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It is a spectacular sight to see people queue up for three hours on a hot summer day for a bowl of noodles outside the first Hong Kong branch of this well-liked Japanese ramen brand. Yet, to ensure that the eatery is running at full capacity, we did not visit it until two weeks after it opened. We arrived at 11am on Wednesday, with only six customers in the queue, and waited for less than five minutes before getting in.
With slightly dim lighting and Hayao Miyazaki music playing softly, the design of the restaurant is almost identical to those in Japan with its signature digital display panels, shelves of ramen and broth products, and four rows of nine individually partitioned black wood counter seats (unlike Japan though, the partitions cannot be removed). Each counter has its own cold-water tap (the restaurant claims to use ‘soft water’ delivered from Japan which is filtered and purified thrice to maintain the quality), buzzer, ordering sheets and instruction guides in Chinese, English and Japanese.
Although Ichiran only serves one kind of ramen, ordering sheets are available for patrons to customise their own bowl of noodles. We chose to have our broth ‘strong’ in flavour, with ‘medium’ richness, half clove of garlic, thick green onion, sliced pork, regular red sauce, ‘medium’ noodle hardness; plus an ‘extra firm’ noodle refill, half-boiled salted egg and a tofu dessert.
This last item – a Hong Kong exclusive – arrived first in two tiny plastic boxes with a bag of brown sugar syrup. It is suggested that we eat the first one before the ramen, and the second one with the syrup after the ramen. The grey tofu has a sticky and springy texture unlike any beancurd we’ve had, and was generally tasteless and bland.
As for the ramen, the red sauce made from more than 30 spices is spicier than expected. Though a tad too oily, the extremely rich pork bone-based broth has three wonderful layers of flavours: saltiness, spiciness and sweetness. The thin straight ramen noodles have egg fragrance but are still a bit too soft for us given we had chosen the ‘medium’ level of hardness. The two extremely thin slices of pork are tender but the portion can definitely be more generous. The boiled salted egg is fantastic in terms of runniness, fragrance and flavour.
It is common in Hakata ramen culture for patrons to add extra noodles when they have almost finished the first bowl, and we loved the al dente texture of our ‘firm’ refill noodle. We finished our meal with the second portion of tofu dessert, which is still disappointing even with the brown sugar syrup, which tends to spill over the small plastic box. Generally speaking, Ichiran serves rather impressive noodles and broth but the tofu dessert definitely needs some more work.