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.