Ramen hunt

On Easter Monday 2010, a group of intrepid ramen hunters (myself included) set out to find the best ramen in the Melbourne CBD. While our search was probably not exhaustive, it was pretty exhausting. A total of nineteen bowls of ramen were (mostly) consumed by nine of us, across a total of seven restaurants. Scores out of five were given to each restaurant for the quality of the ramen noodle, the broth, and the toppings. We had considered scoring for decor and service, but decided to be ramen purists and ignore the periphery (everything that wasn’t in the bowl).

I added one more visit on a later date to Meshiya, which had somehow “sold out” of ramen on the day, for completeness. I’ll probably continue the hunt for good ramen around the city in weeks to come, too. Anyway, let’s watch the hunting unfold..

Our first stop was Menya Ramen, a tiny little hole-in-the-wall place in a laneway entrance to the Melbourne Central shopping centre, run by the O-Bento Group, who mainly manage Japanese stalls in shopping centre food courts. Despite this, Menya has always enjoyed a pretty good reputation in Melbourne for having good ramen. There is also a second Menya outlet now, on Elizabeth St, between A’Beckett and Franklin Sts.

Menya Ramen
Shop 146a 211 Latrobe St Knox Lane, Melbourne Central (CBD)
Phone: 9639 3383
Menya on Urbanspoon

The ramen here was OK. Not great, in my opinion, but not bad, either. It was a good choice on @jeroxie‘s part as the benchmark restaurant. We tried the Menya Ramen and the Sapporo Ramen, both with a shoyu broth, as they were out of miso broth that day.

The ramen (noodle) itself was tolerable, but a bit too soft. I found the broth tasty, but a little too tasty – it was heavily flavoured with MSG. The toppings were quite generous, the difference between the two being the Menya ramen had more seafood, whereas the Sapporo was just chashu, seafood extender, bamboo shoot and the obligatory nori and spring onion garnish. The chashu itself, which would come to be a large determiner in the toppings scores, was a little tough, and lacking the melty fat which makes good chashu a luscious joy.

Broth 2/5
Noodles 2/5
Toppings 3/5
Total 7/15

QV Square, 210 Lonsdale St, Melbourne CBD

This was actually an impromptu stop, as none of us actually knew Hanaichi existed. In the old wagamama premises on QV Square, Hanaichi definitely has a fast food/food court feel, replete with a McDonalds-esque photo menu. Expectations were low, and it would be fair to say that some of the hunters were filled with apprehension, if not dread!

The first cause for that dread may have been the menu itself – it read: Ramen (egg noodle). For those of you who aren’t as ramen-obsessed as I am, ramen has no egg in it. The distinct yellow colour is a result of the chemical reaction of the kansui (sodium & potassium carbonates) with the wheat flour. So a place which purports to sell ‘Japanese fine food’ describing ramen as egg noodle is a worry.

Then the ramen itself came out. In disposable paper bowls. But in the name of research, we went ahead and ate it anyway. The noodles, surprisingly, weren’t actually that bad! They were better than Menya’s (on the day) though still too soft for my liking. The toppings were rather meagre – a few slices of unimpressive chashu, a sheet of nori, and some spring onions – though for $6.90, it’s hard to complain too much. The broth was, again, unimpressive. There was definite MSG action, but my main problem with it was that is lacked any real flavour beyond being salty.

Broth 1/5
Noodles 3/5
Toppings 1/5
Total 5/15

138 Russell St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9654 7358
Edoya Japanese on Urbanspoon

Another unplanned stop. We were sadly informed by Meshiya that they were out of ramen, so headed towards Ito and Ajisen. At that point, someone came up with the genius idea that Edoya would probably have ramen, and that they did, though only one variant – a Sapporo style ramen, in a shoyu broth. We ordered two bowls for the table, but given that this was the first real restaurant – as opposed to a noodle joint – we also succumbed and ordered a few other dishes. It was lunch time, alright!?

The ramen here reminded me of Izakaya Chuji’s ramen – ramen made by a place that doesn’t specialise in it – OK, but unremarkable. The broth was a little overpowering, but not with MSG, which is a nice change. The noodles were, again, too soft for my liking. Are we sensing a pattern here? The toppings were quite generous, but I was put off a little by seafood extender again. If you’re going to put reconstituted fish on my ramen, at least make it that sliced fish cake with the cute pink squiggle in the middle! Also, the two bowls we ordered had varying quality chashu – one bowl was gifted with tender, tasty pork, and the other had chashu which was a bit on the dry and tough side. Oh, also, the service here was great – though funnily the waitress who works here told us she also works at Ajisen Ramen!

Broth 2/5
Noodles 2/5
Toppings 3/5
Total 7/15

Ito Noodle Cafe
122 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9663 2788
Ito Japanese Noodle Cafe on Urbanspoon

I’d been to Ito Noodle Cafe before, and this repeat visit confirmed in my opinion that it is definitely one of he better options for ramen in the CBD. A semi-open kitchen layout allowed us to spy on our ramen as it was being assembled. Just as well, as the service was a little slow.

There’s a reasonable selection of ramen on offer at Ito, though the tonkotsu which is on the menu never seems to be available. They’re tonkotsu teases! This time, we decided to have the tonKATsu (crumbed pork cutlet, not dreamy pork bone broth) ramen, the tori kara (fried chicken) and of course, the classic chashu ramen. We tried both shoyu and miso broths.

This was the first point in the day where I was close to being satisfied. Both broths were well flavoured, and the use of MSG was well balanced with other ingredients. I usually prefer miso to shoyu, but Ito’s shoyu has a wonderful complexity of flavour. The ramen noodles at Ito were wonderfully toothsome, having the slight al dente springiness that ramen should. The toppings were also impressive. I particularly liked the tori kara, which remained crispy on the outside, but moist and tender inside, even when sitting in a bowl of broth for five minutes.

Faults? The bamboo shoots were universally decried as being too overpowering, and the egg was quite solidly over-cooked. But then none of the places we tried which served egg with the ramen managed to master the elusive soft-boiled egg. I guess boiling eggs to order would only be feasible if you’re a dedicated ramen joint with rapid turnover. Menya got close, in this regard.

Broth 3/5
Noodles 4/5
Toppings 4/5
Total 11/15

Ajisen Ramen
130 Bourke St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9662 1100
Ajisen Ramen on Urbanspoon

Let me just say this at the outset: I’m not a fan of Ajisen. I’ve only been a couple of times, and each time has been somewhat of a let-down. I will admit I hadn’t tried the more adventurous items on the menu, which we did on this visit. We sampled three different ramen: the chashu ramen (shoyu), the chargrilled beef ramen (shoyu) and the spicy miso ramen.

Let’s start with the positives. The toppings for each ramen were pretty good. The standout is clearly the chargrilled beef. They asked us how we’d like it done (a good sign) and requested medium rare. On my own, I would probably get this rare, as the beef keeps cooking in the broth after it arrives at your table. The chashu was reasonably tender, though it lacked flavour, I thought. The servings certainly were generous, though. The spicy miso ramen came with the spicy pork mince on the side, though it wasn’t particularly crazy-spicy, so I’m not sure why the waitress suggested we do this. The broth was pretty good, though the MSG was palpable in the shoyu broth.

Where Ajisen falls down is in the all-important noodle category. First of all, the noodles are round. Ramen is traditionally square in (cross-sectional) shape, because it is traditionally hand cut. I understand that virtually no restaurant would hand cut ramen these days, but there was something distastefully spaghetti-ish about Ajisen’s round noodles. Ajisen also has regular or ‘softer’ options for their noodles. The softer option is available upon request. We didn’t request it, though I have tried it in the past. I prefer the standard noodle, which I still find too soft to begin with! I wouldn’t recommend Ajisen to anyone unless Ito Noodle Cafe is full or closed. Or you were looking to eat something other than ramen. Some of the side dishes looked quite tasty.

Broth 2/5
Noodles 1/5
Toppings 4/5
Total 7/15

Ramen Ya
Shop 25G Melbourne GPO 350 Bourke St
Phone: 9654 5838
Ramen Ya on Urbanspoon

Ramen Ya was always the favourite, coming into this enterprise, and let’s not beat about the bush, its consistent quality did not waver on the day, and it came out a clear winner. In a way, it seems a little unfair, as Ramen Ya was the only place offering the elusively delicious tonkotsu broth. Tonkotsu aside, however, I think Ramen Ya is still a few steps ahead of most of its competitors. This day, we sampled two chashu ramen (one with tonkotsu broth, one with shoyu) and the tsukune (minced chicken) ramen with a miso broth.

All three broths were flavoursome, with some MSG detectable, but not overly so. The shoyu was a little too salty for my liking, so choose the miso if the spectacular tonkotsu isn’t available. The noodle was pretty spot-on, being al dente and springy, and supremely slurpable. The toppings, though not quite as plentiful as some other restaurants, were of a very high standard. The chashu was melt-in-the-mouth tender, and the bamboo shoot was pleasant, and not too overpowering. The chicken mince was nice, but I’d take the chashu option any day.

Broth 4/5
Noodles 5/5
Toppings 4/5
Total 13/15

Chocolate Buddha
Federation Square, Swanston St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9654 5688

Chocolate Buddha on Urbanspoon

Chocolate Buddha was always going to be facing an uphill battle. Previous visits to the restaurant have cemented the notion that the place is rather overpriced – the ramen we tried this day were about double the price ($20ish) of most other restaurants –  and it was also our final stop of the day, so our bellies weren’t craving more noodle, nor were our tongues crazy for an MSG umami hit.

Working in its favour were the brilliant Autumn afternoon, an outdoor seat overlooking Fed Square, and an extensive drinks list, which we all took advantage of at the end of an arduous hunting expedition. We ordered two of the three ramen in the menu; the gyu ramen (with beef – and dumplings! – in a shoyu broth) and the tori miso ramen (chicken). We all decided we’d skip the seafood version – I think it was salmon?

Overall, the ramen was pretty good. The servings were certainly large enough! The broth was tasty, though oddly sweet. I’d recommend the gyu ramen over the tori miso. The noodles were a disappointment, especially after Ramen Ya’s noodles. They were far too soft. I wonder if our scores would have been a little kinder if we’d hit Chocolate Buddha earlier in the day? The toppings were great – the beef came on the rare side of medium (just) and the chicken was tender and succulent. An odd choice of some sort of lettuce green (or are they baby chard leaves?) and bok choi respectively certainly was a twist on the traditional, but they added a freshness and a textural crunch to both dishes. All in all, respectable dishes – or bowls – but certainly not good value, considering what else is on offer in the city.

Broth 3/5
Noodles 2/5
Toppings 4/5
Total 9/15

200 Lonsdale St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 9654 6242
Meshiya on Urbanspoon

I’m one for completeness, and there was a gap in my dance card, so to speak. So a week or so later, I stopped in at Meshiya to try their ramen. I tried the buta kakuni ramen; they had no chashu ramen, but who am I to argue with slabs of belly pork?

The ramen came out pretty quickly, and piping hot! The noodles were reasonably good; a little springy, though again, slightly over-cooked, as most places in Melbourne seem to serve. The broth was somewhat of a let-down. Quite a bit of MSG, and a touch too salty overall. I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of sesame seeds floating around the bowl, and the rest of the toppings weren’t that special, but the pork. Oh, the pork! The pork belly was heavenly, but belly pork often is. Meshiya’s is melty and well-infused with flavour, which is a little heavy-handed in ramen, but makes sense as you can also order the buta kakuni as an entree on its own!

Broth 2/5
Noodles 3/5
Toppings 4/5
Total 9/15
Overall Results

Clearly, the winner on the day was Ramen Ya. Respectable showings from Ito Noodle Cafe, as well as Meshiya and Chocolate Buddha. I’d recommend the first three, though not Chocolate Buddha on account of the cost factor. Good ramen, but not good value.

My scores

Broth (/5) Noodle (/5) Toppings (/5) Total (/15)
Ramen Ya 4 5 4 13
Ito Noodle Cafe 3 4 4 11
Meiji Japanese Cafe 4 3 3 10
Kenzan@GPO 3 3 3 9
Meshiya 2 3 4 9
Chocolate Buddha 3 2 4 9
Ume Sushi House
Menya Ramen
Sushi Deli 3 2 2 7
Ume Hana 2 2 3 7
Ajisen Ramen 2 1 4 7
Edoya 2 2 3 7
Hanaichi 1 3 1 5

Red entries: Places which I reviewed solo, on other occasions.

Ramen hunter team scores

Total (/105)
Ramen Ya 89.5
Ito Noodle Cafe 82
Chocolate Buddha 70
Ajisen Ramen 63
Menya Ramen 58
Edoya 51
Hanaichi 45
Meshiya N/A

The ramen hunters

Penny & Mister @Th0i3 – jeroxie.com; Flickr album
Agnes & partner –  Off the Spork
Maria & partner – The Gourmet Challenge
Adrian – Food Rehab
Me and my friend Debbie.
Alex and Jess over at MSG: The Melbourne Social Guide have also been testing out Melbourne’s ramen joints. Check out their findings.

The hunt goes on! I’ve already scouted out a few more places to try in the city, so look forward to more ramen posts! Obsessed much?