The last time I was in Tokyo, I didn't make it to Rokurinsha, one of Tokyo Ramen Street's most popular restaurants, which is known for its tsukemen, or dipping noodles. This time, however, I vowed not to be denied, and arrived before noon to make sure of it.
By 11am, the line was already wrapped around the restaurant and up the steps across the hall, but it moved quickly. To expedite matters, a staffer gave me a laminated menu of ramen choices to ready me for the ticket machine ahead. After pondering the Ajitama Tsukemen (950 yen, almost $10)—Rokurinsha's original ramen with a flavored, boiled egg—I went with the "special recommendation" of Tokusei Tsukemen (1,050 yen, almost $11) which comes with the addition of buta hogushi (shredded pork).
I barely had time to tie on my paper apron (necessary in case of soup spillage and oil sprays) before the bowls arrived. In one bowl, there were noodles thicker and wider than any I'd seen at other ramen joints, save, perhaps, for the ones at Nagi Golden Gai, where I ate terrifically bitter ramen last year. There was also an egg, which comes whole and contains a brilliantly golden yolk.
The broth arrived in a separate bowl. The color was warmer and deeper than milky-white tonkotsu broth, though just as thick and creamy. It turns out that in addition to pork bones, the broth is made with chicken bones, niboshi (dried baby sardines), sababushi (dried, smoked mackerel flakes) and katsuobushi (dried, smoked bonito flakes), along with vegetables. In the broth were negi (looks like a leek, but treated like a green onion, though it's less sharp in flavor), a slice of chashu (fatty braised pork), naruto (a type of fish cake), menma (fermented bamboo), a small sheet of nori (seaweed), and the "secret" ingredient: gyofun (dry fish powder), which adds an aggressively fishy blast of umami.
Tsukemen is a style of ramen that has become increasingly popular, particularly in warm summer months, as many find it more refreshing than regular ramen. The noodles are cooler since they're not already in the broth, and you use chopsticks to dip them in the broth, which can be a clumsy affair for the inexperienced. The chunky noodles are a good vehicle for the thick broth, and their chewiness is something to appreciate and enjoy. Feel free to join the symphony of noodle slurping to get all the goodness in each bowl, pausing to take bites of egg, pork, and anything else you miss between slurps.
Once you finish your noodles, a worker will approach and ask about adding your choice of soups to your bowl. Both contain fish broth, and I recommend asking for the one with yuzu in it, as the citrus flavor plays nicely off of the fishy flavor. While Rokurinsha's noodles are more udon-like than I generally prefer, they're delicious tsukemen-style, combined with a rich broth so good that I did as the Japanese people around me did in lifting the bowl to drink the remains, and then giving a slight bow in ramen reverence.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.