Trend: Ramen Lama Ding Dong
By Michelle Madsen
Japan does late-night junk food differently. Leaving deep fried vegetables and incinerated meats-on-a-stick to the after-dark revellers of the west; night in, night out, Tokyo-ites take a seat at one of the city's thousands of ramen bars and fill their stomachs from a steaming bowl.
And what’s so special about a bowl of noodle soup? It’s just soup, right? As any ramen-afficionado will know, this is a gross understatement.
Ramen is not just a few noodles chucked into tepid soup. Ramen is a life-enhancing elixir of joy; stewed bones, warmed with a thousand different variants of miso, a stir revealing whorls of hand-snipped noodles and strips of seaweed - all this topped with smoky barbequed belly, deceptively innocent-looking spiced pork and a soy-spiked cooked egg, its yolk the perfect side of runny.
Rich, indulgent and tantalisingly dirty, this is comfort food taken to a whole new level. And if ramen on its own isn’t enough, the darker corners of the internet bulge with esoteric ramen-fusion recipes. From the just-about-palatable ramen burgers, via the frankly disturbing instant noodle sandwich, to the eye-bending wonders of Machi No Kumasan’s ramen soup cakes – yep, you got it, what looks like a bowl of soup is, in fact, a cake.
Little wonder then that this humble noodle dish has achieved a cult status not only in Japan, but in noodle-obsessed pockets of New York, and more recently, creeping east from the dark heart of Soho to Hackney. So, on the trail of noodles in broth, here's your Ramen Ramble that takes you from the east (Japan) to west (UK) via west (Central) to east (London).
Shoryu (Soho, Carnaby Street & Regent Street)
Shoryu Ramen Soho 3 Denman St W1D 7HA
The prolific Shoryu has opened three branches in three years within less than a mile of each other. Which means if the queue is outrageous at your chosen branch, you don’t have to walk far to try your luck at another one. Walk, queue, whatever, it's well worth it - Shoryu ticks all the boxes. Each branch has a slightly different feel, but my favourite is the Soho restaurant, tucked away on a side street just footsteps away from the clamour of Piccadilly Circus. Walk past a pair of burning torches, duck under a character-emblazoned curtain and have a frozen Kirin beer as you wait for a table. Once you’re seated on a bar by the window or on a bench just in front of the open kitchen, you’ll find it difficult to decide what to eat, everything sounds (and is) delicious. Star with delicately lacy gyoza which arrive at your table spitting and bubbling on a hot plate, or the weird yet wonderful tempura Brussel sprouts. The tonkotsu itself is a heady, powerful brew but just short of greasy. Garlic lovers should try the ‘Dracula’ tonkotsu, replete with a caramelised black garlic base and garnished with garlic chips. For a kick of spice, the Karake Tantan Tonkotsu, all spicy fried mine pork and lashings of chilli oil is a must, for traditionalists the signature ramen with thin slices of bbq belly pork. Shoryu also caters for wheat-haters, sushi-lovers and vegetarians, with skewered yakitori meats demanding to be eaten as well. All this played against a soundtrack of late-90s teen pop, with broody waiters and lots and lots of sake. I can’t wait to go back.
31 Peter St W1F 0AR
It's a short walk from Shoryu Soho over to Bone Daddies. All laughing bikers in leathers, the décor of this ramen retreat is hip, rock 'n' roll and very relaxed. Tattoed waitresses will navigate you round the more complex menu, which allows you to choose your base broth, seasoning and toppings. Bone Daddies is the all-night diner of ramen joints, steaming bowls of bone-infused soup and amazing extras, including a pipette of fat, cock scratchings (easy now), semi-marinated and boiled eggs. They even provide hairbands to stop long locks dripping in your soup. Now that's thoughtful. Sling back a cocktail in the early hours and crush an entire bulb of garlic onto your noodles. Bone Daddies has just the one branch in London so far, but it's worth the trek out west.
Arch 334, 1a Dunstan Street E84EB
Named after the heady pork bones which give the rich depth to the soup your noodles come in, Tonkotsu is perhaps the most traditional of London’s ramen vendors. Its original restaurant is squeezed in between a couple of towering townhouses in the heart of Soho, its newer sibling is tucked away close to the Geffrye Museum in Haggerston. If you manage to avoid the lunchtime queues and duck under Tonkotsu’s unassuming curtain, you’ll be elbow-to-elbow with other diners on wooden benches. It’s a no-frills sort of place but all the better to appreciate supple slivers of pork belly melting into the eponymous broth. Cheap and definitely cheerful with most bowls coming in at just over a tenner. Go on, slurp up. You're home now.