Ramen shops are everywhere in Japan, offering tons of variety and flavours for the customers to enjoy. Unless you are planning to eat ramen three times every day during your trip, each ramen visit is extremely valuable. In other words, you don’t want to waste a ramen meal at a mediocre shop when there’s an amazing one down the street.
So how do you know if a ramen shop is worth your time and money? Besides looking up reviews, there are a few signs you can tell just from looking at the shop. They may not bring you to the best ramen establishment in town, but at least you know how to avoid the bad ones.
Is it a chain or a small establishment?
My first question upon encountering a new ramen shop is always “is this a chain?” Ramen chains generally are not outstanding. Not to say that they are bad, but you should temper your expectations if the ramen is a chain shop, especially ones with many shops across a whole region. Chain ramen shops, especially ones franchised, tend to commercialize their soup with cheaper ingredients and simpler preparation methods (so that they can easier hire people to replicate the same taste), and these factors reflect in the taste.
There are exceptions to the rule. Ichiran and Ippudou, for instance, are two nation-wide chains that continue to rank high on my list. However, as a general rule of thumb, seek out smaller ramen businesses over huge ramen chains.
How many types of soup do they offer?
Sophisticated ramen chefs spend years to master their original soup recipe, then they pass it down to the next generation who spend years to learn and maintain it. Each ramen shop essentially is carried by their one signature broth. Thus, if you see a shop offering several soup bases –shouyu, miso, shio, tonkotsu– and worse yet if they don’t even particularly introduce one as their house speciality, chances are that the ramen chef didn’t master a particular broth, and instead went for the offer-quantity-over-quality approach.
On the flip side, if a shop can survive only on one soup base, then they have earned my confidence for a visit.
What other items are they offering besides noodles?
I visit a ramen shop for ramen, not the fried rice, gyoza dumplings, fried chicken or other non-noodles menu items. Only when a ramen shop’s noodles are not good enough would they need to attract customers with a full list of other items. Having one or two side-dishes is acceptable, but it raises doubts when the menu’s attention is spread across many random choices.
Therefore, if the menu is distracting you with non-noodles items, skip the shop.
How many customers are in the shop?
Sometimes you cannot judge a shop by its look, but you can often determine its worth by how many customers they have. Before entering a new shop, take a peek at how crowded it is. If the shop in a busy distract is less than half full during lunch time, you can look for alternatives. A shop that consistently gets business during random hours, however, may be worth a try.
The number of customers in the shop is the best approval you can easily observe.
What kind of condiments do they have?
My last tip is one that may be harder to spot, but it helps you recalibrate your expectations before the noodles are presented in front of you. Check out the condiments on the counter: are they generic condiments? Ramen shops that are set to impress pay extra attention to every little thing you may add into the noodles. Instead of generic brand chilli oil, some shops mix their own blend. For tonkotsu ramen, they often offer fresh garlic with a garlic press, rather than pre-minced garlic that came in a jar. Depending on the soup, sometimes black vinegar is offered in place of regular vinegar.
The attention put into the free condiments reflects the delicacy of the ramen.
When you’re in Japan, hungry and searching for a nice hot bowl of noodles, keep these advices in mind. A ramen shop that puts their heart and soul into the ramen displays in many ways. These tips will hopefully encourage you to explore ramen shops on your own while directing you towards better establishments. Happy eating!