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2020 was a troublesome year for most as the Coronavirus forced many businesses to close their doors due to uncertain futures and financial difficulties. An industry which faced particularly difficult times were restaurants and bars, many of which are still struggling to get back on their feet. However, despite the tumultuous future of restaurant dining, many ramen shops in Tokyo defied the odds and opened during the pandemic. Opening a restaurant may have been unthinkable with so many restrictions put in place, but with a fighting ambition, many ramen shops opened, weathered the storm, and have remained open as the restrictions have finally eased. With tourism set to reopen later this year, the following is a list of ramen shops opened during the pandemic that you must try when finally making the ramen trip of your dreams!
Seijo Seika (成城 青果); Shio Ramen
One of the most popular shops to open in 2020 is undoubtedly Seijo Seika located a short walk from Roka Koen station. The location was formerly a bar before the owner decided to fulfill a lifelong childhood dream of opening his own ramen shop in June of last year. Despite not having a ton of ramen experience, Seijo Seika has quickly risen to prominence gaining popularity among ramen fanatics on twitter and being featured in a number of Japanese ramen publications. Serving up Shio, Shoyu, and a Pork Shoyu, you won’t miss out ordering any of the three, but the Shio seems to be the consensus favorite and biggest seller at the shop.
Broth here is pure seafood using a base kombu stock and extracting umami and flavors from a variety of Niboshi (dried fish) and Bushi (dried fish shavings). For the Shio ramen, the salt based tare is infused with even more dried fish, pushing the boundaries on umami extraction. However, don’t be scared as Seijo Seika does a phenomenal job of balancing the different flavor profiles to create a soup that is clean, crisp, and not overly fishy. Noodles, brought in by local manufacturer Tamura Seimen, pairs perfectly with the elegant soup and clings just the right amount for a satisfying slurp. Be sure to get the set menu with a side of pork chashu over rice for the complete Seijo Seika experience!
Menpeki Kunen (麺壁 九年); Shoyu Ramen
While there are a lot of contenders for Shoyu ramen, Menpeki Kunen with their varied menu of different soup bases may be the one to add to your Tokyo itinerary. Opened just as the pandemic hit in March of last year, Menpeki Kunen has built quite the shop serving both a chicken and niboshi based soup as well as a handful of gentei, seasonal specialties which have ramen enthusiasts coming back for multiple visits. Menpeki Kunen is located near Iogi station, not far from where the chef/master Ishioka-san grew up. While a bit far from central Tokyo, the neighborhood vibe and phenomenal ramen makes this a can’t miss shop.
Menpeki Kunen serves both a Niboshi base and Chicken base ramen and you won’t go wrong choosing either. The Niboshi incorporated in the soup are an Aji (horse mackerel), Iriko (sardines), and Ika (squid) among others and is steeped at a low temp, around 80 degrees celsius, in order to extract the most flavor and umami as possible without pulling out the bitterness which usually comes with. The Chicken base soup uses whole chickens as the backbone and infuses dried fish elements like Ago (flying fish) and Saba (mackerel) for a smooth, elegant flavor profile. Thin snappy noodles are used in both bowls, but the toppings are distinctly different for a unique experience whichever style you decide on. Don’t skip out on the Ajitama soft boiled egg which has a beautiful bright orange glow to it’s yolk.
Niboshi Noodles Nibo Nibo Cino (煮干し Noodles Nibo Nibo Cino); Maze Soba
A style that has been gaining in popularity in recent years is the Maze Soba, but not just the typical Abura style that was first born 60 or so years ago. The style allows for a ton of creativity with many shops incorporating unique ingredients and cooking styles resulting in some creative, off the wall bowls. Nibo Nibo Cino is one of those eccentric shops that incorporates an Italian twist to the Maze Soba with a distinctly Japanese ingredient. Having trained at Jikaseimen Ito, a world famous Niboshi based ramen shop, the master comes with a ton of pedigree using sardines for a Maze Soba unlike any other. The restaurant is located just a few minutes walk from Hatanodai station and opened their doors for business in June of last year making it a convenient, new shop that should definitely be on your hit list.
So the use of sardines isn't an uncommon sight in Italian dishes with many pasta styles incorporating them in some way for an added umami and flavor kick. Similarly, Niboshi dried sardines are routinely used in ramen and thus the fusion was almost so obvious that it's surprising it hasn't been done before. The Nibonibocino is the most popular menu item combining Niboshi ramen with Aglio e Olio pasta. Using a Niboshi infused olive oil with tons of garlic from Aomori, the bowl is the perfect balance of Japanese and Italian. As with all Maze Soba, the ramen requires some heavy mixing before eating to release the fragrant aromas and impactful flavors from the sauce and bit of soup pooled at the bottom. Be sure not to skip this step to get the intended flavor profile of the dish. For a bit of substance to your meal, be sure to order the Aedama, or separate, seasoned noodles which change the flavor profile mid meal.
Mendokoro Honda (麺処 ほん田); Tsukemen
Some of you might be confused as to why Mendokoro Honda is on the list as the former shop location near Higashi Jujo station has been a perennial Tabelog Top 100 ramen shop for several years. However, despite the odds, Honda decided to move their main location to Akihabara changing their old location into a Jiro style shop and recreating their menu at their new shop entirely, serving up some of the best, refined Shoyu Ramen in Tokyo. While all of their menu items are worthy of checking out, the most notable is the Tsukemen which is a must grab on your trip to Tokyo. Opened in April of last year, the shop is a perfect place to grab lunch in between shopping at nearby Akihabara.
The new and revamped Tsukemen at Honda utilizes a lot of the recent trends in Tokyo Tsukemen. Rather than the popular Tonkotsu Gyokai soup style, Honda uses a tanrei, light shoyu soup that is brimming with umami and provides a refreshing flavor profile. The style has become quite popular as of late and Honda makes theirs using chicken bones and dried fish ingredients for a complex flavor profile. Thin noodles, served shocked in an ice water bath, is served along with it and pairs incredibly well with the smoky, aromatic shoyu dipping soup. As a side item, 昆布水, or viscous Kombu water, can be added to give the noodles a unique slippery coating and an uptick in umami. Definitely a unique, trending style that you don’t want to miss out on.
Ramen FeeL; All Around
Ramen FeeL was probably the most talked about ramen shop during Covid and while the restaurant is a long way away from central Tokyo and the dining process is quite tedious, many gourmet hunter and ramen aficionados have laid claim that this is the best new ramen of 2021. To have a chance at grabbing one of their award winning bowls, be sure to come early…either at 7 or 8 am to make a reservation during their lunch hours from 10:50 to 15:20. Come back at your designated time and you’ll have a seat waiting for you in their intimate dining area in the middle of rural Tokyo.
During my visit I ended up ordering their Shio Ramen, but they also offer a Shoyu as well as a Tsukemen in both Shio and Shoyu. After placing my order, the ramen is beautifully presented at your table, adding to the fine dining vibe of the restaurant. The master of FeeL trained at the famous Iida Shoten and that DNA/experience was pretty evident in my bowl. You’ll obviously experience a different flavor profile as he makes ramen unique to FeeL, but the intricate dedication to detail and use of exquisite ingredients really shine through. For the Shio, FeeL uses chicken and scallops which explode in flavor from the first sip. The salt based tare does a beautiful job of accentuating the gentle scallop notes as well as giving the chicken base a savoury boost. Noodles are made in house and have a rather strong alkaline, kansui aroma to them, but pair with the soup nicely. The shoyu ramen actually uses a completely different stock, incorporating chicken and duck, so FeeL is a great place to enjoy a multitude of ramen styles and ingredients in one, luxurious setting!