Ramen is the Burrito of Japan


If you’re a San Francisco native, or come from someplace with a moderately large Hispanic population, you’ve probably had a burrito. Not a veggie wrap, not a gyro, not something you can buy in a supermarket, and sweet Jesus, not a Taco Bell Gordito. A burrito is a giant approximately cylindrical hunk of awesome that rings in around $6 and has enough food in it to feed you for a week. The best burritos always come from the most run-down shops, and there’s a constant battle to find the best, most authentic, most bang-for-your buck burrito in the city.

I bemoaned the lack of decent burritos when I got to Tokyo, and still look forward to a visit to El Castillo when I get home, but I realized that Japan has its own version of the burrito: Ramen. This stuff is nothing like the cup o’ noodles you’re used to- ramen is an art, a culture, an obsession, but most of all, a damn tasty, none-too-healthy meal on the go.

In its most basic form, ramen is sproingy yellow noodles in a salt or soy broth, with some bamboo shoots and maybe some meat or veggies sprinkled in there. It’s cheap, fast, simple, and consistent, and a better use of 500-600 yen than convenience-store food. Tonkotsu, though, is where legends and reputations and built and destroyed.

Tonkotsu is the worst thing you can ever put in your body. It’s a huge clump of noodles dumped in a creamy, pork-bone soup, topped off with a few slices of pork and meant to be inhaled in a matter of minutes. It’s carb-heavy, greasy, and probably supplies your caloric needs for a day, but it’s also delicious. The flavors and textures overwhelm your taste buds, and you’re full up for hours.

Every shop does things a little different, and while the noodles really only vary in springiness, the soups vary radically. Even as a complete novice, I love trying new places and discovering their “kodawari,” the ingredients or dish they specialize in. How different can noodles in soup get? Read the Waseda Ramen Blog and find out. The author, Nate, is a walking encyclopedia of ramen knowledge, and he’s just a single guy in a sea of ramen otaku, scouring Japan for the ultimate noodle bowl. There are other ramen blogs out there, but few written as well as this one.

Inosho extra spicy ramen

Extra spicy tonkotsu at Inosho

Extra-fatty ramen from tsubame

Extra-fatty tonkotsu from Tsubame

Super-spicy hokkyuu ramen

Spicy “North Pole” Ramen in Ikebukuro

So, burrito-ramen parallels: calories for your dollar (or yen)? check. As far from kosher as you can get (putting pork in something else made out of pork)? check. Cult following? check. The utensils might be different, and we’ve got bamboo instead of beans and seaweed instead of cheese, but Ramen is basically a bowl full of San Francisco burrito.

PROTIP: Tonkotsu is s horrible for you, but there are a bunch of ramen varieties on the lighter side. Shoyu (soy) ramen is really thin, with no fat in the broth, and miso ramen is a little bit thicker. If you’re into the Japanese curry taste, you can often find curry udon (thick white noodles), which is about halfway between shoyu and tonkotsu in terms of fat. I can only handle tonkotsu every so often, but eat noodles of some sort of other a couple times a week.

Photos: Nate from WRB, MenuPages