In 2002, I bought a guide book on all the best ramen restaurants in Kyoto and went about sampling them, one by one. There were two, in the end, that stood above the rest, and one of them was the legendary Ippudo (known in some parts as Hakata Ippudo). At the time, the ramen chain was exclusive to Japan, but has since expanded to New York, Taiwan, Shanghai, Singapore and even Sydney.
I have now tried Ippudo restaurants in Kyoto, Hong Kong and Taipei. Is it true what they say that the original is still the best? Read on to check out my comparisons.
I have been to the Ippudo restaurant near Kyoto’s famous Nishiki markets probably close to a dozen times, most recently during my trip to Japan in March.
Inside the Ippudo Nishikoji store in Kyoto, Japan
It’s a small place, with a large group table out the front and a long row of bar tables in the back. The lines are usually long and brutal, though the turnover is quick and the wait could be shorter than it looks.
The Japanese menu
The menu is relatively simple. In 2002, the big hit was the Akamaru Shinaji, the second from the right, which has a white soup base with a blob of red paste that is like an explosion of flavour. The pork (chashu) is also exquisite and has fatty bits that melt in your mouth. Eleven years later, it’s still my favourite, and the one I always get when I go to Ippudo. The Shiromaru Motoaji flavour (the one on the far right) is for those who like their ramen a little lighter, as some people I’ve spoken to think the Akamaru is a little on the heavier side. The Ippudo Karakamen (middle on menu) is for those who like their noodles spicy.
In Japan, they place a lot of emphasis on the hardness of the noodles (which you can dictate), and many locals also ask for a bowl of plain white rice to offset the heaviness of the flavour. Or if you’re like me, you’ll grab some fresh garlic from the table, crush them, and toss them into the soup for an extra kick.
Free pickled vegetables, sauces and garlic
As you can see from the menu, there is also fried rice, but not many people order those. One thing I used to get but not this time is the gyoza (pan fried dumplings). It’s pretty good to add on if you are hungry.
The best: Ippudo’s Akamaru Shinaji
So of course, I got the Akamaru Shinaji, which is as good as it always has been. The mix of flavours is just perfect. The missus, on the other hand, ordered the new one, the “special” (Tokusei) ramen third from the left. It’s actually very similar to the Akamaru but has thicker slices of stewed pork and additional toppings such as a wonton and an egg.
Ippudo’s Tokusei Ramen
The outcome for both bowls was identical.
The inevitable conclusion
It’s hard to describe the excellence of Ippudo in words. You know how a lot of ramen places use dodgy noodles that are not much better than instant noodles? Ippudo noodles are not like that — they are proper ramen noodles with the proper texture and bite. The soup is not just soy sauce or miso or salt or even just tonkotsu (ie broth made with bones) — it’s some special super recipe where the soup is cooked for hours and the flavour really penetrates all the way through. The meat is perhaps not the best I’ve had but it’s up there. And throw on the toppings, and what you end up with is about as close to perfect as you can get for a regular bowl of ramen.
Japanese website: http://www.ippudo.com/index.html
Address (Nishikoji store): 653-1 Nakagyo-ku Babtouyacho Nishiki Bldg 1F 604-8143
Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
There are now four Ippudo restaurants in Hong Kong, and the one I went to last year was in Causeway Bay (the others are in Kowloon, Central and Admiralty). It was a killer wait, and to manage the crowd they had a convenient ticket system.
You can look at the fake ramen while you wait for the real one at Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Or you can look at all the other patrons enjoying their meals
The inside of the restaurant is pretty big and spacious, with lots of share tables and benches. It can get crazy crowded during lunch time as the office workers love to go there for a quick and tasty meal.
Inside the Causeway Bay Ippudo
The full menu can be found online (here), and as you can see it is quite different to the Japanese one. Of course there is the Akamaru Shinaji and the Shiromaru, but in Hong Kong you can also get this meaty miso flavoured one, a plain Tokyo soy sauce one (I’d never get this) and a Sapporo-style miso one. The toppings are similar but the side dishes are more localized and varied, including a tofu hot pot, steamed dumplings, spring rolls, rice balls and an open bun with chashu pork inside.
The HK menu
The condiments are also similar but from memory there is no extra garlic or pickled vegetables.
It took a bit of a wait but the Akamaru I ordered was worth it.
The HK version looks similar but still tastes a little different
The ramen is supposed to be exactly the same but it wasn’t. Still sublime, but the flavour just wasn’t as deep as its Japanese counterpart. Maybe the Honkies were stingier on the sauces and toppings, I dunno.
We also ordered a fried chicken (karaage) and some additional toppings which comprised half a boiled egg, some extra meat and bamboo shoots. See below.
If I hadn’t tried the Japanese Ippudo before I’d probably think Hong Kong’s one is the greatest ever, but since I have, I must say it’s not quite there, though I cannot pinpoint anything specific to criticise.
HK website: http://www.ippudo.com.hk/en/index.html
Address (Causeway Bay store): 2/F, 8 Russell Street, Causeway Bay
Lastly, the first Ippudo restaurant in Taipei, which I visited several weeks after it opened last year. Taiwanese people were going crazy over the opening and the lines were ridiculous. Things have since died down a little especially with the opening of a second store, but it can still get insane at times during peak hours.
Waiting with the crowds outside Ippudo Taipei (Zhongshan store)
The interior is also pretty big, more spacious than the Kyoto store and with more private space. There are lot of individual tables, so it’s great for people who prefer not to table-share.
Inside the Taipei Ippudo
The Taiwanese menu is different as well. You can get the whole menu online (here). It is closer in variety to the HK one than the Japanese one, with a lot of interesting sides. The ramen section features the Akamaru and Shiromaru, but also a spicy ramen, cold ramen and chicken/pork ramen, which looks pretty unusual.
Taiwan’s Ippudo menu
More menu items
More of the menu
The Akamaru Shinaji reigned supreme again for me.
Taiwan’s Ippudo Akamaru Shinaji
As you can see from the above photo, the ramen looks a little different to the Japanese and HK versions. It’s stronger in colour and appears to have more sauces. The result is a ramen that tasted too heavy for my liking. By the mouthful, it’s still brilliant, but I would say it’s a step below its foreign counterparts. Maybe it’s the local ingredients or the chef’s penchant for adding an extra dollop of flavouring — either way the equilibrium was off just that little bit.
For the sides we got two very safe options — a cucumber with peanut sauce, which I loved (everything with peanut sauce is great), a spicy red oil bean sprouts with chashu, and a guabao (open bun) with fried prawns and spicy mayo. They were all pretty good, as evidenced by the photos below.
Overall, I’d say the Taipei restaurant was the weakest of the three I have sampled in terms of the Akamaru Shinaji. The Japanese one was perfect, the HK one was just a little bit less awesome, and the Taiwanese one was too strong and heavy. But the Taiwanese sides are great and salvage the score somewhat.
Taiwanese website: http://www.ippudo.com.tw/index.asp
Address (Zhongshan store): No. 85, Section 1, Zhongshan North Road, Taipei
PS: Price-wise, a regular bowl of Akamaru Shinaji costs 800 yen in Japan (AU$8) , HK$68 in Hong Kong (AU$8.50) and NT$230 in Taiwan (AU$7.60). Not surprisingly, a steaming bowl of Akamaru Shinaji in Sydney will set you back AU$16. Ridiculous but in line with the market, I suppose.