Ippudo ramen: Japan vs Hong Kong vs Taiwan

April 28, 2013 in Food, Hong Kong, Japan, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

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.

Kyoto, Japan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ippudo’s Tokusei Ramen

The outcome for both bowls was identical.

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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.

10/10

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.

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You can look at the fake ramen while you wait for the real one at Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

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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.

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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.

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The HK menu

The condiments are also similar but from memory there is no extra garlic or pickled vegetables.

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It took a bit of a wait but the Akamaru I ordered was worth it.

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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.

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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.

9.5/10

HK website: http://www.ippudo.com.hk/en/index.html

Address (Causeway Bay store): 2/F, 8 Russell Street, Causeway Bay

Taipei, Taiwan

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.

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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.

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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.

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Taiwan’s Ippudo menu

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More menu items

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More of the menu

  The Akamaru Shinaji reigned supreme again for me.

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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.

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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.

8.5/10

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.

 

Yuyuan Ramen Shanghai Dumpling (滬園拉麵小籠包)

August 21, 2012 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

There is a restaurant chain in Taiwan called Yuyuan (滬園) which specialises in Shanghai dumplings (otherwise known as xiaolongbao.  They have now opened one that also serves Chinese ramen. Both are favourites of mine. And so I had to visit.

Yuyuan Ramen Shanghai Dumpling (滬園拉麵小籠包) — man,  that’s a mouthful — is situated on the underground level of the Global Mall at Banqiao. It’s really a semi-restaurant as it is located in a food court. The menu is quite traditionally Chinese, with stuff like noodles, congee, wontons and so forth. They even have cold snacks you can peruse (and order) in a glass cabinet.

I’m not typically a fan of food court food, which is often serviceable but rarely great.  Yuyuan is better than serviceable, but it’s not great either.

On this day, we ordered a noodle mixed with broad bean sauce, a noodle mixed in peanut and sesame sauce, a shrimp shaomai, a dry wonton with chili oil, a plain congee, a plate of fried seafood rolls and a plate of deep fried chicken. The full menu (with English) can be obtained here.

Pictures!

All the dishes were at least par or above. The two noodles were decent but unexceptional, not unlike what you would be able to have at most cheap-and-dirty vendors in Taipei, except cleaner.  I’ve had better shrimp shaomai and dry wonton with chili oil elsewhere — the shaomai were on the dry side and the wontons could have used a sauce with more kick.

As it turned out, the fried dishes were the best. The seafood rolls were crunchy on the outside and soft, moist and hot on the inside, and very flavoursome to boot.  You can’t go wrong with fried chicken in Taiwan, so it was a given that theirs was pretty good too.

Oh, and I didn’t really bother with the congee, but I will say that the fried dough sticks were not good enough. Didn’t feel…fresh.

On the whole, I guess it was fairly good for a  semi-food court type of joint but not a place where you would go for a wonderful meal. It is the only restaurant of its type under the Yuyuan umbrella, so if you are into their food then I would certainly recommend it.

7 out of 10

PS: To be honest I wasn’t planning on such a high score but the photos made my immensely hungry.

PPS: I just realized I didn’t even order their Shanghai dumplings…or ramen. Oops.

Details:

Banqiao Global Mall B1 (connected to the MRT and train stations)

Phone: (02) 89691688

Hours: 11am-10pm (weekdays), 10am-10pm (weekends)

Website: http://www.huyuan168.com.tw/subcom/moredetail.asp?comid=7

Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (花月嵐拉麵)

July 4, 2012 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

I am no stranger to ramen, and it’s been a personal mission of mine to try out all the best ramen places in Taipei. One that  supposedly places very high on many ramen rankings is Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (花月嵐拉麵), a popular Japanese chain that I had strangely not heard of during my time in Japan.

Nonetheless, about 6 months ago I decided to check it out (yes, that’s how behind I am in my posts). The one we went to is in the Hankyu Department Store near Taipei City Hall MR Station, adjacent to the marvellous Eslite bookstore (in my opinion the best in Taiwan).

The problem with this ramen joint is that it is packed to the rafters if you attempt to visit during normal meal hours (by this I mean from about 11am to 2pm or 5pm to 8pm), and almost always guarantees a length wait. On this occasion, I jotted down my details and went off to Eslite to do some light reading, and returned about an hour and 15 minutes later, which was about right.

Arashi is famous for its garlic knuckle ramen (ninniku genkotsu) , which essentially contains a soup base made from pork knuckle bone and lots and lots of garlic (just how I like it). There is the “standard” version, which uses soy sauce, a “white” version that uses salt, and a “miso” version that uses…well, miso. For first timers I would recommend the standard, unless you like your soups light, in which case I would go with the white.

For those who like to stink, there’s even fresh garlic you can crush yourself and chuck into the soup. I of course did.

There were also a few temporary “specials” that I ignored. I mean, if it’s so good, it would be in the permanent menu.

We ended up going for a standard ninniku genkotsu and a butter fried rice (which reminds me of another Jap chain, Pepper Lunch). Basically just fried rice cooked on a hot plate with loads of butter.

Now for the photos and my verdict.

I like my ramen soup thick and opaque, which usually means it has a lot of flavour. This one is, with what appears to be either fat or garlic pieces floating on top. However, I have to say the soup was a lot saltier than I had anticipated, which is not too bad for a little while but can have you feeling awful by the end of it (and after). To be honest I was totally parched for hours after this meal. In short, I liked it but it’s more suited for those who like their ramen soups salty. I seriously could not believe how some people added more condiments to the soup, including soy sauce.

The meat was quite scarce (only a couple of slices) but it was good — the melt in your mouth kind. The ramen noodles themselves were pretty good as well, certainly better than places that use instant noodles.

As for the fried rice…it was decent, but nothing special. Pepper Lunch is probably better.

Pour the sauce on and stir away. I liked the texture of the rice because you can gauge how cooked or overcooked you’d like it to be. Personally, I liked it a little hard around the edges.  It smelled great, but at the end when you see how much grease is on the plate it can make you regret having it.

On the whole, Ramen Kagetsu Arashi is one of the better, but not one of the top ramen places in Taiwan. I enjoyed it but it’s not the type of place I would go back to on a regular basis because the flavours are so strong. Nonetheless, there must be a reason why the franchise has lots of stores around Taiwan now and still attracts massive lines every day, so perhaps it is more a reflection of my personal preferences.

7.5 out of 10

Taiwan website: http://www.gbj-tw.com/

Locations:  http://www.gbj-tw.com/shop/map.html#shop07 (Chinese with addresses, maps and opening hours; will need Google translate for English) — there are apparently 9 stores in Taiwan, with one near Taipei Main Station and 2 near Taipei City Hall.

Price:  around NT$200 per head; there is a 10% service charge.

Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (Taipei)

November 24, 2011 in Best Of, Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel

Be prepared to line up!

I love ramen.  Did I mention I love ramen?

Unfortunately, having lived in Japan before, I have tasted the best this magnificent invention has to offer, and accordingly, everything else I have tasted outside of Japan pales in comparison.

However, I have heard good things about ramen in Taiwan, especially because a lot of the ramen restaurants are popular Japanese franchises.  One of the best, apparently, is Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (らあめん花月嵐).

One busy evening, we went to the new Ramen Kagetsu Arashi store in the B2 food court of the new Hankyu Department Store in Taipei.  The Hankyu Department Store is THE place to be right now because it’s connected directly with the Taipei City Hall MRT Station as well as the Eslite bookstore building, my favourite bookstore on the planet.  And the food court there is one of the most amazing I have ever set foot in.  I’ll be damned if I don’t get to try every single restaurant and piece of cake in that place!

The problem with Hankyu is that it is almost always guaranteed to be jam packed.  We started lining up at around 5pm and got in at 5:30pm, and if you go after 6 chances are the wait will be an hour or more.  You might have better luck at the foodcourt of the Vieshow cinemas nearby.

Anyway, the Arashi menu has four main types of ramen, all of which feature the “genkotsu” (pork fist bone) soup base, loads and loads of garlic and lard!  Healthy!  There is the regular type, which utilises soy; the spicy type, which of course has lots of chilli; the miso type, which uses miso instead of soy; and the white type, which uses natural salt for flavour.  There are always some seasonal specials but I assumed if the specials were that good they’d be on the regular menu, so I passed.

The condiments, and the additions menu behind them

We went with the regular type ramen, which is supposedly the most popular.  There are lots of additions you can pay for, such as extra spring onions, corn, egg, cabbage, sesame seeds and so fort.  You can also get additional chashu (meat) because all ramen only come with two slices of pork, but that was enough for me.  We also didn’t get the meal set, which is essentially a beverage and a small bowl of rice with fried garlic sauce for an additional charge.

Look at that soup!

The aroma from the garlic in the soup was so strong that it made me drool.  On top of that they can also give you extra cloves of fresh garlic which you can crush and toss into the soup, if you want to stink even more.  The size of the bowl is decent — big enough to fill you up but not too big so as to make you get sick of it.

Want more garlic? You got it!

On every table is a range of condiments you can add to enhance the flavour if you so desire — chilli oil, chilli powder, vinegar, soy, special sauce and spices, etc.  For me, the flavour of the soup was strong enough.

So was the ramen good?  Yes.  Very good.  The ramen soup is the key, and Arashi’s is sublime.  The soup is so thick that it is opaque, and you can see the tiny blobs of fat floating in there, but I tell myself it’s just the garlic (some of it is).  The meat is also quite good, soft but not quite to the extent where it melts in your mouth.  The noodles are average because they are not hand made, but then again, most ramen stores don’t make their own noodles.  In all, good enough to rival some of the ramen places I visited in Japan, but not quite in my “pantheon”.  That said, it’s definitely good enough to warrant return visits, once you get the garlic smell out of your system.

But hang on, we didn’t just have the ramen.  We also got a hot plate rice.  This dish is much like the stuff they serve at Pepper Lunch”, another Japanese franchise.  Essentially, they give you a hot plate with fried rice and butter on it, which keeps cooking as you eat.  We got, you guessed it, the garlic flavoured one.  We figured if we were going to stink we might as well go all the way.

Garlic and butter -- an unbeatable combo

The rice was pretty nice — but then again, any time you mix garlic and butter it’s not going to taste too bad.  It was, as expected, a little on the oily side, but still a nice complement to the ramen.

I have to try more ramen places in Taipei, but at the end of the day, I would be very surprised if Ramen Kagetsu Arashi is not one of the better ramen places in all of Taiwan.

8.5 out of 10!

Details

Ramen Kagetsu Arashi (らあめん花月嵐)

Price: around NT$160-250 per person, depending on whether you get sets, additions or sides

Websites: Official — http://www.gone-grp.com/main.php; Japanese — http://www.gbj-tw.com/; Chinese blog — http://www.wretch.cc/blog/kagetsu

Stores (Taipei only):

Taipei Main Station
2nd Floor of Breeze food court at Taipei Main Station (closest MRT: Taipei Main Station)
(02) 2389-1998

Xinyi Vieshow
2nd Floor of Vieshow Cinemas food court at Xinyi district (closest MRT: Taipei City Hall)
(02) 2729-2128

Eslite (Dunhua)
B1 Floor food court of Eslite at 245 Dunhua South Road (closest MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua)
(02) 2778-5777

Hankyu Department Store
B2 Floor food court of Hankyu Department Store (closest MRT: Taipei City Hall)
(02) 8789-3030

Nanxi Shin Kong Mitsukoshi
B1 Floor of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store Hall 2 at 14 Nanjing West Road (closest MRT: Zhongshan)
(02) 2562-0011