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Previously we covered cold ramen as a way to combat the brutally hot, Japanese summers, but this week I thought I’d introduce a somewhat unconventional way Japanese people try to beat the heat. I’m sure this isn’t specific only to Japanese people, but despite sweltering and sweating under the intense, radiating sun, many people here in Japan tend to crave a bowl of hot, spicy ramen to get their body temperature up and sweat glands going. Many people believe that by heating themselves with something hot and spicy and inducing a sweat storm, they feel cooler in comparison to the outside heat. And as counterintuitive as it sounds, it honestly works! I’ve felt quite refreshed after crushing a bowl of demonic level spicy ramen in a well air conditioned restaurant (an air conditioned shop is the key!) and find myself waiting in line for spicy ramen often during the summer months.
It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact original location which first began serving spicy ramen, but in recent years more and more specialty shops, serving specifically spicy ramen, have been opening up throughout Tokyo. Of course, in order to cater to a more diverse crowd, these restaurants serve non spicy versions of their ramen as well, but it is definitely recommended to try them as intended...with you desperately trying to null that spice with pitchers upon pitchers of ice cold water! The following are 5 of my favorite spicy ramen shops in Tokyo to test your spice tolerance and help you beat the treacherous Tokyo heat!
Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto (蒙古タンメン中本)
Any spicy ramen list wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of the OG spicy ramen franchise Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto. First opened in 1968, the shop had humble beginnings as a Russian Borscht restaurant before rebranding as a Chinese noodle shop. There, the original Nakamoto-san began making the hot and spicy ramen beloved by neighborhood residents until his retirement in 1998. As a dedicated fan of Nakamoto-san’s ramen, Shirane-san was determined to bring back Nakamoto-san’s spicy bowls and after being given his blessings, reopened Nakamoto in 2000 and has grown the franchise to where it stands today.
What makes Nakamoto’s ramen so special is the expansive menu which offers a variety of ramen that varies in spice level depending on which one you end up ordering. Unlike other shops where they typically serve just one or two spicy ramen varieties, Nakamoto has anywhere from 15-20 menu items, all in different styles and spiciness. For first timers, settle with the 五目蒙古タンメン (Gomoku Mouko Tanmen) which comes topped with a healthy serving of stewed vegetables to lighten the spicy blow. For spice lovers, try your hand at the 北極ラーメン (Hokkyoku Ramen), 9 on the spicy scale and a bowl of pure fire! Let this be a warning to not outdo yourself as these bowls can seriously burn your tongue off!
Kara Shibi Miso Ramen Kikanbo (カラシビ味噌らー麺 鬼金棒)
Next up is probably one of the more popular tourist destinations- Kikanbo, with shops in both Ikebukuro and Kanda area of Tokyo attracting tons of foreign clientele daily. As opposed to Nakamoto, Kikanbo actually only has one ramen on the menu, but can be customized with additional toppings and spice levels. Here at Kikanbo, they take spiciness to the next level by allowing customers to increase not only the spice level, but also the szechuan peppercorn levels which intensify the tingling sensation of the ramen. The base is a wonderful miso ramen with a tonkotsu stock and can be enjoyed without any heat, but both the spice and szechuan peppercorns can be cranked up to “devil” level for a small additional cost.
While the main draw to Kikanbo is the addictingly spicy soup, the pork chashu is really quite special as well. Thich cuts of pork belly chashu top the bowl and it would be a shame not to order an extra slice. For cilantro lovers, they do offer a mound of it as an additional add-on topping as well as some baby corn which can help dampen the spiciness. Definitely recommend dressing up your ramen to your preference and customize the bowl just for you!
Spice Ramen Manriki (スパイス・ラー麺 卍力)
Next up is Manriki which is actually run by a former disciple of the aforementioned Kikanbo. While the ramen here takes some of the DNA from Kikanbo, they make a completely unique bowl that is definitely worth making the visit for. While Kikanbo serves a tonkotsu based miso ramen, Manriki serves up an animal stock base with an almost curry like, spiced ramen with tons of aromatics and seasonings incorporated before serving.
14 different herbs and spices are added to the bowls at Manriki, one of which is chili powder to give the ramen a not so subtle kick. Of course, due in fact to how many different flavors are incorporated into the soup, the ramen isn’t just spicy for the sake of being spicy. The combination makes for a phenomenal soup that is reminiscent of a lot of Southeast Asian cuisines, but in ramen form. A fresh mound of cilantro tops the bowl, but it can be substituted for green onions. As you can see from the photo however, extra cilantro is a popular additional topping choice and the freshness of the herb is the perfect compliment to the flavorful and spice heavy soup, so be sure to grab some if you’re a fellow cilantro lover!
Shibire Noodle Rosokuya (SHIBIRE NOODLE 蝋燭屋)
The ramen at Rosokuya is quite interesting as it combines flavor combinations that many wouldn’t think would come in ramen form. Rousoukuya serves three distinct ramen styles; a Mabo Tofu ramen, a sweet and sour Sura Tanmen ramen, and Tantanmen, a Japanese rendition of Dan Dan Noodles. All three can be served in varying spice levels and are all phenomenal, but the Mabo Tofu ramen is the most popular item and the one first timer diners should order.
Much like at Kikanbo, the spice level of the Mabo Tofu ramen comes from both the chili powder and szechuan peppercorns which intensifies the heat and tingling sensation for an attack on your tongue on two fronts. The dish can be ordered with double spice which will really up the spiciness and leave your tongue feeling numb after finishing their bowls. Honestly the Mabo Tofu topping can stand alone and is incredibly delicious as is, but the pairing with the ramen makes it a perfect lunch time item to beat the brutally hot, Tokyo summers. Be sure to grab a side bowl of rice (free during lunch) to scoop up the last remaining bits of the leftover Mabo Tofu after you’re done with the noodles!
Stamina Manten Ramen Suzuki (スタミナ満点らーめん すず鬼)
Finally we have Stamina Manten Ramen Suzuki, an offshoot ramen shop that was born out of master Suzuki-san’s desire to serve a different ramen from his usual lunch time menu. During the afternoon, the shop serves a thick chicken based shio ramen and in the evening, using the same restaurant space, transforms to serve up these glorious, heart attack inducing bowls. The ramen is inspired by three popular shops Jiro, Takeoka, and Ariran ramen. The noodles and “free” toppings of vegetables, pork back fat, and garlic comes from Jiro, known for their thick noodles and voluminous portions. The shoyu tare is inspired by Takeoka style ramen which utilizes a special, incredibly flavorful shoyu. Finally Ariran Ramen, made famous by ramen shop Hachibe in Chiba prefecture gives inspiration to the onion, garlic chive, and garlic saute which top the bowl. The three shops are sort of a cult favorite among hardcore ramen heads and they combine for a truly unforgettable bowl here at Suzuki. While the ramen itself comes without spice, the most popular item is the one with added chili oil which is definitely the one to grab.
The ramen looks like a love child of the three aforementioned ramen styles with each one making an appearance in the bowl. The thick curly noodles are similar to the ones served at Jiro and wriggle around as you try to slurp. The dark shoyu tare has a umami enriched flavor that is enhanced by the pork broth base and the Ariran style sauteed vegetable toppings. Finally, if you went with the recommended spicy version, a healthy ladle of chili oil and spoonful of chili powder finish the bowl for a sweat inducing flavor bomb that is sure to strike the chord of all the spice lovers!