Not all of London’s Japanese pork bone broth noodle soups are created equal
Londoners are experiencing a ramen revolution. This soothing noodle soup, once a hasty add-on buried in the extensive menus of some Japanese restaurants, now has several restaurants dedicated to it. Although there’s lot of joy to be had from shio and shoyu ramen, as well as other more inventive variations, my favourite is definitely tonkotsu.
Over the past three months I’ve endeavoured to taste every tonkotsu ramen served in the capital in an effort to find the one that soothes my ramen craving the most. I’ve covered some of the restaurants in this round-up before, but it’s time for a reassessment in light of the latest batch of ramen restaurants. Tonkotsu ramen is a bold, simple dish that’s difficult to do right. My personal criteria for a good tonkotsu ramen:
- The broth is made by cooking fat, collagen and pork bones in water for several hours (usually around 12, sometimes more) resulting in a broth that, at its best, is deliciously fatty, thick, creamy and warming.
- Just as crucial, for me at any rate, is the accompanying slices of roast pork which should be fatty and full of flavour. Although often called ‘cha siu’ pork after the Chinese barbecued pork, the slices of pork in ramen are usually simmered or braised as I understand it. Although I tend to prefer the flavour imparted by the fattiness of pork belly, pork loin, collar and other cuts can work just as well.
- The noodles should have a firm bite and filler such as bean sprouts should be kept to a minimum. Some get into a tizzy about whether noodles should be thick or thin, straight or curly but for me none of these are as important as a firm bite. The firmness is apparently due to the use of kansui, an alkaline water that gives the noodles both their yellow colour and bouncy firmness. Noodle that lack such bounciness are almost certainly made using eggs, rather than kansui, to give them their yellow hue.
- Any extras can’t be afterthoughts – eggs should be rich, salty and preferably runny, while roasted garlic or sesame sauces should be very punchy.
- In each individual review I’ve listed whether the restaurant offers kaedama – a system whereby if you have enough left over broth, the staff will top you up with extra noodles for a nominal charge. Although I rarely use kaedama and I thus don’t consider it a critical feature, for some it’s indispensable.
If I’ve missed out your favourite tonkotsu ramen restaurant, then let me know. And let’s keep the Comments civil and well-mannered.
On with the reviews!
Table of Contents
Bento Ramen’s out-of-place Dim Sum was generally dreadful. Despite this I had cautiously high hopes for its tonkotsu ramen, but my hopes were quickly dashed by the thin and exceptionally bland soup – it might as well have been boiled water. The soft, limp noodles, forgettable egg and a light scattering of nori and spring onions did little to cheer me up. At least the slices of pork were reasonably fatty.
Bento Ramen’s existence is clearly some kind of cosmic joke. If it can produce something actually worth eating, I’d honestly like to know what it is.
Star rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Bone Daddies isn’t quite as crowded as it was when it first opened, but it still pays to arrive earlier rather than later if you want a table. Fortunately, the broth is better than ever – it’s delightfully creamy and fatty. The noodles are a bit too soft for my liking, but the thin slices of pork have a hint of fruity sweetness while the bamboo shoots are relatively crisp and the eggs are reasonably rich and runny. A dash of nutty, salty sesame oil adds an extra layer of flavour.
Bone Daddies’ tonkotsu ramen is definitely one of the best available in London.
Star rating: ★★★★★
Cocoro has two branches, one near the British Museum and another in Marylebone. They both serve plenty of other dishes besides ramen so I had reason for concern, even if the Marylebone branch does boast an official seal of approval from the Japanese government for culinary authenticity.
The noodles were forgettable and the soup was only mildly creamy and a touch on the watery side. The soup was pepped up the nutty, peppery garnish as well as the salty and tart pickled vegetables, but the vegetables almost outnumbered the pork. The latter was at least pleasingly fatty, while the egg was mildly salty.
If you’re tempted to try some extras at lunch time, then the curry rice is a good pick and can be had as part of a lunch deal. The sweet and thick sauce ladled over glommy sticky rice tasted just right and was more warming and comforting than the tonkotsu ramen itself. The mochi ice creams were disappointing tough, with skins that were too hard and icy – a longer resting time out of the freezer may have helped. The matcha and sesame mochi were very mildly flavoured, leaving it to the citron version to pick up the slack with its sharp zestiness.
Cocoro’s tonkotsu ramen isn’t too bad, but I expected far better from a restaurant that boasts so strongly of its authenticity. You can get better elsewhere.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Located on Soho’s Old Compton Street, Dozo is an attractive place although you don’t sit at the tables cross-legged as appears to be the case at first glance. The tables actually have space underneath for dangling your legs which is probably for the best anyway, given the pungent state of most people’s feet. Although Dozo describes itself as a ‘fine dining’ restaurant, it’s nothing of the sort and is thoroughly middle of the market.
Sadly, the ‘House Tonkotsu’ was a grave disappointment. The broth tasted almost entirely of sesame oil, with none of the fatty unctuousness I was expecting. The slices of pork were very dry, but they did at least have a little woodiness to them. At least the wheaty noodles had a touch of firmness, while the bamboo shoots were tender.
Dozo seems to have trouble cooking up half-decent pork, as the side dish of pork belly wasn’t terribly good either. Its texture almost resembled chicken, while the fat was too hard and hadn’t been rendered enough. A side dish of unagi was a bitty, oily let-down. Considering that grilled eel is just as much a Japanese staple as tonkotsu ramen, this doesn’t bode well for the rest of the extensive menu.
Dozo’s tonkotsu ramen isn’t as bad as Bento Ramen’s, but that’s damning with very faint praise indeed. You’d have to be a very drunk theatre or club goer to even consider eating this bowl of meh.
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Like Din Tai Fung, Ippudo is one of the biggest restaurants chains you’ve never heard. It has ramen restaurants scattered across the world from its home in Japan to the Philippines, the US and beyond. As others have pointed out, the service at Ippudo can be too attentive. From the constant badgering of the staff (‘is everything OK with your food’?) to the excitable bellowing chorus of ‘irrashaimase’ (‘welcome’ in Japanese, I believe) from all of the staff members as you enter, it’s like being smothered by a lonely grandparent you can only be bothered to see twice a year.
This only makes the blandness of the standard Shiromaru Hakata Classic tonkotsu ramen all the more disappointing. The broth arrived almost boiling hot, but tasted very bland. At best, there was a very mild suggestion of sesame. The thin, single if large slice of pork loin was also unremarkable, but at least the noodles were firm and bouncy while the slices of wrinkly mushrooms were punchy and tangy with a fermented taste to them. An additional topping of boiled egg was suitably runny, but not especially rich.
The New York branch of Ippudo never did get back to me to confirm whether or not they came up with the name ‘hirata bun’. In any case the rebranded pork gua bao here are deeply underwhelming. The limp, flat, anonymous bun was filled with a thin, forgettable slice of pork and a scab of lettuce for no apparent reason. It pales in comparison to London’s best gua bao.
Ippudo’s matcha ‘gelato’ is no match for the best Italian-style ice cream. It’s far too icy, but the green tea taste is at least reasonably strong. You can have it as part of the Matcha Masca dessert where it’s topped with a big disc of mascarpone cheese. The creaminess of the mascarpone tends to overwhelm the ice cream though, while the promised sweet potato was nowhere to be found. The drizzling of honey and crushed nut pieces as well as the uninteresting toppings of apricot and strawberry pieces added little to this unbalanced dessert.
There’s little to separate the Shiromaru Hakata Classic from the Akamaru Modern. Although billed as ‘a bolder translation’, the broth tasted nearly identical in both cases. The addition of roasted garlic oil added little and the glob of ‘secret’ umami paste only enhanced the already-subtle umaminess of the broth very mildly. The slice of pork belly was a little woodier and fattier than the loin used in the Shiromaru though, while the noodles were as firm as ever.
Much like the pork hirata buns, the chicken-filled version was unexceptional. The same flat, limp rice flour buns were filled with a crispy tonkatsu-style fillet of meaty, solid chicken. It had a very mild spicy and sour flavour that passed quickly. The light smearing of kewpie mayo added little, and the continued presence of the lettuce leaf must be some kind of in-joke that I’m not privy to.
The Fruit Anmitsu is more of a digestif than a dessert. The small portion of fruit was forgettable, while the glob of sweet, nutty but chunky and mildly gelatinous red bean paste won’t be to everyone’s taste. The whole thing was served in a bath of fizzy lemonade, the same ramune soft drink available at Kanada-Ya, but this only served to emphasise the transient and unsatisfying nature of this meagre dessert.
Ippudo’s tonkotsu ramen was very average, which is especially disappointing given Ippudo’s vaunted reputation abroad. Combined with the oppressive service and atmosphere, there’s little reason to visit this chain unless you can get in at the far better Kanada-Ya across the road.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Kanada-Ya might sound like an affirmative action program for Canadians, but it’s actually a small ramen-ya just across the road from the glitzier Ippudo. The tonkotsu ramen is available with either pork belly or pork collar (the latter is marked on the menu as cha su men). Another unexpected, but welcome bit of flexibility is that you have a choice in the firmness of the noodles.
In all cases the broth was creamy and rich with an umami punch. It’s not quite as rich and fatty as Bone Daddies’, but it’s not too far off. The thin slices of pork belly were fatty with a musky sweetness that was very addictive while the slithers of fungus were taut and slippery. The noodles’ default level of firmness was nothing to write home about though.
The ‘Hard’ level of firmness had a noticeably firmer bite, but it still wasn’t as bouncy as the standard noodles from some of the other restaurants here. The pork collar served in the cha su men is sliced very finely, so much so that it breaks apart easily in the broth, yet doesn’t taste noticeably different from the belly.
The ‘Extra Hard’ level of noodle firmness was among the bounciest in this group test, although Tonkotsu’s noodles still had the edge. Various extra toppings are available, with the egg so popular that it was sold out every time I tried to order it. The black garlic sauce was a little more muted that I expected, but it’s still worth ordering due to its nutty, oily moreishness. There was some variation in the creaminess and umaminess of the broth across all three of my visits, but even at its worst Kanada-Ya was still leagues ahead of the worst restaurants in this round-up.
Kanada-Ya serves onigiri, a relatively uncommon dish in London. The soft, fluffy rice balls served on a nori wrapper won’t be to everyone’s taste though, which probably explains its comparative rarity in London. The original is very salty, while the ume has a very sharp and sour plum filling. The crowd pleaser will probably be the salmon version which uses a meaty chunk of steamed fish, but I loved all three.
It’s also worth mentioning the weird Japanese fizzy lemonade served in a bottle that has a marble ‘cap’ when ends up in the neck after removal, thereby blocking the flow of the drink unless you’re adept with your swigs. The drink’s cream soda-like taste isn’t compelling enough to make me put up with the deliberately obstructive bottle design.
Kanada-Ya’s tonkotsu ramen is top-notch and it’s definitely worth choosing the Extra Hard noodles, so it’s a shame that the service is so painfully slow and inattentive. Although this did improve some what over my visits, I would still consider intensive remedial lessons for all of the front of house staff. So close, yet so far.
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Ah, Shoryu. My review of the original St James’/Lower Regent Street branch generated a surprisingly large number of racist comments all of which never made it past moderation and ended up in the bin. They were all especially hilarious and risible as I’m anonymous; needless to say any similar nonsense on this article will never see the light of day.
The standard Ganso Tonkotsu is much like the version that I disliked so much back then. The broth didn’t have any fatty, rich meaty creaminess, but instead had an incredibly overpowering umaminess. It’s so intensely thirst-inducing, that I strongly suspect it’s due to either an industrial helping of MSG or a weapons-grade dashi that needs to be immediately confiscated by Hans Blix.
The noodles were very firm though and complimented nicely by the strong tartness of the pickled ginger and the chewy fried shallots. The pork was a little too dry, but it was at least lightly fatty with a hint of woodiness.
Confusingly, Shoryu does have another, far better, Kotteri Hakata tonkotsu with a creamier, more unctuous broth. The noodles and pork were different from their Ganso counterparts though. The moderately thicker and fattier slices of pork were far more moist. The noodles were more wheaty at the expense of firmness, but they were still among the bounciest here. The egg and bamboo shoots were merely so-so, but the pickled ginger was just as punchy as before.
Hilariously, Shoryu has added a new hirata bun to its menu – this one filled with wagyu beef. It was hard to appreciate the marbling of this so-called wagyu from its meagre thinness. While the beef was tender and mildly creamy, the mayo tended to overwhelm this. The accompanying mushrooms were forgettable, while the flat, limp rice flour buns were noticeably less fluffy than before.
The barbecue pork belly hirata buns were even less impressive. The same rice flour buns were filled with a thin, lean, small slice of pork that was totally dependent on the overly sweet sauce for flavour. There was some mayo and cucumbers to counteract it, but you’d have to pay me to eat this again.
Shoryu’s new ‘fattier’ tonkotsu is genuinely impressive, so it’s a shame many will bypass it in favour of the far inferior Ganso version on the increasingly cluttered menu instead. While it’s tempting to knock Shoryu for this, as well as its increasingly shoddy hirata buns, credit where credit is due.
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Tonkotsu was my favourite tonkotsu ramen restaurant once, but I’m sorry to say that reports of its decline are true. While the broth is still reasonably rich and milky, it was nowhere near as fatty and creamy as it used to be. The firm, bouncy noodles were still a joy though, as were the rich, salty egg, the tender bamboo shoots and the nutty squirt of sesame oil. The thin slices of pork were reasonably fatty, but they’re not a patch on the pork from Kanada-Ya or Bone Daddies.
Tonkotsu’s eponymous dish is still one of the better ones available in the capital, but it’s no longer the best. How far the mighty have fallen.
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
The outcome of this group test was nothing if not surprising. Previous high-flier Tonkotsu has slipped behind dramatically, while vaunted newcomer Ippudo failed to impress. Meanwhile, Shoryu has improved significantly although it insists on hiding its best version of tonkotsu ramen in an increasingly bloated and hard to navigate menu.
If you want the best tonkotsu ramen, then there are only two restaurants in London worth going to: Bone Daddies and Kanada-Ya. Purists will almost certainly argue that the more traditional Kanada-Ya deserves to be the sole winner, but Bone Daddies’ fattier, more unctuous broth is just too addictive to overlook despite its weaker noodles. Both are great, but Kanada-Ya just misses out on an unconditional Five Star rating due to its patience-sapping, face-slappingly slow service.
I suspect that many more ramen restaurants will open in London, but if even a few of them serve tonkotsu then I will be surprised. Regardless, I’ll be keeping an eagle eye out for both the best and the worst.
Now this is meant in the nicest possible way but based on this and the dim sum debacle you should probably stick to reviewing western food.
If this is nice, I’d hate to see your nasty side. Would you care to elaborate?
They’re probably referring to your bad luck with getting sub-standard meals… You seem to have a higher satisfaction ratio with ‘western’ stylised meals.
Nonetheless, reading your reviews on tonkotsu and the rest (it’s like being distracted from essay writing by jump navigating on wiki) is rather enjoyable and helpful.
Your comparison review on the original trio helped me find tonkotsu last year :3 I will be interested in seeing for myself how it’s fared this weekend… And comparing it against kanadaya which I’ve been dying to try.
Yours, a blog-lurking bristol food enthusiast
P.s. Thanks to your guidance, I became so obsessed with tonkotsu, following my induction into its unctuous world, that I have now made and perfected my own lip stickingly addictive tonkotsu broth at home (emulating the Tonkotsu broth… But richer and more porky).
I’m glad you enjoyed the tonkotsu ramen reviews!
While it’s admirable that you’ve given HK274 the benefit of the doubt, I suspect he/she is far less tolerant of me. Based on the wording of the above comment and HK274’s history of rude, racist and borderline racist comments (which I’ve blocked and which I found hilarious as I’m anonymous), I think HK274 wants me to stop reviewing Asian food because I wrote something he/she disagrees with. I’m not certain about this without further elaboration on their part, but I doubt it’s forthcoming as racists are cowards and fools.
Needless to say I have no intention of complying with such an unjustifiable, immature and passive-aggressive demand. Expecting me to censor myself because I have a reasoned and reasonable opinion that he/she doesn’t like is spectacularly unreasonable, laughable and intellectually backwards.
In any case, your hypothesis regarding my satisfaction ratios is almost certainly wrong (check out my group tests of flat whites, burritos and tacos or American barbecue for example). I call things as I see them and try to do so without bias as much as I possibly can.
Let me know how you get on with ramen!
-The Picky Glutton
Given that this was the one and only comment I’ve ever made on your blog I have no idea where these other alleged rude and/or racist comments have come from.
To elaborate on the one and only comment I meant you seem to have a poor grasp on Asian food. For example hunting down dim sum in the likes of Crazy Bear and Drunken Monkey and being surprised that it’s bad. You then dismiss the cultural nuances of dim sum as irrelevant when it’s pointed out that had you looked at an appropriate time you would have found many excellent options rather than a bunch of boil in the bag crap.
I look forward to your next round ups of: “Where to get the best afternoon tea at 11pm” and “Londons top Sunday roasts at 9am on a Wednesday” which I’m sure will have equally excellent results.
It’s entirely possible that someone has spoofed your user name, email address and IP address in the past to make rude and racist comments – although that seems somewhat implausible. In any case, I don’t really care as long as a basic level of civility is maintained in the Comments. People can be as rude and racist as they like, but I don’t have to provide a forum for them. Your somewhat improved tone is appreciated.
I’m somewhat surprised by your unimaginative thinking and lack of sympathy for ordinary London restaurant goers. Whether you like it or not, evening Dim Sum is popular in London. Some restaurants do Dim Sum at night very well, others do not. The majority of London restaurant goers wouldn’t be able to pick a good one without guidance, which is what I aim to provide. I aim to provide guidance that is as extensive as possible, which means I include restaurants to be avoided as well as restaurants to be lauded. The efforts of the former deserve to be publicly criticised for their laziness and poor value, the latter deserve to be publicly praised for their hard work and good results.
Dim Sum isn’t traditionally eaten at night time, but I see no reason to be held to tradition. As far as I can tell, the only barriers are logistical issues and the question of profit margins for the restaurant and these are not insurmountable problems as the Winners have shown. Your sarcastic conclusion is therefore just as superficial, superfluous and irrelevant as your arguments are lacking in substance, imagination and persuasiveness.
I have no idea what your issues are with my tonkotsu ramen group test, not that it really matters. Just because you don’t like something I’ve written doesn’t give you the right to demand future self-censorship on my part, whether in a passive-aggressive manner or otherwise. The fact that you clearly failed to address this point in your latest Comment only serves to reinforce the unreasonableness, intellectual regressiveness and pitiable nature of the original demand/’suggestion’. I look forward to a greater degree of sympathy, wit and rigour in your future Comments but I doubt any of that will be forthcoming.
-The Picky Glutton
Hey Picky Glutton,
Just wanted to say thank you for your reviews. They are very interesting to read and I am so glad to have come across a blog with someone with strong critique skills as well as being articulate! It’s a shame that you encounter such exchanges with people even though clearly it’s your subjective opinion
I remember when I first visited Shoryu when it had newly open only to be disappointed. Having stayed in Hakata, Fukuoka for a little while and visited some decent tonkotsu restaurants there I was extremely excited to finally get the opportunity to eat some “genuine” Hakata noodles in London. But like you’ve described, the broth was heavy on MSG, and whilst the flavour was okay it did not remind me of the food I enjoyed in Fukuoka.
However, based on your reviews, I think I might give them ago again sometime soon and visit the other noodle restaurants that I didn’t know existed.
I’ve eaten plenty of Tonkotsu Ramen in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Philippines and Thailand and look forward to trying a couple of these places in London to see how they stack up. In my 4 times eating at Ippudo indifferent locations I am always disappointed, the broth is not thick and luxurious enough, the accompaniments are below par. Typically its spread like wildfire, like the Walkabouts in London… ugh.
The best ramen places I have ever eaten in my life have all been in Japan of course, but having said that Ramen Bankara in Bangkok is great, Ramen Nagi in Taipei is amazing… even though its Japanese… but the king of all kings with ramen Tonkotsu is strangely enough found in Naha, Okinawa. Kouryu. The perfect balance of all things done to perfection.
Thanks for the reviews. I lived in Korea for two years while teaching English there an eon ago. Pork bone noodle soup was popular there and I’m really pleased someone else has gone through the effort of filtering out the good from the bad. Whether I agree with you or not is up to me but I appreciate your efforts. Whether you’re yellow or not matters little to me. (I’m from south East Asia myself)
I lived in NYC about 10 years ago and after a night out, one of the members of our party, a well educated and assumingly knowledgeable psychologist wanted Dim Sum at 2.00am. Yes, I too scoffed at her. “Pfafft! Luv where u gonna find Dim Sum at this hour, don’t you know it’s a brunch thang!”. Despite this I could kiss the ground you walk on for the late night Dim Sum reviews as I work during the week.
People up in time for brunch at the weekend have no life.
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I love this article I’m just wondering is there a new best ramen spot in London?
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What about Sasuke?
Sasuke has closed. And it never served tonkotsu ramen as far as I know.
You may also want to read my 2017 tonkotsu ramen update. https://pickyglutton.com/2017/05/08/the-best-and-worst-tonkotsu-ramen-in-london-2017-review-update/
Ah, didn’t know it had closed (or that it didn’t serve tonkotsu). Good to know!
I’ve read your update, thanks. Went to Tonkotsu tonight and was a little disappointed. The noodles, egg and bamboo were excellent, but the broth lacked depth. Will try Kanada-ya soon.
I am concerned by the inconsistency in the quality of Tonkotsu’s broth. Which branch did you go to?
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