Japanese pork bone broth noodle soup in the capital gets better. And worse.
Although the deluge of ramen restaurant openings in London has lessened since its peak a couple of years ago, a bowl of warm, rich and comforting tonkotsu ramen is still rarely far from my mind. Not only because it’s the perfect dish for the icy depths of winter and the blustery winds of autumn, but because a recent trip to Japan has deepened and renewed my appreciation for the deceptively simple combination of pork bone broth and noodles.
This series of ramen reviews, conducted over the past three months, should be considered an update or addendum to my original Best and Worst tonkotsu ramen group test. I’ve revisited some of the better ramen restaurants from that first group test, as well as many of the new eateries that have opened since then as I could find. My criteria as outlined in that 2014 group test remain unchanged. What has changed, in fits and bursts, is the state of London’s tonkotsu ramen.
Table of contents
Although Bone Daddies opened at more or less the same time as Tonkotsu, it has taken a different approach to expansion with spin-off brands such as Shackfuyu concentrating on other dishes and thus working alongside the ramen-focussed branches of Bone Daddies such as the one near Old Street.
That measured approach to expansion hasn’t prevented a slide in the quality of its tonkotsu ramen. While the broth was still creamy, it was only modestly umami and not especially porky – it wasn’t anywhere as meaty and unctuous as I remember it. Meaty slices of pork were lightly woody, but not fatty or characterful enough. The spring, bouncy noodles were spot-on though, especially with their moreish undertone.
Lettuce ‘bao’ was nothing of the sort, but merely a spin on Korean-style ssam. Dollops of minced pork were meaty and tangy with crisp, refreshing onions and mild chillies. The needless garnish of deep-fried noodle clusters was a distraction from all this though.
The selection of pickles would be improved if it moved away from the modest kimchi and the leaden cucumbers dusted with an excessive and overpowering amount of sesame. The other third of this trio was far better – a pic-and-mix of briney, earthy, tangy and fruity sweet vegetables which proved to be a distinct pleasure.
A selection of mochi ice cream (green tea, salted caramel, sesame and hazelnut) were all boldly and distinctly flavoured. What they lacked, crucially, was enough mochi-ness. The thin, insubstantial skins weren’t anywhere as elastic as they should’ve been.
Out of curiosity, I went back to try the ‘anchovy tonkotsu ramen’. As you’ll soon see from the rest of my experiences in this group test, these gimmick noodle soups are so different from a classic tonkotsu as to be a completely separate dish. The bog-standard noodles left much to be desired, but the rich runniness of the egg was an apt partner for the pork. This took the form of chunks rather than the classic slices and were noticeably better for it – fatty and umami, albeit in a Cantonese cha siu-style.
The moderately strong anchovy-derived fishiness and umami of the broth can be amplified further using a pipette of anchovy concentrate. Think of it as an overtly seafood-ish themed shoyu ramen, rather than a classic tonkotsu, and you’ll get along with it just fine.
Pickled shiitake arrived at my table far too refrigerated. Once given more resting time at room temperature, a mild scent of sesame seed oil wafted upwards. It was an otherwise uneventful and unmemorable heap of nothing.
It’s worth heading to the Old Street branch just for the kushikatsu, specifically the pork option. If I were a culinary reductionist, I would describe this Japanese street food classic as skewered mini-schnitzels. But I’m not that crass or dumb. Although the batter was not, with the possible exception of the scallop, made from panko crumbs as far as I could tell, the crunchy golden breadcrumb exteriors were nonetheless accomplished, free from excess oil and texturally pleasing in their own right.
Although all relied a bit too much on an initial hit of saltiness for their charms, the moist and fruity sweet qualities of the pork were nonetheless utterly beguiling. The textural qualities of the scallop were lost amidst the crunchiness of the battered exterior. The ‘chilli’ chicken was nothing of the sort and was lacking in mouthfeel too, but it was at least accompanied by sharp and supple spring onion segments.
Bone Daddies is no longer in the top-tier of London’s tonkotsu options as far as I’m concerned, just slipping out of the top rankings, although that will do little to dampen its popularity. It’s still better than most though and, rather unusually for London’s ramen restaurants which tend to have side dishes that yo-yo in quality, it’s certainly worth dropping into the Old Street branch purely to snack on the pork kushikatsu.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £12
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Based on the mediocrity of the St Giles branch of Ippudo when it first opened, I steadfastedly avoided the branches of this multinational ramen chain when I was in Japan itself. Even though Ippudo has started sprouting across the capital, there are nonetheless promising signs of improvement at the original St Giles location (although not in the structure and readability of its confusingly written menu).
The Shiromaru Classic Tonkotsu Ramen came with thick, reasonably fatty slices of modestly caramelised pork. The chewy, tangy and moreish noodles were undoubtedly delightful though, as were the tart, smoky and fibrous bamboo shoots. The soup didn’t have a lot of depth of though. While its chicken-like meatiness went down well, there was next to no umami or creaminess.
The gyoza had oddly chewy skins that weren’t really crisp enough or supple enough on either side. The bland meat inside was made palatable by strong hints of ginger, which increased its resemblance to a poorly-made, defrosted bag of Chinese dumplings.
The ‘hirata buns‘ used in the bao were oddly flat, not very fluffy and had a very smooth, almost gooey surface that tasted just as unpleasant as it sounds. The pork variant used meat that was surprisingly thick, reasonably fatty and not excessively sweet. It was still overly dependent on kewpie mayo for taste though.
The same problems that blighted the pork hirata bun also afflicted the chicken karaage-filled variant. Like the piss-poor rendition at Shoryu, this bao also had a scab of deformed, gristly chicken at its centre.
Ippudo’s core tonkotsu ramen is better than it was before, but it’s still not good enough to be your first port of call. For a multi-national brand with its origins in Japan, that’s quite ignominious.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £10
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Kanada-ya has sprouted a second branch on Panton Street which, oddly, has far shorter queues than the St Giles original. Kanada-ya came out of nowhere to dominate my original tonkotsu group test with its superbly well-rounded bowl of noodle soup and that largely remains the case.
Although the egg and seaweed left me unmoved, the slices of pork contained a multitude of tastes – woody, fatty, smoky and sweet. The noodles are now available in a choice of ‘hardness’ with the default hard option getting its level of firmness just right. The broth balanced creaminess, umami and unctuousness, although the porkiness was admittedly quite subtle.
The joy of Kanada-Ya’s chicken karaage wasn’t the lacklustre poultry, but the soft, supple and bubbly batter. Ume onigiri was similarly half-arsed. The mass of soft and fluffy rice was generously sized – the meagre speck of tame umeboshi at the centre of it all most certainly was not. Although still tart and sour, the lack of potent astringency compared to the very best umeboshi onigiri was notable.
The intriguingly named Tonkotsu X variant breaks from the norm in using a broth made from chicken and pork bones, as opposed to just pork. Although it did have more umami than Kanada-Ya’s standard tonkotsu broth, it wasn’t as creamy and certainly not as unctuous. ‘Extra hard’ noodles were very al dente, but the plain pork was a disappointing lapse in form.
This surprising lack of finesse in the porcine arts was also evident in the tare pork. Although occasionally fatty and sweet, in the end the overcooked, dry and stodgy slices of overly charred pig was more than just poor. It was utter pants.
At least the bracingly cold and strongly flavoured matcha soft serve ice cream blasted away the acridness of that tare pork.
Kanada-Ya’s classic tonkotsu is still one of the best versions of this noodle soup dish in London, but the rest of its offerings are on very shaky ground indeed.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £11
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Although situated indoors inside the Pop Brixton shipping container complex, Koi feels more like a street food stall with its tonkotsu ramen served in a takeaway cardboard cup and only a handful of stool-and-bench seats in a hallway.
Although the narrow sides of the cardboard cup made spooning a little tricky, I was still able to appreciate the moderately creamy and umami broth. It’s somewhat lacking in depth compared to London’s very best tonkotsu ramen, but it was still more satisfying than the lacklustre efforts from Yamagoya and Monohon. The noodles and fungus were damp squibs, but the egg was richly salty, while the roast pork slices were tangy and rich in umami.
Koi’s pork gyoza didn’t quite capture the exquisite two-sided texture of the superb gyoza at Kyoto’s Hohei Gyoza, but it wasn’t too bad – relatively crisp and caramelised on one side, mildly supple on the other. The vaguely porcine filling was forgettable though.
Koi’s tonkotsu is one of the cheaper bowls here, although the cost-cutting that led to the bargain basement price is plain for all to see.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £7
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Although Old Street’s Monohon Ramen is airier and somewhat larger than most ramen-ya in Japan, it’s true in spirit when it comes to the length of the menu – there’s tonkotsu ramen, a soup-less variant (more on that in a minute), edamame as a starter and that’s your lot.
Given this almost singular focus, it’s therefore a shame that Monohon’s tonkotsu ramen is so sub-par. The pallid broth had a one-note umami and shallow fattiness that wasn’t very impressive. The noodles weren’t firm or wrinkly enough, while the fungus was similarly lacking in mouth feel. The chashu pork slices were top-notch though – thick, tangy and richly umami. The richly salty egg was pleasing too, but these superlative protein-laden toppings only made the rest of this noodle soup all the more lacklustre.
The confusingly named abura soba is Monohon’s soup-less alternative to the tonkotsu ramen. The history and meaning of the term ‘soba’ is a bit knotty, but for our purposes this dish isn’t actually a soba dish, as the noodles here are still made from wheat rather than buckwheat like most modern soba noodles. Regardless, it was even less impressive than Monohon’s tonkotsu ramen. Thick, stodgy noodles were dressed in a heavy, leaden soy-based sauce that bludgeoned the tongue with its blunt umami. Flecks of pork were similarly stodgy, while the excessive amounts of overly sharp pickled ginger, nori seaweed and fermented bamboo shoots were overwhelming and heady rather than providing pleasing variations in flavour. Poor.
I don’t understand the adulation that Monohon’s arrival has engendered. The tonkotsu ramen was so unbalanced, it would tip over if it were a person.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £9
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Brixton’s Okan is actually split across two separate premises – one inside the Brixton Village Market dishing up okonomiyaki with another around the corner and just down the road serving ramen. Even odder is the deliberately retro-ramshackle interior which, I’m guessing, is designed to evoke the less-polished Japan of the 1950s and 60s.
All of that would have been for nought if the ramen wasn’t up to snuff. I was pleasantly surprisd to discover springy, bouncy noodles alongside fatty slices of pork resplendent with a woodiness and fruity sweetness. The sinewy chewiness of the pork was almost reminiscent of roast beef. Although the broth wasn’t as deeply, unabashedly flavoursome and satisfying as the best here, the soup still had a good balance of umami and creaminess. Umami nori and tangy fermented bamboo shoots were neat flourishes. The only real flaw was an excess of pickled ginger – the sharpness was distracting.
It’s not really worth bothering with the spicy tonkotsu ramen variant. This merely sees a dollop of minced garlic and chilli plopped into the bowl. Although not as overwhelmingly misguided as the spicy tonkotsu at Yamagoya, this variant is still clearly an afterthought. There’s little reason to have it unless you want, for some stupid reason, a distraction from the creaminess of the tonkotsu broth.
A side of kimchi was tart and sour, albeit only lightly spicy. The poultry used in the chicken karaage was meaty and unctuous. Although the batter was soft and supple, rather than crisp and crunchy, I warmed up to it eventually – especially with its umami undertone.
The gyoza were oddities both inside and out. The skins were weirdly chewy all-over, while the pork filling was clumpy and leaned too heavily on a heavy helping of chives.
A special of monkfish and vegetable tempura had its own flaws, but still made for a far better side dish. Buttery, chewy okra and sweet potato made up the vegetable side of things. Scallop-sized medallions of monkfish were a tad stodgy and a little too cod-like, but they were still enjoyable enough. Although light and airy, the batter didn’t quite have the feathery weightlessness of the tempura at Tokyo’s Tempura Tsunahachi, but it was still pleasing enough.
Okan Ramen is the less visited of Brixton’s sparse tonkotsu ramen options, but it’s easily the better one and can even hold its own against the capital’s big ramen guns. It’s definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in this part of town.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £10
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Shoryu (Kingly Court branch)
I have a grudging respect for Shoryu, the burgeoning ramen chain from the people behind The Japan Centre. Although the food has been highly variable in quality over the years, its fleshy-lobed marketing and eye for potent commercial properties in highly trafficked areas shows a high degree of hard-nosed capitalist acumen if nothing else. The very first Shoryu was astonishingly mediocre, but the quality of its core tonkotsu did improve markedly as it expanded into Soho.
The standard ‘ganso’ tonkotsu ramen at the ‘Carnaby’ branch inside Kingly Court used a mildly creamy broth that, while not a patch on the best soups here, was still an improvement over previous iterations. ‘Medium’ noodles were modestly wrinkly and chewy, while the pork had a reasonable level of woodiness. The fungus and shallots were neither here nor there and there was an excessive amount of pickled ginger. Still, this is at least a respectable ramen rather than a risible one.
All that makes the subpar, cack-handed ineptitude of the ‘kotteri’ tonkotsu all the more puzzling. Although allegedly based around a richer broth than the one used in the standard ‘ganso’, I couldn’t detect any difference. I suspect that my bowl had been left to rot on the pass, rather than delivered to my table promptly, as the ‘extra hard’ noodles were soggy soft as was the pork which disintegrated upon contact with chopsticks. It’s a piss-poor insult when the nori accompanying a ramen has more umami than the broth.
The only thing possibly worse than my manhandled bowl of kotteri tonkotsu ramen is Shoryu’s expansive litany of misguided starters and side dishes. Damp slices of cardboard posing as cucumber was ill-suited as a conveyor for the admittedly flavoursome chilli sesame oil.
Shoryu’s yakitori wouldn’t pass muster in Japan. A dry and grainy chicken lozenge was fit only for canine consumption, while the chicken thigh pieces didn’t come anywhere close to the crisp, pliably tender texture of the best examples of carefully and expertly cooked yakitori. Another skewer spoiled by overcooked spring onions did at least have an eggy moreishness to it.
Gyoza was inexplicably served in a sizzling hot pan which reduced what should’ve been the crispy side of the dumplings to a hard, crunchy shell. This merely emphasised the Lilliputian size of each dumpling and the blandness of the mystery meat inside.
Dipping into the selection of bao was a mistake. Not only smaller than they had been previously, the buns were disappointingly flat and lifeless. The meat in the pork belly variant was too dry with not enough fat and relied on an excessively sweet sauce and a thirst-inducing helping of kewpie mayo for flavour. Something has gone deeply wrong when the ejaculate of mayo is bigger than the portion of pork.
The same problems afflicted the chicken karaage bao which had the added insult of a gristly popcorn-sized slice of chicken battered to death in an excessively hard and crunchy batter.
A ‘rolled matcha and adzuki bean cake’ turned out to be a dollop of what tasted like stale yoghurt fisted into a bland tasting sponge.
A better bet, at least marginally, was the mochi ice cream. Although the almost non-existent skins weren’t anywhere as elastic as they should’ve been, at least the flavoured ice creams underneath tasted of something. Black sesame was distinctively nutty and yuzu was reasonably citrusy, although green tea was merely so-so.
Shoryu’s ganso tonkotsu ramen isn’t bad, but everything else is so appalling that I’d rather have a pot noodle than give more money to these indiscriminate hucksters.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £12
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
While technically a street food stall, Tatami Ramen feels more like a concession in a hipster food court given its location within the covered Flat Iron Square market with its canteen-like seating and payment arrangements.
Although I bristled at the needlessly flouncy language on the menu (‘samurai iberico’ my arse), the tonkotsu here was satisfactory albeit far from exemplary. The modestly fatty and umami soup had a mild hint of creaminess. Meaty slices of pork were lacking in fat and character. The wrinkly noodles had a bit of chew in them, but it was an easily obscured textural detail.
The kimchi was well-rounded – tart and zingy with a modest spicy hit. The gyoza was predictably lacklustre. The supple all-over skins and predominant taste of chives made these dumplings taste more Chinese potstickers than gyoza.
Tatami’s tonkotsu is merely okay-ish, but unless you can’t get into the nearby-ish Bankside branch of Tonkotsu or you want to pick-and-choose from the other vendors in this food court for a more eclectic meal then there’s little reason to favour this ramen eatery over any other.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £8
Star rating: ★★★☆☆
Tonkotsu (Bankside branch)
The original Soho branch of Tonkotsu was arguably the first ramen restaurant in London to give tonkotsu ramen the care and attention that the dish deserves. It, probably more than anyone else, helped put it on most Londoners’ maps and its popularity has led to half a dozen other branches across the capital.
A side of kimchi was reasonably sour and tart, if a little too refrigerated. More resting time out of the fridge would’ve been advantageous.
A lot more effort than that would be needed to fix the pork gyoza. Although the skins were supple on one side, the opposing side, which should have been crispy and golden brown, was unsatisfyingly soft and floppy instead. The meatiness of the pork inside was muted in favour of a reasonably strong hit of ginger and garlic. Not good enough.
As the one of the winner of my first tonkotsu group test, I had high hopes for this bowl of ramen. The first bowl I tried hit the spot with springy, bouncy noodles and fatty slices of pork that had extra layers of woody and fruity sweet depth. Fermented bamboo shoots and egg were more muted in their tangy sharpness and salty richness respectively. The downside was the broth. It was far from bad with a moderate umami and creaminess, but it wasn’t nearly as exemplary as it was before.
A second bowl a few nights later retained all that was good the first time around, but dramatically improved the quality of the broth. It was far more powerfully umami with a perky fattiness that lifted the spirit as well as the tongue.
Chicken karaage came battered in a crunchy and malty coating, free of excess oil. The meat underneath was moist and unctuous. The quality of Tonkotsu’s chicken karaage has seesawed over the years, so let’s hope that it stays at this current high.
Tonkotsu’s selection of Japanese pickles isn’t good enough to rival the best that the Home Islands themselves have to offer, but it was reasonably good by London standards. Although the firm carrots failed to leave an impression, the tart and peppery daikon was far more pleasing as was the modestly briney and sweet cucumber and wakame.
Tonkotsu’s dessert selection has expanded since the early days. While it won’t set the world of desserts alight, there are some distinct pleasures to be had. Malted ice cream in a chocolate oat sandwich was effectively the ice cream version of a chocolate hobnob. Modestly malty but nonetheless ice crystal-free ice cream came sandwiched in an oaty, tightly-crumbed and somewhat chocolatey coating. The drip-free design and general feeling of measured but not exemplary indulgence makes it highly reminiscent of a mass-produced ice cream sandwich from a Japanese convenience store.
The miso ice cream sandwich was a slightly messier and less balanced affair. Slices of sponge acted as effective handles, and little else, for the ice cream. While the latter was refreshing, the salty umami of the miso flavouring outweighed the creamy sweetness. Achieving that kind of balance is admittedly tricky though.
The variable quality of Tonkotsu’s signature ramen is worrying. And yet, even with this level of unpredictability, it’s still one of the best pork bone broth noodle soups that you can get in this city.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £11
Star rating: ★★★★★
Yamagoya is apparently a famed ramen restaurant from Shikoku, even though some London-based Japanese expats from that southerly island have apparently never heard of it. It has yet to open a permanent London outpost, instead manifesting as a pop-up on the upper floor of Shuang Shuang on Shaftesbury Avenue (for no readily apparent reason other than location).
Yamagoya’s tonkotsu ramen is available in three variants, with the only difference being the addition of an extra sauce to the broth. The basic tonkotsu ramen came with a relatively creamy broth, but it was ultimately one-dimensional without the unctuous depth and complex umami of the very best tonkotsu pork bone broths.
You can choose the firmness of your noodles, but the ‘medium’ firm noodles were only modestly springy and didn’t have the same bounce as the equivalent noodles available at Kanada-Ya. Problematically, the noodles were unpleasantly doughy in places as if they hadn’t been cooked through properly. This was thankfully a one-off occurrence though. At least the slices of roast pork were fatty and reasonably woody, accompanied by tangy fermented bamboo shoots, wrinkly fungus, a moderately rich onsen egg and a small sheet of umami nori.
Tobanjan ramen sees the addition of a chilli paste to the broth. This added a fermented bean-style flavour and a passing heat, both of which faded quickly leaving only a one-note chilli hint to the broth. Even so, this was enough to obliterate what creamy porkiness the broth had which makes this ramen seem even more poorly thought out.
The chillified broth also served to partially obscure the fattiness and woodiness of the thin pork slices. ‘Hard’ noodles were certainly firmer than the medium option I had chosen in the standard tonkotsu ramen. While their springiness was pleasing, the noodles’ mouthfeel was once again second best to the superior counterparts at Kanada-Ya. Effectively a tantanmen-style ramen in all but name, even then it wasn’t as good as the spicy ramen from, say, Bone Daddies.
The Yuzukara Ramen sees the addition of a ‘spicy yuzu paste’ to the tonkotsu broth, but its one-note citrusy zestiness was unimpressive, especially as it quickly devolved into a simple mild sweetness. Unsurprisingly, it completely took over the pork bone broth and obscured whatever porky creaminess was present. It was therefore just as well that the chashu pork belly slices were fatty, woody and unctuous enough to make their presence felt, alongside the tanginess of the fermented bamboo shoots. The ‘hard’ noodles were noticeably softer than before, which is disappointing given their substandard mouth feel the first time around.
Although the gyoza appeared to have merely grazed a frying pan (or grill or hotplate) with only a hint of caramelisation, the thin and reasonably supple skins weren’t too bad when compared to the abominations at Shoryu. The anonymous minced pork inside would’ve been nothing without the noticeable addition of chives. But this filling, along with the ginger and soy dipping sauce on the side as well as the barely singed skins, made this gyoza seem more like light Chinese shuǐjiǎo (steamed ‘water’ dumplings) rather than the heartier izakaya-ish fare they should’ve been.
Chicken karaage needed more resting time, having arrived scorchingly hot. Once settled down, it became immediately obvious that the poultry-to-batter ratio was out of whack with the meagre, almost gristly meat outweighed by a grease-free crunch that verged on stodgy blandness.
A salad of seaweed, edamame and tofu arrived stone cold – a little more resting time out of the fridge was clearly needed. The seaweed, once warmed up to room temperature, was wrinkly and mildly earthy as well as vaguely malty and cinnamon-ish. The meagre scabs of tofu and edamame present were even scantier than my knickers.
The green tea ice cream was surprisingly decent with a reasonably strong and consistent flavour of matcha. It was easily overwhelmed by the relatively heavy chestnut-like flavour of the red bean paste though, so the ice cream is best taken afterwards as a poor man’s palate cleanser. This dessert may not have been especially cohesive, but it was still enjoyable when seen instead as two puds in one bowl.
It’s therefore a shame that the kitchen has trouble maintaining even this modest level of consistency with this dessert. A second serving on another night was much the same, except the ice cream had a far crunchier consistency and thus a much more unpleasant mouthfeel.
The fridge-blasted strawberries were so devoid of taste that they’re best seen as a decoration instead.
There’s a reason why Yamagoya seems to be perpetually empty. Its tonkotsu ramen is just about good enough if your standards are commensurately low, but there’s little reason to put up with such third-rate noodle soup when branches of both Tonkotsu and Bone Daddies are within easy walking distance.
Average cost per bowl of ramen: £13
Star rating: ★★☆☆☆
Tonkotsu and Kanada-Ya still serve the best tonkotsu ramen in London. Neither can serve up ramen that quite matches the superlative multi-layered joys of the ramen I had in Kyoto, so there’s still room for improvement, but both restaurant chains should still be held closely to our collective bosom.
Sadly, I don’t think that improvement is coming any time soon. The inconsistencies in quality at Tonkotsu and the surprisingly large dip in quality at Bone Daddies are concerning enough in their own right. They’re especially disheartening as signs that London’s tonkotsu ramen restaurants are in no position to sustainably improve upon the quality of their core dish at scale.
Instead, many are more concerned in serving up an ever expanding array of generally misguided, malformed and unsatisfactory side dishes. There are a couple of exceptions, such as the pork kushikatsu at Bone Daddies Old Street, but most prove that the principle of doing only a few dishes and doing them well, evident in most Japanese restaurants on the Home Islands themselves, is a laudable one. London’s ramen restaurants shouldn’t take their eyes off the ball – and we shouldn’t force them to by demanding and accepting derisory versions of gyoza and chicken karaage. A good tonkotsu ramen is a world in of itself.