Frank Striegl is a walking advert for the nutritional merits of ramen. As the author of one of Tokyo's leading ramen blogs (5amramen.com), the fit, lean 35-year-old eats around 350 bowls a year. Clearly, that wasn't enough because in 2017 he started offering ramen tasting tours and recently he launched a ramen cooking experience.
Depending on which source you believe, Tokyo has anywhere between 4000 and 10,000 ramen restaurants. So how on earth did he narrow it down to three to visit on this Ultimate Ramen Tasting Tour? "It's a combination of my favourites and the ones that provide the best experience," he explains.
Navigating an authentic ramen restaurant can be a bewildering proposition. Items are chosen and paid for using a vending machine (which often has no English instructions), then the ticket is handed to a server or the chef.
For a dish with only three components – broth, noodles and toppings – the number of different types is staggering. Striegl says Japan has more than 80 regional varieties and restaurants are continually experimenting with new combinations. The latest trend is to make it using sea bream.
Our first stop is Fisherman's Cove, a small basement eatery on a quiet backstreet in the residential suburb of Naka-Meguro. As we enter, the staff all cry out "Irasshaimase" (welcome) in unison. We take a seat at the counter and Striegl talks us through the four ramens he's preselected and printed in English on a laminated card.
We get to choose two and I start with a perennial crowd-pleaser – a traditional shoi (salt) ramen, whose light-coloured sauce is flavoured with niboshi (dried sardines) and contains wheat noodles, spinach, diced red onion and tender slices of pork.
"You're welcome to slurp," says Striegl. "It aerates the broth and shows appreciation to the chef."
I give it my best shot but I'm a rookie compared to the businessman next to me who sounds like an angry hippo at a watering hole.
For my second choice I get more adventurous and opt for the "deconstructed" shrimp maze ramen – a soup-less mix of noodles, shrimp powder, onion, spinach, pork and a spicy cod roe called mentaiko. Without the broth, it doesn't look or feel like ramen at all (slurping certainly isn't an option) but it has a delicious oily sweetness and leaves a pleasant tingle on my lips and tongue.
Between dishes, Striegl explains how ramen originated as a variation of a noodle soup made by Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s. There are four main types – shio (salt), shoyu (soy), miso and curry – but every region and restaurant has its specialities. What started as an affordable fast-food staple has since been awarded gourmet credentials. Tokyo has three Michelin-starred ramen restaurants, including Tsuta, which is so popular diners line up for hours to eat there.
Our second stop is Curry Kingdom in Ebisu, where we sample two curry ramens. I start with the restaurant's signature dish – a spicy mix of sliced chicken, pork and beef with vegetables and seaweed. But my favourite is the black sesame tantanmen, an oily, slippery mess of minced pork, noodles and bok choy in a hearty, rust-coloured broth.
I have a flight to catch so sadly we don't have time to visit the third restaurant – a fusion eatery in Shibuya that specialises in tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. Before leaving, I ask Striegl the million-yen question – what's the best bowl of ramen he's ever tasted? He mulls it over for a good 10 seconds – mentally flicking through his extensive ramen repertoire – before declaring, "A miso ramen from Menya Taiga in Kanazawa."
He smiles at the memory. "Every so often one comes along that is just wow!"
Rob McFarland was a guest of Tokyo Ramen Tours, Inside Japan and Vail Resorts.
The three-hour tour includes one drink and six mini bowls of ramen from three restaurants and costs ¥11,000 a person. See tokyoramentours.com
Inside Japan can create a tailor-made Japanese itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. See insidejapantours.com
The Epic Australia Pass provides unlimited access to Perisher, Falls Creek and Hotham plus use of another 17 resorts, including five consecutive days at Hakuba and Rusutsu in Japan. See epicaustraliapass.com.au