The Quest for Michelin Starred Ramen in Tokyo
An oft-quoted fact in media travel & food articles about Tokyo is that the Japanese capital has more Michelin stars than any other city on earth. This is often presented as something of a surprising statistic, but of course given the massive size of the city and the fantastic food available in Japan (both Japanese cuisine and French, Chinese, Italian, etc) it really isn’t surprising at all.
Unfortunately unless you’ve got money coming out of your ass you’re unlikely to be eating much of that Michelin-starred stuff while you visit Tokyo (and if you are in a position to do so, you’re probably not reading my blog). But a few years back Michelin awarded the first ever star for a humble ramen restaurant, causing a pretty big fuss at the time; it has since awarded a second Tokyo ramen place a star, and over in Taiwan they’ve been listing night market stalls in addition to a Michelin star for the heavenly dumplings at Din Tai Fung (which I ate here). All of which means you can now treat yourself to Michelin star quality food without spaffing hundreds of dollars per person on it – as long as you don’t mind paying with your time instead.
Tsuta was the first ramen joint to get the Michelin seal of approval, for its truffle soba noodles (so, not actually ramen technically-speaking, but whatever). This was followed not long after by Nakiryu, which specialises in tan tan noodles, tantanmen 担担麺 (a Japanese take on the spicy noodles served in the Sichuan region of western China). Both were excellent (especially Nakiryu), both were a pain in the ass to visit, and both were very cheap by Michelin star standards (especially Nakiryu) though Tsuta was crazy expensive by normal ramen standards at 3 or 4 times the usual Tokyo ramen price.
To be honest, I would usually never put up with dicking around for 2 hours to eat a bowl of noodles, however good the food is. But hey, I’m back in Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup, my friends are all at work midweek so I had no social plans for a few days, and I have a blog to write… so I called this a work mission and took one (actually, two) for the team. Hard life I know 😉
Round 1: Tsuta Soba
It being the first to get the coveted star I started with Tsuta, braving a grimly packed-out Tuesday morning train on the Seibu Shinjuku line and then the JR train to Sugamo Station on the distinctly unglamorous northern arc of the Yamanote loop between Ikebukuro and Ueno.
The shop’s just round the corner from the station’s south exit, in the ground floor unit of a nondescript building:
Following the massive popularity boost they got due to the Michelin star, Tsuta came up with a ticket system to control the queues. They’re open from 11 to 4pm every day except Wednesday, but you have to go in the morning before 10am (it is possible later on, but only if you’re lucky) to get a colour-coded ticket, then go back for your time slot. I got there around 10 and got a blue ticket for the midday slot:
What you do to kill an hour or two is up to you, but although this system seems like a bit of a fiddle it does beat having to stand in line the whole time. I just wandered the area (nothing too interesting, though there’s a pretty cool temple to the north called Shinshoji which I forgot to photograph) and drank a couple of coffees to pass the time.
If you’re a group you could draw straws and send one person along to get tickets; but there’s a 1000 yen deposit (refunded when you go back to eat), and that’s per person i.e. per ticket (and not per group).
When you get back to the restaurant for your time slot you still have to queue up for a while outside while the previous batch finish their meals; the line is back off the street in the building entrance area to the side, which is covered so you don’t have to worry if it’s raining. While you’re waiting you get your 1000 yen deposit back in exchange for your ticket and then you go in and order from the vending machine before heading back out to your spot in the line.
After another wait of 30 minutes or so (spent chatting to my neighbours in the queue – which notably consisted entirely of foreign tourists), I was called in to my seat and promptly served this:
To describe it in detail, what you’re looking at there is soba noodles with thin slices of chashu and a soft-boiled egg served in a very light soy sauce broth, with a layer of black truffle slices over the top. If you’ve had ramen at the Japanese-Chinese places that call their ramen chuka soba (中華そば, Chinese-style soba), this is like the super-deluxe version of that chuka soba style ramen. The truffle is obviously what makes it so much more expensive than noodles usually are, and I think this was the first time I’d ever eaten truffle; nice, for sure, though I’m not quite sure what all the fuss or expense is about. The rest of it was basically just like a really damn good bowl of chuka soba, lovely broth, perfect egg (I’m a big fan of ramen eggs). But 30 dollars and 3 hours good? Probably not, but I’d say that about any food to be fair – these guys are definitely serving outstanding food. Whether you want to wait & pay that much to try it is up to you.
Here’s the vending machine:
The two buttons at the top are for the signature dish I had – the darker blue on the left is the shoyu (soy) broth, or you can go for the lighter blue on the right for the shio (salt) broth. The slightly cheaper buttons underneath are the same thing but without the chashu & egg. The next row of smaller buttons is for these two without the truffle (hence much cheaper) and with or without the chashu & egg, and the 4th row down has their salmon soba option, which sounds interesting but after waiting for that long I guess most people want to try the signature dish. The lower half is for individual orders of toppings and sides.
Round 2: Nakiryu
The following day I went for round 2, this time to Nakiryu in the evening. I was always more excited to try Nakiryu, because I love dan dan noodles. The original dandanmian is from Sichuan in China, and is basically noodles topped with minced pork and usually some peanuts or greens, served in a very spicy oil or oily broth (the liquid level varies) flavoured with sesame, chilli pepper, and Sichuan pepper. It’s the Sichuan pepper that gives it the distinctive Sichuan taste, with a mild numbing sensation on your lips and tongue. The original Chinese version can be extremely spicy, and is served hot or cold according to season (on a sweaty summer day in Chongqing or Chengdu the cold but spicy noodles are perfect).
The Japanese take on this dish is tan tan noodles, with the spice level dialled down significantly (and usually without Sichuan pepper), and the sesame dialled up a bit, and is also much less oily with the noodles served in a full bowl of soup rather than the more concentrated sauce used in China. It’s essentially Japanese ramen with a dan dan tweak. But anyway, I’m a big fan of both versions, and Nakiryu has a “super hot” option which includes a good dose of Sichuan pepper so that’s what I went for:
Absolutely superb. It really was. And it had to be, after waiting for around 75 minutes in line outside! The noodles are quite thin (I prefer them chunkier), but apart from that it was unimprovable. The red ball in the middle is the Sichuan pepper, which blended in as I ate – it wasn’t crazy spicy, but definitely had a nice kick to it with just the right amount of Sichuan pepper. If you’re not good with spicy food, you absolutely should not order the super hot option though! Either brave the regular tan tan (spicy but less so), or they have regular soy and shio ramen available in addition to tan tan.
There’s no ticket system or anything at Nakiryu, you just have to turn up and get in line. It’s a 5-minute walk from the south exit of Otsuka Station (coincidentally, this pair of Tokyo Michelin star ramen shops are located at adjacent stops on the Yamanote Line) and they’re open for lunch from 11:30 to 3pm, then dinner from 6 to 9pm; I got there at 6:45, when there were already two dozen people in line, and I finally got into the store around 8pm. When I left one happy belly later, these last few people were still waiting to get in:
They closed the line to new customers just before I got in to the store, so don’t try turning up there at 8 or later. Again, the waiting time was spent chatting to neighbours in the queue – a couple of French guys, an American family and an American-Taiwanese couple, largely discussing ramen and what to order! It was notable that for Nakiryu, the line was about half-and-half locals and tourists.
They have half a dozen in line immediately outside the door, then the rest of the queue is on the other side of the street (it’s a quiet back lane); once you get to that front bit at the door, they give you the menu (English and Japanese) so you’re ready to order once you reach the vending machine inside.
There’s no shelter, so if it’s raining you’ll be standing in it. This might actually be a good time to go as the waiting time should be shorter – a friend of mine went when it was snowing, and she only waited 30 minutes as a result. And on a snowy day a bowl of spicy tan tan is pretty much the perfect thing to eat, so if you’re in Tokyo in winter and catch a snow day (doesn’t happen so often) that’s the day to go.
Here’s the vending machine:
The two big buttons at the top are the signature tan tan, with the super hot option on the right. ‘Super hot’ is the English translation, but for those familiar with Chinese (or Korean) cuisine it’s actually called 麻辣担担面, mala dandanmian, the ‘mala’ referring to this mala sauce used in Sichuan hotpot.
The yellow buttons below those are for shoyu ramen, and the blue ones are for shio ramen. The 1400 and 1450 yen buttons are for their full ‘deluxe topping’ version, but unfortunately that was sold out by the time we got in so people were ordering their noodles plus various assorted toppings and sides (the yellow and green buttons), which you can work out from the English menu they give you. I went for the mala noodles with chashu & egg as extra toppings. As you can see, the basic tan tan is only 900 yen, and mine came to 1550 with the extras; amazingly good value for the quality you get.
The deluxe toppings are egg, wonton, duck meatball, and a couple of types of pork (thin sliced and thick grilled), and really this is their signature dish and probably the one to go for; I think I’m going to have to go back one day at lunchtime to try it! I do recommend going at lunch if you can, both to make sure the deluxe isn’t sold out and also the waiting time is apparently slightly shorter. So, lunchtime when it’s snowing and you’re grand!
If I had to pick one of the two, it’s definitely Nakiryu – in terms of quality they’re both fantastic, but Nakiryu is significantly cheaper and the ramen style they serve is my favourite. Standing outside the shop for ages sucks though, so the Tsuta ticket system is better if you hate lining up. As noted above, the line at Tsuta was entirely foreign tourists, while Nakiryu was a mix of tourists and locals… I’m guessing that since Tsuta have put their prices up significantly since the Michelin star, most Japanese aren’t willing to pay that much for ramen. Also Tsuta used to have wonton dumplings in the ramen which people raved about, but those are a thing of the past. Still, all that said, it was really good.
But really, you don’t need to spend hours of your day to get a good bowl of noodles in Tokyo. If the idea of waiting 2 hours makes you say fuck that shit, there’s an excellent place near Ikebukuro Station called Mutekiya (find it on Google Maps to the south from the station’s east exits), it also gets a big line at times but usually 30 or 40 minutes rather than 2 hours, and they’re open until 4am – I used to live near there and I’d hit that joint at 1am on my way home from the pub. No line, cracking ramen (tonkotsu style), great gyoza (fried dumplings). In fact, even not taking price & waiting time into consideration, I’d say I like Mutekiya better than Tsuta; for me it’s the best ramen in Tokyo after Nakiryu.
Another awesome spot is Kameya in Shinjuku’s Memory Alley (aka Piss Alley), it’s a soba & udon joint rather than ramen, for just 4 dollars you can get this bowl of awesomeness:
Which is their tentama udon (thick udon noodles in broth with tempura & egg). I absolutely love it, even at busy times the line is usually 10 to 15 minutes at most (but often no line or just a couple of people), and the surroundings are pure atmosphere. It’s the best bowl of noodles you can possibly find at this price point, and honestly not far off matching the fancy Michelin star bowls above. See my Piss Alley post here
And the famous ramen chains are all over the place – Kamakura, Ichiran, Tenkaippin, Ippudo, Santouka, Yokohama Iekei. Particularly popular these days is Ichiran with its individual booths and easy customised ordering, though I think it’s massively overrated with weak topping game – the soup is really good to be fair and I do often hit Ichiran after beers, but for the best ramen (in terms of chains) my favourites are Santouka (Hokkaido-style miso ramen), Yokohama Iekei (really chunky noodles in tonkotsu/shoyu blend with spinach and quail eggs, love it!) and Tenkaippin (Kyoto-style heavy chicken broth ramen with thick noodles) – all these chains have stores in Shinjuku.
One more thing – you can get Tsuta instant ramen in 7-Eleven. It’s nowhere near as good as the real deal, obviously, but it’s by far the tastiest instant ramen I’ve ever had (and by far the most expensive, 2 or 3 times the usual price). Doesn’t look great but it actually tasted really good:
Nakiryu also has an instant version, though I haven’t tracked it down yet.
Another good food mission to go on in Tokyo is Tsukiji market (which I only finally got round to doing recently), see here
If you like Sichuan cuisine read my hotpot carnage in Chongqing story
You can also score very affordable Michelin star eats at Taiwan’s Din Tai Fung, their xiaolongbao dumplings are heaven (see here)
Japan travel guide here
Any questions about ramen in Tokyo? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.