From April 9th to April 16th, my father and I embarked on an eight day tour of Kyushu. We started out in Kumamoto, renting a car at the airport, and then traveled to Saga, Fukuoka, Oita, Miyazaki, Kagoshima, and then we returned to Kumamoto. Along the way, we ate many great meals, but ramen turned out to be the best documented type of food on this trip.
Shirogoma (white sesame) and kurogoma (black sesame) tantanmen are the specialties of one ramenya on the 8th floor of Tsuruya in downtown Kumamoto City. Tantanmen is usually a safe bet to order at any given ramenya in my experience, but these variations proved to be a quite different than the ones that I was used to (for an outstanding tantanmen, try the chain Shisen ramen in Osaka, which can be found in both Minami and Kita- they kick ass!).
The shirogoma tantanmen is much like a common red/white brothed tantanmen, except with less ra-yu (chili oil), and with almost half a cup of white goma sprinkled on top. A large handful of green onions are heaped into the broth for good measure. This tantanmen was good, but I think I prefer the kurogoma tantanmen.
The kurogoma tantanmen is so thick with garlic, black sesame seeds, and seasonings that upon first taste, I didn't think I could eat the whole bowl. My father described the taste accurately when he commented that "it tastes medicinal, and almost unpleasantly strong until you get used to it". It was strange to eat a ramen that started out with such a strong, almost disagreeable taste but got better and better with each bite. If you are trying to get over a cold or a hang over, this bowl of noodles might just do it for you.
The portions were huge, and it was a good place to start on our ramen tour.
Ajisen is one of the two main chains of ramen in Kyushu, the other being Kinryu (not the same as the chains in Kansai). Their ramen is consistently good, and the broth is a solid example of a classic tonkotsu broth. Kinryu, on the other hand, is hit or miss. I have eaten at good franchises and bad one. Of the two, Ajisen is the one you want to visit (It's the one with the cute Chinese girl mascot that kind of looks like Chun-li's baby sister).
Gofu is a Fukuoka based ramenya/yakinikuya. I highly recommend this chain. Their broth is very good, and their charsiu is roasted to perfection. Order the fried garlic as a condiment to make the broth even better!
Although not related to ramen, I thought I?d point out another great Fukuoka based chain called Ichiban dori. This yakitoriya is cheap and delicious. Both Ichibandori and Gofu have expanded North of Kyushu, but it is yet to be seen if they will make it to Kansai (Ichibandori has made it as far as Hiroshima, and Gofu has just gotten started in Shimonoseki). Note: the Ichibandori in Kyoto is not of the same chain, and although delicious, is not quite as good.
This is basically the same as the regular Gofu tonkotsu ramen, except the ingredients are prepared a little differently. The noodles are stir-fried with vegetables and cubed charsiu, kind of like sara champon, but even better in my opinion. My only issue with the sara ramen is that you can't get kaidama because there would be no broth left to put it into.
Kokutei is perhaps the most famous ramenya in Kumamoto, but despite living here for two years, this was my first visit. Hieda sensei led us to this gem, and it was packed full of customers with a line of people waiting to get in (out of the rain). The charsiu was decent, but the best part about this ramen was the broth. Rich and creamy, like a good tonkotsu should be, it was full of roasted garlic and required no additional seasonings at all. It was perfectly balanced.
I love eating ramen in Kyushu because it is ramen mecca. You can walk into a ramenya anywhere in Kyushu and be confident that the ramen isn't going to suck. There are many places that serve good ramen down in Kyushu, but we only had time to stop into a few of them. Perhaps one day I will return and make a complete evaluation of the ramen of Kyushu?
Some random thoughts about ramen:
*The stinkier the ramenya, the better the broth.
*Kaidama (a noodle refill) kicks ass, but is hard to find outside of Kyushu.
*Kaidama was not available at the tantanmen restaraunt or at ajisen, which was kind of disappointing.
*Broth conservation is something one must keep in mind when ordering kaidama is a possibility.
*At Gofu, they will reheat your broth (and add a bit more) if you order kaidama!
*My friend Matt once asked for kintama (testicles) instead of kaidama at a ramenya.
*Some people believe that translating "ramen" as "chinese noodle soup" makes it easier for foreigners to understand, when in fact just saying "ramen" would be less confusing in the first place.
*Is there ramen in China? If so do they just call it "noodle soup"?
*My top 5 toppings are charsiu, boiled egg, roasted garlic, bean sprouts, and green onions.
*If kaidama is available, then a side of rice or onigiri is unnecessary.
*"Fusion" ramen that mixes the theme from another country's culinary style or ingredients is usually not very good.
*The only good "ramen stadium" I have been to is in Canal City, Fukuoka. The one in Namba is disappointing.
*Bikkuriramen's ramen is not bad, actually.
*I have a friend who talked the manager of a Bikkuriramen into giving her a discount on a bowl of ramen (Bikkuriramen is a chain famous for selling ridiculously cheap ramen).
*Instant ramen mixed with hot dogs, kimchee, and eggs is a great combination!
*Ramen is great after a night of drinking, but seldom is satisfying as a stand-alone meal.