In 2015, a ramen store in Tokyo made waves by becoming the first ever to receive a Michelin star. Tucked down a street in a slightly shabby area near Sugamo Station to Tokyo’s north, the store, Tsuta, was flooded with hordes of noodle worshippers and subsequently issued a timed-entry ticketing system to manage the crowds (reportedly to spare the clientele of the love hotel across the street from embarrassment).
Locals maintain, however, that the best ramen in the area is not found at Tsuta, which has since moved to a more upmarket location, but rather at Menya Imamura, housed one street over from the original Tsuta store.
Defying the eye-catching design of many ramen stores that are often decked with gawdy red-and-yellow signs, Menya Imamura emulates a plainer, more traditional design. Wooden slatted windows obscure the interior and white noren (flags) hang across the door. The main clue to the noodles that lie within is a large white paper lantern that bears the term nōkō tori-paitan (濃厚鶏白湯), promising thick, creamy and cloudy chicken broth.
They certainly make good on that promise. The limited menu illustrates a confidence in the idea that simplicity delivers satisfaction. There is a choice of only two types of ramen, both made with a base broth of chicken and small dried sardines. The shoyu (soy sauce) version comes in a white bowl and has a strong sardine flavor, the broth thicker, with punchy umami recalling memories of the sea; the other, shio (salt), served in a red bowl, is closer to a hearty chicken soup that warms the body on a chilly day.
Each bowl is laden with thick, springy noodles that capture plenty of broth. These are crowned by three slices of pillow-soft chicken char siu, first cooked sous vide at 60 degrees C for two hours and then finished before customers’ eyes on a charcoal grill, a nod to the store’s history as a yakitori (grilled chicken) joint. The meat is accompanied by spring onions, and more unusually, slices of white onion and a lightly pickled tomato, adding sour-sweet notes that give extra depth to the already richly flavored soup.
“Ramen has never been something I am crazy about. But then I tried this, and I thought I can’t have any other ramen again,” says Kuv Ahmad, a diner who has been frequenting Menya Imamura since it opened in late 2016. “There’s just something about that chicken broth that I find so comforting and warming. It’s more than a hug in a bowl; it takes over your whole body. I know that is a bit extreme but that’s how I feel!”
The praise is well-deserved. The store is the culmination of over two decades of experience in the ramen business. Owner Mamoru Imamura first began working in a ramen shop at the age of 18 and gathered the tricks of the trades for 25 years before opening Menya Imamura. He began searching for a vacant store with a design that reflected wa, a concept that embodies Japan and Japanese-style. This was how he was introduced to the former yakitori. Harmonizing with the space’s history and in a nod to traditional Japanese cuisine, he decided on a rich chicken broth with dried sardines, a key element in Japanese dashi stock.
Most intriguing, however, are the accompaniments. Each bowl is served with a small white dish divided into two – one half filled with lemon-flavored ginger, the other with finely chopped oil-marinated mushrooms. Customers are advised to add these halfway through the bowl to change the taste. For an extra 50 yen, a round of ball of nikumiso – minced pork seasoned with miso and flecked with green chile – can also be added, infusing the bowl with robust savory notes followed by a kick of spice.
“There’s just something about that chicken broth that I find so comforting and warming. It’s more than a hug in a bowl; it takes over your whole body.”
All of these ingredients are far from typical ramen shop fare. “Personally, when eating ramen, no matter what, I always get bored halfway through,” admits Imamura. “The last mouthful of soup always tastes the same. When you have a traditional Japanese meal with lots of side dishes, you get lots of different flavors. During the meal, for example, you can drink miso soup; you can reset the taste in your mouth. But ramen is only soup in noodles, and the taste stays the same. Isn’t that dull?”
This inspired Imamura to set about experimenting with toppings. After many attempts, the lemon-ginger and marinated mushrooms emerged as the two winners. Moreover, Imamura notes, in what veers into a surprisingly scientific explanation, the noodles are alkaline, so the acidity of the lemon helps to reset the pH balance of the broth.
At Menya Imamura, every bowl arrives on a tray and is presented like a work of art. The additional topping of a soy-flavored boiled egg (highly recommended) is stamped with the name of the store, the yolk inside cooked to custardy perfection. Their dedication to the ramen craft is clear.
Yet there is no information about the source of the ingredients, no farm-to-table story, nor any explanation of the cooking method. This contrasts with many other restaurants, passionate about their produce, where the menu contains a note on their kodawari, the things they fuss over the most, take the most care over or put the most pride in.
“My kodawari,” says Imamura, “is not to tell people what my kodawari is.” His reasoning is straightforward and honest. He isn’t concerned about plagiarism; he merely wants to avoid prejudgment. The result is a pure test of his skills.
“If people visit based on some kind of information, they tend to just think the food is delicious because of that. For example, if you hear it’s top-grade A5 Matsuzaka beef, you imagine extremely delicious beef. I want to do away with these kinds of preconceptions. At our store, you simply eat and decide from the taste whether it’s delicious or not, and whether it makes you happy or not.”
It is clear that Menya Imamura more than stands up to the taste test. Word of mouth spreads like wildfire among regulars when the (not-so-secret) off-menu chicken-shrimp tsukemen (dipping noodles) appear in the summer. These come with a crispy slice of toasted baguette to soak up the broth at the end, adding an extra element of customizability. With his deceptively simple menu, Imamura has tapped into a vital element of the human psyche – the fundamentals of what makes food fun.
Regular customer Ahmad enthuses about her entire eating experience, which she has meticulously mapped out. “For me, the perfect ending is a balance of broth, a bit of noodle (all on the spoon), a bit of onion, and one half of the cherry tomato on top,” she says. “I always love to think about the last bite.”
She is definitely not alone.
This article was originally published on March 10, 2021.
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