War may be hell, but when it comes to Tokyo's "ramen battlezones," it sure is tasty.
Ask a dozen Tokyoites what their favorite ramen joint is and you'll get a dozen answers. In certain downtown areas, multiple competing establishments have sprung up in close proximity to one another in a phenomenon Tokyoites have dubbed ramen gekisenku -- ramen battlezones. One of the most famous is in Ikebukuro, but there are others as well. (It's an ad-hoc thing, not an official name.)
There's great noodles cooking up all over the city as you read these very words. Here's a few of our favorite food fighters. A tip for challengers: most shops are small affairs that only seat around ten people; try eating a little early or late to beat the crowds that inevitably form in at mealtimes. If you do get stuck in one, console yourself with the fact that this is gourmet fast food; nobody sticks around once they're done.
Where: Menya Musashi
In a city as devoted to ramen as Tokyo, openly declaring a "best" can be a provocative statement. When pressed, though, you'll often hear locals name this ramen shop, whose hearty bowls of noodles and pork exemplify the Tokyo style.
Details: 7-2-6 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel. 03/3363-4634; www.m634.com/honten.html. Ramen ¥800-¥1,000. No credit cards. Lunch & dinner daily.
Train: Shinjuku Station.
Located in the middle of Ikebukuro's "ramen warzone," Mutekiya is legendary. The tonkotsu (pork-bone) broth painstakingly prepared for 20 hours a batch, is considered some of the best in the city. Long lines begin forming far ahead of mealtimes.
Details: No smoking. 1-17-1 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; tel. 03/3982 7656; www.mutekiya.com/world/index.html. Entrees ¥780-¥1,200. No credit cards. Breakfast, lunch, dinner & late-night daily.
Train: Ikebukuro Station (East exit).
Where: Tori no Ana
This relative newcomer to the ramen wars has been wow-ing customers with its signature dish, a sort of hybrid between ramen and chicken noodle soup.
Details: 1-39-20 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; tel. 03/3986-2811. Entrees ¥999. No credit cards. Lunch & dinner daily.
Train: Ikebukuro Station (East exit).
Where: Obaku Kokuseki
Actually a specialist of "tan tan men," an offshoot of ramen featuring a spicy broth. We prefer the more laid back Kichijoji branch, but there's a good one in Roppongi as well. Try the tomato-soup tan tan men for a fusion taste you're unlikely to experience anywhere else.
Details: 1-10-4 Kichijoji Honcho; tel. 0422/23-7008; http://kiwa-group.co.jp/restaurant/a100284.html. Entrees ¥680-¥980. No credit cards. Lunch & dinner daily.
Where: Butamen Kenkyujo
The name means "Pork Noodle Laboratory," and as you might expect, this place prides itself on its meat. It's most famous for its tsuke-men, a variant of ramen in which the noodles and broth are served separately. Like many ramen joints, food is ordered from a (Japanese-language) vending machine at the front of the shop. We like the "Green Curry Mazé-soba" (¥790) for its spicy kick.
Details: 4-4-15 Hongokucho, Nihonbashi; www.ramenkenkyujo.com/butamen/. Lunch and dinner daily. Closed Sunday.
A specialist of abura soba ("fatty noodles"), which is exactly as heavy as it sounds. A thick pork broth, layered with hand-grilled pork slices, and topped with a squeeze of pork drippings, this is not for the faint of heart or narrow of artery -- though some die-hards are known to further top theirs with mayo! One bowl might well be enough to keep you full all day long.
Details: 1-2-3 Kichijoji Minami-cho; tel. 0422-41-8180; www.ajino-mingei.co.jp/business/bubuka.html. Lunch and dinner daily.
Matt Alt is a translator and author based in Tokyo, Japan and the author of the forthcoming Frommer's Japan Day by Day. His website can be found at http://altjapan.typepad.com.