Over the past couple of years, the dining scene in Metro Manila has been submerged in ramen culture, with restaurants specializing in bowls of noodle soup popping up faster than you can say itadakimasu. Dozens of blogs and magazine articles explain not just what makes a good bowl but also the intricacies of ordering and eating it properly.
Picture this: a bowl with careful amount of flavorings and fats, ladles of rich broth, noodles cooked just al dente, slabs of roast pork, and a generous heap of scallions. Indeed, it’s good stuff, comfort food at its finest. So it’s not surprising to see how such a simple concoction — imported by Japan from China through Confucian missionaries in the 17th century — inspired so much passion and devotion among Filipinos.
With that in mind, we hunted, hungry and determined. Somewhere out there great bowls of noodles await, and we would have them, even if it meant braving hot afternoons and rainy nights.
Not far from Little Tokyo in Makati, around the corner from a mall known for its pirated DVDs, along a road famous for its tried and tested restaurants, lies a ramen shop that has customers lining outside, waiting for available seats. And Ukkokei Ramen Ron, as the restaurant’s called, is justifiably famous. Anyone who has paid enough attention will know that any list of the top 10 ramen-ya in Metro Manila won’t be complete without it.
A number of stools are lined up along a wood counter overlooking a row of bottles of sake, and around it are tables that surround a small kitchen where cooks ensure the authenticity of every bowl served. During lunch hour, a steady drone of chatter fills the rather cramped space and the slurping of noodles is audible. Dining here is about as communal as it can get.
The place has attained its legendary status mainly through its infamous chef. Known as the Ramen Nazi, the chef is supposedly a no non-sense kitchen head who runs his establishment with a tight fist, such as imposing the “no-sharing” policy, to ensure that the quality and taste of the ramen remain top-notch.
Ukkokei’s soup is made from stock based on chicken, the type of which the restaurant claims to have healing properties. The real wonder, though, is the result of 48 hours of boiling the chicken bones, and the flavoring used in combination with the broth. Variants of the miso broth are the bestsellers – Ukkokei Miso Chashu in particular features chicken broth with fermented soybean paste and topped with roast pork.
The Tantanmen, a spicy ramen variant available only in the evening, is another evidence of the place’s commitment to authenticity. Only ten bowls are supposedly produced daily.
But perfection doesn’t take a single form. The antithesis of Ukkokei is Wrong Ramen, an irreverent ramen-ya that isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of ramen cuisine as far as it can. If Ukkokei is all about being serious and being the real deal, Wrong Ramen is all about its “inauthenticity” and self-deprecating tendencies.
It starts with the appearance. Whereas Ukkokei keeps true to the look and feel of an authentic ramen-ya, Wrong Ramen displays a somewhat edgy and yuppie vibe. No wonder, since the place is owned by the guys behind the terrific food blog, Pepper.ph. Such vanguard attitude translates to the restaurant’s knack of turning traditional Japanese dishes into new works of art, so to speak — an effort that has gained it quite a fan base since it opened last year.
The menu has been wowing (and occasionally turning off) diners with its avant-garde treatment of the noodle soup. Authenticity is not the theme here, definitely, but for those who are willing to explore the possibilities of the iconic Japanese dish, Wrong Ramen often pleasantly surprises.
Speaking of surprises, it hardly can get anymore surprising than the F.U. Ramen, a concoction of garlicky broth with bacon, Spam, eggs and cheese. Purists are wont to cry foul for what they believe is a travesty to ramen. Still, it’s a sight to behold, and, especially for bacon lovers, a “liquid breakfast” to cherish.
After a few bowls, we’ve tried to come up with a theory on why ramen have become so popular here. It could be because the dish has become a symbol of status for some – people love to demonstrate their trendiness and being seen eating in a ramen-ya is one way to do that, much like being seen drinking coffee in an expensive coffee shop. Or the cultural similarities between Filipinos and the Japanese could have something to do with it.
But ultimately, it’s probably best to go with the Occam’s razor. Maybe the ramen craze happened because, simply, who can say no to a piping hot bowl of noodles?
Ukkokei Ramen Ron
822 A. Arnaiz Ave., San Lorenzo,
Forbes Town Center,
Forbestown Road, Fort Bonifacio,