Tokyo Ramen Review - Ippudo
The quest for the best Tokyo Ramen begins!
Tokyo is truly a paradise for ramen-enthusiasts. There are literally more ramen bars than you can possibly try before half of them have already gone out of business and are replaced by new ramen bars.
Therein lies the problem: Tokyo houses the best ramen bars in the world, but only trained noses can sniff past mediocre soup joints and find the real flavor Gods. Luckily, some of the best ramen chain stores are easily available for all, and the ramen level is sky-high.
Who is Ippudo?
Two of the largest Hakata-style ramen chain stores in Japan are called Ichiran and Ippudo. Ippudo is the youngest brand, but the chain deserves a lot of credit for introducing ramen to the western world.
Ippudo was founded in 1985, in Fukuoka, by Shigemi Kawahara. At the time, ramen bars saw a decline in public interest, a trend that Kawahara intended to change. By 2020 Ippudo had opened more than 150 branches in Japan and 100 branches abroad, including Asia, USA, Europe, and Australia.
The name Ippudo stems from Kawahara's ambition to revolutionize the ramen industry. The direct translation reads «one wind hall». One can only assume that Kawahara intended to take the world by «ramen-storm», something he indeed achieved in the past 35 years.
Husky Loves Ramen
Ippudo is perhaps the most widespread chain in the Tokyo area, and it offers a menu that basically is impossible to mess up for the customers. Usually you have three choices, the «classic soup», the «modern soup» (rich flavor) and the «spicy soup» (with ground meat).
All of them have that special Ippudo flavor, and all of them can be customized somewhat to your personal preference. I like all three of these, but the Ippudo classic (white bowl) has proven to be the most enduring flavor for me personally.
For spice lovers it should be noted that the level 8 spicy bowl is not particularly hot, while the so-called «super-hot» level is fiery, yet not so spicy as to ruin the natural flavor of the ingredients. The «extreme hot» bowl has not been tested by us.
What is Hakata Ramen?
Hakata Ramen is a variant of Tonkotsu Ramen that originated in Fukuoka, Kyushu. It is characterized by its thin noodles. The broth is made by boiling pork bones for many hours, and the dish is usually topped with pork belly and leek.
Often, you will have the option of adding wood ear mushroom and soft-boiled egg. At Ippudo, you will also find pickled ginger, kale, sesame, and spicy bean sprouts as standard toppings on all tables.
The Ippudo Soup
Ippudo serves Hakata ramen exclusively, and their characteristic soup is what makes the chain such a ramen powerhouse. The «Ippudo taste» is not to be mistaken. It is the heart in all of their ramen bowls, and it quickly becomes slightly addictive.
Ramen soup consists of broth and «tare». The tare is the key ingredient that gives the soup its character. It is like a spoon of concentrated flavor which is usually added to a ramen bowl before piping hot broth is poured over.
Most ramen bars have a house tare. The recipes are often kept secret and passed on through generations of chefs. At Ippudo, they have clearly worked hard to make a recognizable flavor. It has a delicate balance of smooth milky sweetness and hearty pork fat tanginess.
The Ippudo Noodles
The noodles at Ippudo is another strong point. I have yet to be disappointed by the flavor or the consistency of these noodles, even though I prefer a thicker variant than these. If noodles are your favorite part of ramen, Ippudo will not let you down.
Usually, I go for the firm noodles, which has a perfect chew, while maintaining its ability to grab the flavors of the soup. The Ippudo noodles arguably produce the best slurp you will get at any chain store ramen in Tokyo.
The Ippudo Meat
The meat at Ippudo is nothing out of the ordinary. You will get two pretty standard slices of pork belly chashu, with the option of adding some thicker meat pieces to some bowls. The meat is by no means bad. It is succulent, savory and melts in your mouth, as pork belly chashu should.
There is better meat to be found in other ramen shops around Tokyo, however. Meat lovers might find the meat at Ippudo a little bland. On a couple of occasions, I even recall a slight dryness to the meat, but for the most part it complements the various bowls nicely.
The Ippudo Egg
The meat might not have impressed me, but the Ippudo eggs are another matter. They have never disappointed. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me just how good soft-boiled eggs I can get at a chain store ramen in Tokyo.
The so-called «torotoro tamago» is a soft-boiled egg, marinated in soy sauce, and it always comes with a perfectly runny yolk. It's like a hidden little taste bomb that adds another layer to the flavor balance when you split the egg and swoosh it around the bowl.
Personally, I find the splitting of the torotoro tamago to be the highlight of any ramen bowl. In many cases, it offers the best bites of the dish, but the letdown can be equally devastating. At Ippudo, they bring the goods. The gooey goodness of the Ippudo eggs is enough to keep me coming back, month after month.
The Ippudo Toppings
Ippudo has a nice selection of toppings, but most of these are pretty standard fare. None of the toppings has any wow-factor to them, but when coupled with the Ippudo broth and noodles they come to life anyway. I would only recommend adding toppings if you are very hungry, not for any added flavor experience.
The best of the bunch are the spicy bean sprouts. It is a decent beer snack, and it speaks in Ippudo's favor that you can get as much as you want on the table, free of charge. As for the other toppings, the wood ear mushrooms add the most interesting flavor, while the rest is rather forgettable.
The Ippudo Special Variants & Side Dishes
Sometimes, you will find some limited ramen variants at Ippudo. The best known is probably the «Kasane», which is based on broth from both pork and chicken. I never had the opportunity to try this variant, but such combination broths are usually quite interesting.
In the summer of 2019, I did have the pleasure of trying a cold, soupless ramen at an Ippudo branch in Shinjuku. This was a genuinely nice surprise. I can definitely recommend the experience, especially on hot summer days in Tokyo.
As for the side dishes, you will find a few variants of dumplings, some rice dishes, and desserts. Safe to say, if you have a hankering for dumplings or sweets, there are better options to be found in Tokyo than Ippudo.
Final verdict for Ippudo
Ramen is probably my favorite dish in the world, and Ippudo might very well be the bowl I have eaten the most. It is far from my favorite ramen in Tokyo, but as far as chain store ramen goes, it is impossible to grow tired of Ippudo.
The search for the perfect bowl of ramen will lead you to try countless mediocre ramen bars, or on rare occasions, some pretty terrible ones. Between the real highlights, on your hunt for brilliant bowls, it is nice to have a safe haven, a place where you can always count on the ramen level to be well-above par.
It is not without reason that Ippudo became a Japanese ramen institution.
Ippudo: About Ippudo (Japanese website)
Ippudo Outside: Ippudo Story
Is Japan Cool?: Interview with Shigemi Kawahara
The Japan Times: Ippudo ramen chain credits its global success to localized tastes