighbor’s faces. You can’t see the faces of the people serving you or the people eating across from you (unless, like me, you rather rudely stick your camera into the opening). The whole experience feels slightly illicit, sort of like sitting at a peep show. But instead of naked performers, you’re being served up wonderful portions of food porn.
Before finding one’s seat, a customer can order his or her ramen from a vending machine stationed near the door. If you aren’t comfortable with this, ignore it. Ichiran now has order sheets in English. Just ask for one when you sit down. Also near the door is a lit layout display of the restaurant. The layout actually shows you where the empty seats are, which is fantastic when trying to find a place in this fabulously popular ramen shop.
I loved that Ichiran offers customers a huge host of options when ordering. In addition to a variety of extra edible items that you can ask for, you will be asked to write down exactly how you want your ramen prepared. Your ordering sheet will give you options to choose from for the following categories: flavor strength; richness (fat content); garlic; green onion; roast pork filet; “secret sauce” (using red pepper as a base); and noodle’s tenderness. When I visited, I ordered mine with medium flavor; rich broth; regular garlic; weak green onion; with roast pork filet (and a ni-tamago, of course); no “secret sauce”; and firm noodles.
My ramen was amazing. The broth was ridiculously rich and divine. The noodles were delicious and cooked perfectly. After every bite, I had to stop and turn to D, declaring, “Oh my God! This is so good!” It was, hands-down, the most enjoyable ramen I have ever had. It was also probably the fattiest, but hey, you only live once.
Ichiran has branches all over Fukuoka (and also, I’m told, Japan). There is a list of all of its branches on its website. Note though that it is in Japanese. If you want some basic info on Ichiran in English, you can click here. Now that I am back in Singapore, I am desperately hoping someone will bring Ichiran here. I can’t imagine having to wait to return to Japan before having another bowl of this simply stunning ramen.