I don't generally go back to many of the shops on my list; as much as I'm tempted to just keep returning to the best ones, I'm doing my best to keep on pushing to discover the next best bowl and someday finally complete my mission of eating at every ramen shop in Takadanobaba. But sometimes, the desire for a surefire bowl of bomb-ass ramen makes a man forget his mission; it happened last week at Junren, and it happened this week at Ippûdô. My homies and I spent the day in Yoyogi park and a bowl of creamy tonkotsu (pork marrow) ramen sounded like just what the doctor didn't order but the belly did. We biked by the 'Baba branch of Ippûdô and knew it was our jam.
Despite the fact (or perhaps precisely because of it) that Ippûdô is located about 200 meters from my house, I almost never go there. For years, Ippûdô was my ideal ramen (and it still comes damn close) to drool about from across the globe, but it's strange what proximity does to desire. Ippûdô was one of the first bowls I grabbed after arriving in town, and I hadn't been back in about six months. Ippûdô is fan-frikkin-tastic, but I knew that already, so I thought I would devote myself to seeing what other options were out there.
Ippûdô is one of the best known names in the ramen world, both in Japan and abroad, especially after the smashing success of their East Village location in Manhattan. New Yorkers regularly queue up for well over an hour to grab a single bowl of ramen, which is marked up to a healthy 14 or so bucks (plus tax and tip!); of course, Tokyo ramen fans love lining up too, but they don't have the luxury of a backlit full bar and noodle lounge to do it in. It took Ippûdô almost 25 years to reach that point - the first small branch opened in Hakata back in 1985, taking a name (House of One Wind) to evoke a fresh breeze rejuvenating the ramen world. And that's exactly what happened - it's not too much to say that the whole 'ramen as classy food' / fancy interior / modern jazz soundtrack concept began with Ippûdô. The shop's classic white tonkotsu debuted in the Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1994 and took off from there, giving birth to about 40 locations, plus a few 'new brands' from the same team, including the inimitable Gogyô.
Ippûdô periodically tweaks their menu, but the basics stay the same - the classic white creamy tonkotsu, or the same topped off with a dab of spicy red miso and extra mysterious black oil - the black stuff is derived from the classic Kumamoto-style mâyû (garlic and sesame oil), but there's an added dimension at Ippûdô that amounts to 'secret sauce.'
The thing comes out of the kitchen looking more like an abstract expressionist painting than a bowl of ramen. It's tough to destroy that beauty with your spoon, but you won't regret it - thick, strong, rich, creamy, porky broth that just takes it a level beyond almost anywhere else. Not pungent and stinky like many Hakata joints (such as Botan down the block), but rather a classy ride for the tongue.
Piling on the toppings is always a part of a bowl of Hakata ramen, and Ippûdô does it proper - beni shôga (red pickled ginger), spicy takana greens, a tableside garlic crusher, and a sesame grinder amount to the freshest possible bowl as all those tastes mixes together into an untoppable flavor bomb. Ippûdô's recommendation as top flight is truly deserved. Take a look up at the sky and see this...
...then take a look at the bowl down below, and see THIS. Life is good.
And remember what I said about ruining that beautiful work of art? Well, forget your concerns, because it comes out the other end looking at least as good - ramen bowl, work of art, vision of the cosmos...or all three at once?!?! Look how the tiny bits of lard form the soft clouds, speckled with flecks of burnt garlic as the light dances upon the soup...somebody call Artforum, stat!
I forewent my usual kaedama (noodle refill), instead trying the rice with mentaiko (spicy cod roe). I used to be grossed out by the stuff, but it's grown on me, and now I can't get enough of it. Ippûdô's mentaiko is somehow that much sweeter and fresher than almost anywhere else's, and a dab of mayonnaise (what do you think this is, NOT Japan?) brings it all together. Grab a piece of seaweed and fold in some crunchy pickled radish and you good - I'd be more than happy to just eat a big bowl of this for lunch! I know it is hell of trite to like Ippûdô at this point, but man, they sure are doing something right - seven years into this relationship and I still discover something new every time.