Is it cliché to talk about ramen as a religious experience? Yes, probably. But for me it’s as true as metaphors come. Eating ramen is transcendent: the salt hits my tastebuds, the sky opens with a shaft of light, and I am enraptured. It’s baptism by broth.
But Ichiran is not just the spiritual part of religion; it is also the procedural. Entering Ichiran is walking into an abbey and kneeling at a pew. It is ritual, and formality, and meditative focus, and all the trappings of a Trappist monastery. It is not dinner; it is evening mass at the Church of Ramen.
By this I mean that Ichiran has a very specific way of doing things, which they are very certain is the right way. They make no apologies for the limited menu, curious ordering system, or peculiar dining room. In fact, they are evangelists:
Okay, there are no actual pews. But each diner sits in his own dining cubicle walled off from its neighbors. Sure, you can talk to your friend by leaning back awkwardly, but the ergonomics suggest this is frowned upon. Sit down, face front, and focus on your meal. If the church metaphor doesn’t work for you, think of standardized testing.
Behind the wall of cubicles is a mysterious corridor which is probably the kitchen but we will call it the crypt. A bamboo screen masks the shadows of waiters (cryptkeepers?) as they dart back and forth. Push a button on your desk to summon them; a ringtone plays (hey remember ringtones?), the bamboo screen opens, and someone (or rather, a horizontal crossection of someone’s midriff) whisks away your order sheet and whisks back with a steaming bowl.
Ordering is easy once you realize you only have one option. Ichiran is a monobrothistic shop: tonkotsu or bust. Don’t come looking for miso or shoyu or your new-fangled mazemen. There is only one deity here, and it is a spectacular, perfectly balanced pork bone broth that could have converted Moses before he made it down the mountain.
Just tonkotsu, take it or leave it– but you can still have it your way! The write-in menu has every option to dial in just the right salt, fat, spice, garlic, toothiness, and toppings– and perhaps an Asahi Super Dry on the side. There is no wrong way to order, but if you need affirmation, the walls of your cubicle are papered with an illuminated manuscript of their ramen philosophy.
The ramen itself is very, very good. My medium-salt, medium-fat blend was perfectly titrated to my taste, deep in flavor and slick on the tongue, but mellow enough that I could eat another bowl. (No marrow-per-milliliter records being set here, thank the lord.)
The thin, straight noodles feel and taste as fresh as they are (the recipe changes daily based on the humidity). Wow, I didn’t expect how much I would love them cooked “extra firm”! That toothsome texture! Floating atop the noodles is Ichiran’s famous chili paste, which comes with instructions which I dutifully followed. First, sip some broth from the sides of the bowl for a taste of unadulterated purity. Then, mix in the chili, watch it sink down down down, slurp your way through all of Dante’s nine circles, and feel the inferno grow.
The chashu: lean but tender. The toppings: scallions, mushrooms, nori, and a crack-it-yourself soft boiled egg, all perfunctory. I saved some broth for kae-dama (“the practice of refilling your soup with noodles”), delivered at just the right time by the cryptkeeper. Just to shake things up for round two, I added the famous vinegar (everything is famous) and found that it reawoke my taste buds just before they started losing their religion.
Ichiran may be a church on the way in, but it’s Disney on the way out. You exit through the gift shop. The poor cashier hawks take-home ramen kits, souvenir chopsticks, and expedited global shipping. Shame, it cheapens the whole thing. I am intrigued by the ramen kits, but unless it includes a fold-out dining cubicle, I just don’t think it will be the same.
It would be easier to explain the oddities of Ichiran if it were just one ramen shop– a gimmick to help it stand out on a crowded Yelp map. But Ichiran is a global empire with dozens of locations — three in New York alone. This is no gimmick; it is a growing ramen hegemony. How is it getting away with solitary seating and a one-broth-fits-all menu?
I think what makes Ichiran work is that the food lives up to the format. The ramen really is good enough to be the subject of your focus for ten minutes, sans conversation. The tonkotsu really is flavorful and balanced enough to be the One True Broth. The customizations really are that complicated, and worthwhile, that a paper ballot makes some sense.
And as any American tourist in Tokyo will tell you, there is something authentically Japanese about a complicated process that you don’t totally understand.
So, sure, take me to church. I’ll have the tonkotsu.