Food by VICE

How Two US Noodle Fiends Infiltrated the Inner Circle of Tokyo Ramen

Unless you can read Japanese, negotiating Tokyo’s fast-changing ramen scene is notoriously difficult. Two American ramen fanatics are out to change all that with the launch of the city’s first insider English-language app on the city’s slurping...

by Paul Kay
Mar 30 2016, 4:00pm

Tokyo is a city of obsessions and obsessives, and none is more visible or pervasive than the preoccupation with food. But while there are enough cuisines and culinary subcultures to sustain countless food-nerd tribes, one stands out for its sheer diversity and the fervor of its acolytes: ramen.

For visitors or anyone who doesn't read Japanese, however, tracking down the city's best soup noodles is a daunting task due to a scarcity of information in English and a scene that is constantly expanding and mutating. Enter Patrick Brzeski and Abram Plaut, a pair of American ramen buffs that have been immersing themselves in this quintessentially Japanese food mania in Tokyo for more than a decade.

Together with their Japanese partner in crime Hiroshi Shimakage, Wisconsin native Brzeski—whose day job is Asia Bureau Chief at The Hollywood Reporter —and Californian Plaut—who used to write a weekly ramen column for Japanese Playboy, regularly appears on Japanese TV as a ramen expert, and just opened his own ramen joint in San Francisco, Mensho Tokyo—are launching Ramen Beast, the first app in English that gets under the skin of Tokyo's ramen scene. Drawing on more than 10,000 bowls eaten between them, the app will launch in mid-April with an initial 150 of the most brilliant, bold, and downright bizarre bowls in the city.

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Niboshi ramen at Tsujita Oku No In in Niboshi. The soup is made from dried baby sardines. This bowl packs a pungent punch.

MUNCHIES: You've been in Tokyo for more than ten years. What's the attraction for you? Abram Plaut: It's so next-level, so crazy, so different [from] everywhere else in the world. The quality of life is high, things run smoothly, it's clean, it's safe—and on top of that, it has the best food in the world, in my opinion. And for ramen, Tokyo is Mecca. It's the best place to be in the world if you like ramen.

In a city with so many food obsessions, why ramen? Abram Plaut: With a lot of other Japanese foods, if you stay within one genre, the flavours aren't so different, no matter where you go. But with ramen, there's no boundaries. In a lot of Japanese food, there's a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. But in ramen, there's so much freedom.

Patrick Brzeski: One of the things I love is that [in] some of these shops, the master is famous in Japan, a minor celebrity basically, and you can still eat his food for $7. Ramen originally comes from working-class street food, and it's sort of retained that. The only other example I can think of is craft beer, where it's like a working man's thing that's been elevated to a level of connoisseurship and diversified in wild ways, but still remains accessible to everybody. Plus, being in a late-night ramen shop with a bunch of salarymen on a weeknight having a beer as the train goes by just feels cool.

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Katsuura Tantanmen with chili oil and Chinese chives at Bingiri in Ogikubo. Pure fire.

The app covers everything from traditional and cutting-edge ramen joints to stuff that's a bit more out there. What's some of the weirder stuff you've come across? Abram Plaut: The ramen world has so much variety and so much crazy stuff, it's endless. In Tokyo alone, there are two or three thousand ramen shops, and when you get to that many, you're gonna get some oddballs. There's shops that have weird rules. There's a lot of Soup Nazi-type guys that use weird ingredients. There's shops where the guys wear masks and themed outfits.

One pretty famous master I know had a one-day invitation-only private event selling cricket ramen. I thought the soup was going to be a regular ramen soup made out of pork or fish with crickets as the topping, but the dashi soup was 100-percent made of crickets with pork back fat as a topping. But when you walked into the shop it smelled like a pet store—you know, that musty smell. It was disgusting. [Laughs.] But he wanted to do it to prove a point, that it's a viable option. You can make ramen out of insects. He was just trying to show the possibilities of what you can do with ramen.

Patrick Brzeski: You've got pineapple ramen, tequila ramen, a "big breast" ramen shop where it's a former adult video star who wears low-cut tops and shakes her, ah, torso when she shakes the noodles out. There's pizza ramen, ice cream ramen. There's a shop where absolutely everything in the shop is green... There's a lot of weird shit in Japan.

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Kurogi shio ramen produced by Nagi, the master of Nagi Golden Gai. The dashi soup contains Japanese futahoshi crickets and water—this is what gives the soup its dark brown color. It's also topped with dried crickets and pork back fat.

What's the longest you've ever queued for a bowl of ramen? Patrick Brzeski: For me, about three hours. It was at Michi, this tsukemen place that blew up over the summer. That was a solid three hours in the Tokyo summer heat. Totally worth it, though. At Tsuta, the shop in Sugamo that has a Michelin star, to get in there it's like four hours plus.

Abram Plaut: I don't really like to wait in lines, so if the wait looks like it's going to be over an hour and a half, I'm like, "Fuck it, I'm out." But more than waiting, travel is a factor. I'm at the point where I've ticked off everything within an hour of my apartment, and a lot of the shops on my hit list are an hour and a half or more away. So it's like a four- or five-hour commitment when I'm only eating for 15 minutes of that time. But it's always an adventure.

Thanks for speaking with me.

Ramen Beast's Insider Guide to Tokyo Ramen

These aren't the "best" ramen shops in Tokyo per se, but a cross section that takes in top-notch bowls of some of the main styles as well as some more special or unusual options. Picking the best is impossible, as there are simply too many high-level shops in the city. And these shops aren't crazy far from the centre of Tokyo, so it's a pretty good list for people to hit up on a visit to the city without spending too long traveling.

Kikanbou, spicy miso in Kanda This spot is fierce, from concept to bowl. Kikanbou means "spiked bat," which is the weapon wielded by "oni," the demons of Japanese folklore. The shop's exterior features paintings of menacing oni brandishing their kikanbou. Inside, the pounding of Japanese taiko drums pumps through the sound system on repeat. The shop specialty is spicy miso ramen, with tonkotsu blended into the soup. Lots of fire and mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns in this bowl. You get to choose both your desired level of spiciness and degree of mouth numbing. A piece of fire-roasted baby corn tops it off. The shop is located in Kanda, which is fairly central and on the Yamanote line.

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Hakata-style tonkotsu at Buta Yarou in Nakano. Creamy goodness.

Mugi To Olive, in Ginza Again, centrally located and quite accessible. The shop vibe suits upscale Ginza. Mugi To Olive serves a delicate triple soup of chicken, hamaguri clams, and niboshi (dried baby sardines). Midway through the bowl you add olive oil to taste, which totally changes the inflection of the bowl. This is a nice example of new-school ramen innovation, which kicked off over the past decade or so.

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Wontonmen at Hayashimaru in Koenji. Handmade noodles and wontons. Ace.

Michi, in Kameari A bit of a trek—northeast Tokyo. This was ranked the number-one ramen shop in Tokyo for 2015 on Japan's top online food forum. Two- to three-hour waits are the norm. Michi is among the best of the best for tsukemen (dipping noodles). They serve tonkotsu-gyokai tsukemen (pork bone and seafood-based). The presentation is immaculate. Almost kaiseki-esque. Everything from the service to how the ingredients are cut is impeccable. It's surprising that Michi didn't get a Michelin star—it's a gourmet experience.

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Chashumen at Sobayoshi in Kashiwazaki in Niigata.

Menya Shichisai, in Hatchobori This one is also in central Tokyo. They serve a very nice kitakata light shoyu ramen. What sets this place apart is pretty unprecedented, though. Each serving of their teuchi temomi-style noodles is prepared after the customer places their order. Handmade noodles are common at many elite ramen shops in the city, but making them to order, in full view of the customer, is badass and unprecedented in the Tokyo scene. They are also some of the best ramen noodles in the game. Try to score a seat by the noodle station.

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A bowl of Hataka-style tonkotsu at Tanaka Shouten.

Yamaguchi, in Nishi-waseda This place serves tori soba, one of the trendiest styles of ramen in Tokyo over the past couple years. Tori soba is a shoyu ramen with chicken oil and thin noodles. The toppings are often especially gourmet with this style—elaborately prepared chashu, tori chashu, menma and egg, etc.

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Higashi Ikebukuro Taishoken, inventor of tsukemen.

Ramen Snack Bar Izakaya, a.k.a. Oppai Ramen Oppai means "big breasts" in Japanese. The proprietress used to be an AV star and a pinup model, and she's buddies with many high-level ramen masters. She wears low-cut tops and seems to bend forward conspicuously when she hands customers their ramen. She's also funny and a skilled shit-talker. The shop is a Japanese snack bar that also serves ramen. It's important to know that you can't just roll up and order ramen, though. You have to hang out and order a few drinks and put some time in first, as per local snack bar culture. Eating and running would be kind of rude in this context. She'll offer to serve you ramen if she enjoys your company. The ramen is a light shio ramen with negi and a lime wedge. Very satisfying, despite the novelty concept.

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Hiyashi chūka, at Senrigan in Higashi-Kitazawa. This bowl is only served in the summertime for about two months. Abram ate this dish during the shoot of Japanese variety show, which featured him as a guest gaijin ("foreigner") ramen critic.

Hayashi, the best ramen in Shibuya Most of the trendiest neighborhoods of Tokyo are weak for ramen, as the real estate is too pricey. Only the big chains can afford to hold down a presence in places like Harajuku or Daikanyama. Hayashi is an exception; this is a legit bowl, just five to ten minutes from Shibuya station on foot. The master serves a tonkotsu and gyokai double soup. Solid chashu and a beautiful egg. Lines every day. Only open for lunch.

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Chuka soba with black shoyu at Yoshikawa in Kita-Ageo, Saitama.

Mensho Tokyo, in Korakuen near Tokyo dome This is the flagship of Master Shono, the ramen creator and partner behind Abram's shop in San Francisco, Mensho Tokyo SF. Master Shono now has seven shops in Tokyo, each with a different menu and a wide following. This is his head shop. The specialty here is lamb—tonkotsu and lamb. As Abram puts it, "Super-fucking-legit."