Tokyo Noodle Wars: Ikebukuro

Tokyo Noodle Wars: Ikebukuro

Ikebukuro's top ramen joints are always engaged in fierce battle. We hit the 'hood's top spots and report back in painstaking detail
Tokyo ramen
The mean streets of Ikebukuro are home to dozens and dozens of ramen joints. (Photo by Flickr user midorisyu)

The recent explosion in the popularity of ramen has culminated in 'ramen gekisen-ku': or 'fiercely contested areas.' These are districts of the city in which a large number of noodle peddlers fight tooth-and-nail for the mindshare and wallets of the noodle-slurping public. They all vie for that most coveted of phenomena: the 'gyoretsu,' a line of awaiting customers stretching around the block.

CNNGo will hit each of these battle zones and report back with dispatches on the flavor munitions and soupy assaults. For the first foray into Tokyo's gekisen-ku, I headed to one of the city's most bustling districts: Ikebukuro.

Menya Goto

tokyo ramenWantan-men at Menya Goto.Located right next to Rikkyo University, Menya Goto is quickly becoming a legend amongst Ikebukuro's ramen cognoscenti. The reputation is well deserved: the founder apprenticed at East Ikebukuro's seminal ramen restaurant Taishoken, which recently closed its doors. Menya Goto has been left to carry the torch.

The soup, made from pork bones, chicken carcasses and fish offers the perfect balance of sweet and salty, with the fish stock providing an extra dose of depth.

Even more surprising are the noodles. These medium-to-heavy thickness straight noodles have a great, firm texture and give just enough to each bite to make them a joy to munch on, though difficult to slurp. Be careful: the standard 'chumori' (medium) noodle portion is 300 grams, twice the amount of most other ramen joints. This is enough to cow even the most well-trained stomach.

I chose the 'wantan-men,'which offers delightful house-made soft wontons stuffed with seasoned pork, in addition to the menma pickled bamboo shoots, chashu pork slices and nori seaweed strips that are standard in every bowl. Tsukemen looks to be the most popular dish, with a choice of either cold or warm noodles (atsumori) to dip in piping hot soup.

3-33-7 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, tel. 03 3986 9115, 10:45am-until soup runs out

Tori no Ana

tokyo ramenShirotori-ramen at Tori no Ana.Next stop was the unique Tori no Ana, which has been in business for a little over a year in the musical instrument shopping district east of the station.

The calling card here is chicken. The soup is made exclusively with chicken and vegetables, and the noodles are topped with ground chicken meat flavored with yuzu-kosho chili paste. Even the chashu pork has been replaced with a chicken version: succulent skin-on thigh-meat slices braised in sweet soy.

I sampled the 'shirotori-ramen' (white chicken noodles), Tori no Ana's most orthodox offering. While the thick noodles were forgettable, the soup was certainly not. This is the closest analogue to American-style chicken noodle soup to be found in the city, and it seems to be purely coincidental. While the toromi thickness factor has been increased to accommodate local noodle slurpers, this is close enough to the real thing to warrant a trip to Ikebukuro after catching a cold.

Also worthy of note is the Tori-meshi: sliced chicken breast and crumbled mominori seaweed over a bed of barley rice. Mix this in with the ramen soup for the perfect late-night pick-me-up after drinks in ‘Bukuro.

1-39-20 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, tel. 03 3986 2811, weekdays 11am-3pm, 6pm-11pm, weekends 11am-10pm

Mutekiya

tokyo ramenNikugan-men at Mutekiya.Finally, I headed south to experience Mutekiya. Long hailed one of the top ramen joints in Ikebukuro, if not the city, expectations were high.

Diners were lined up in front at 4pm -- a very good sign -- and the interior proved to be roomier that the typical hole-in-the-wall noodle saloon. Unfortunately, that’s where the surprises ended.

I opted for the 'nikugan-men,' Mutekiya’s standard bowl with extra chashu and boiled nanohana sprouts. The soup was a very typical tonkotsu-shoyu, albeit toned down quite a bit from its northern Kyushu origins (ostensibly for the benefit of Mutekiya's female patronage). The se-abura topping (rendered pork fat) seemed like an afterthought, and none of the toppings were particularly memorable.

Medium-thick straight noodles once again made an appearance, contributing very little to the unimaginative composition of the dish. While the chashu pork was flavorful, juicy and well seasoned, this offering ultimately felt like hundreds of other tonkotsu bowls I’ve had throughout the city.

With its convenient location close to the station, Mutekiya may be an option for those with a burning pork soup fix, but as we've seen, more stimulating ramen adventures can be found in the streets of Ikebukuro’s neighborhoods.

www.mutekiya.com, 1-17-1 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, 03 3982 7656, 10:30am-4am