As midnight neared at Tokyo Haneda International Airport, I wearily boarded my nine-hour redeye. Moonlight shone through the thick evening smog, gleaming off the pearl-white fuselage of planes parked in a neat row. I walked down the aisle, my white plastic duty-free bag bumping into each seat I passed. Our JAL triple-seven rocketed off into the night sky, leaving the island nation behind.
Three hours into the journey, as the sun rose over the Pacific, I discreetly nodded to one of the flight attendants and ordered a bowl of noodles. The chewy ramen immersed in a hot, luscious broth, topped with an oozing soft-boiled egg, was such a fitting snack.
I'm a native of the Bay Area, but this overnight flight to San Francisco was only the first segment of my 7,700 mile journey to the East Coast. This summer odyssey connects my two favorite cities on earth: New York and Tokyo. I set out on this quest in late August with a specific goal in mind: to seek out the best bowl of ramen between the two megacities.
Tsuta (now Japanese Soba Noodles), Sugamo:
A brief three-block saunter from the Yamanote Line Station, Tsuta is tucked away in a residential chome. Every chair at the twelve-seat bar is filled during its open hours. Hour long lines snake out the door for this "no-additives" bowl of shoyu heaven.
We sat in a shaded apartment foyer, but it was impossible to escape the torrid summer heat that beat down on us. Salarymen clad in pressed white button-down shirts and black slacks stood around us, waiting out their lunch hour.
Gingerly feeding money into the vending machine that was covered in Japanese, with no glimmer of English, we made our selections. Huddled at the end of the bar, we were presented with our piping hot bowls of noodles.
The soup was sublime, the three-soy blend rounded out the shoyu broth, making the steaming liquid intense in flavor and velvety in texture. Nothing was out of place: the plump bamboo shoots and shoyu-soaked egg accented the chashu-braised pork. Loudly slurping the freshly cooked noodles with passion and technique, I finished the meaty, rich ramen in a heartbeat.
We exited Jingu stadium after a riveting baseball game, and we were plunged into the humid, muggy night. Hopeken is a 24-hour, standing-only ramen shop mere walking distance from Jingu.
The bowl of tonkatsu lingered on the wooden bar for just seconds before I plunged my chopsticks into the hot soup, attacking the mammoth mass of hand-pulled noodles. Small chunks of fat flew up with every slurp, the fatty broth a pale milky white color. The ramen lingered on my lips for hours on end, pork fat haunting my memory and taunting my appetite.
Mu Ramen, Long Island City
One stop east on the 7 from Midtown, we stood outside Mu Ramen in the balmy New York night, waiting to move into the petite square restaurant, size similar to the ramen shops in Tokyo. Upon walking through the glass and walnut door, the aroma of ramen noodles boiling in starchy water wafted towards my face.
The black and white bowl of tonkatsu arrived, the black garlic oil and nori glimmering in the light. Thick noodles swam at the bottom of the bowl, their tips poking out of the lip-coating fatty broth. Funk from the black garlic gave a stark contrast to the creamy soup. The noodles gave a soft chew, the perfect al dente for ramen. The subtleties of the pork broth emerged with every sip farther into the perfectly satisfying bowl.
Ramen Lab, Little Italy
The final bowl was unique: it was the first bowl of the season at Ramen Lab, a ten-seat bar squeezed between two brick buildings in Little Italy. Two Osaka-born ramen chefs, flown in from Japan, masterfully created the velvety yet potent broth.
The thinner noodles were a tribute to the richness of the pork-based soup. Nori climbed up the noodles as I hungrily slurped up the ramen, taking in short, staccato breaths as I ate.
The ramen brought a true smile of warmth and joy to my face, as only so many dishes can. My adventure this summer has been inconclusive, not something I expected it to be. It only heightened my craving and obsession for noodles that float in the pork-based broth. But it also brought to my attention the power ramen has to share: to share happiness with friends, or memories with loved ones.
Six hours after the final bowl, I sat in Newark Airport. After hearing the news of a demoralizing four-hour flight delay, I thought to myself and wryly smiled. What would I give to be back in Manhattan, hunched over a bowl of noodles, sharing my life with friends? Anything for a second helping.