REVIEW

In the ramen wars, here’s a serious contender in authenticity

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This week I did something that I usually try very hard not to do: I went to a restaurant not because it was new and promised to be interesting, but because it was new and popular.

The Internet buzz pointed me in the direction of Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen in the new Shangri-La Mall extension, and after trudging through endless empty corridors we found a long queue outside the restaurant that was composed mostly of the hype machine when it comes to a new restaurant: food bloggers and young families who like to be first in trying new places.

Although to call it a queue is being generous: It was a mob of growling, sullen groups who I’m sure are otherwise wonderful people in everyday life, but being made to wait in line for a seat in a restaurant taps into something deeply buried in the Filipino psyche, perhaps left over from the war years.

The staff at Ikkoryu has an embarrassing way of dealing with the cursing and bullying of the mob. They apologize profusely, then apologize again, and then bow deeply before you in supplication, like a penitent begging for mercy, so that one feels terribly guilty for daring to be impatient.

Rave reviews

Meanwhile, making the pilgrimage to Shangri-La was my own penitence for neglecting to make the trip to Alabang to weigh in on the rave reviews surrounding Ramen Yushoken. A place that markets itself as having its ramen created by the son of the Ramen God has set the bar very high for itself. But that’s too far south to go for ramen, even if it’s semi-divine ramen. So we drove north instead.

It wasn’t worth it, and the hour-long wait wasn’t worth it either. The tonkotsu broth, made from long-simmered pork bones, was faultless, redolent of the heady stink of a farmyard; no, really, it tastes much better than that sounds. The long-simmered broth is pungent yet creamy, an unexpected and winning combination, in the manner of an andouillette in cream sauce.

The side dishes are no better nor worse than one would find at the average Little Tokyo restaurant.

It’s hard to judge this restaurant on its own merits and appraise it separately from the ramen wars currently raging in Manila. It’s also difficult to form a dispassionate opinion that doesn’t take into account the considerably steep price of entry that comes from finding a parking space in the labyrinth that the increasingly inappropriately named Shangri-La has now become, and enduring the wait and the crush of obnoxious people incapable of forming an orderly queue.

If the restaurant were just another in the mall, which is probably what it will be in another few months, I would place it near the top of places to go to after a long shopping day, but not a place I would drive to visit. Within the context of the ramen wars, I think it’s a serious contender for the authenticity and purity of its broth, and anywhere that gives us options to escape the tyranny of Ukokkei’s caprices is worth celebrating.

Lukewarm response

Perhaps part of the reason for my lukewarm response is that I’m beginning to become just a bit skeptical of the madness surrounding ramen. When something perfectly innocent that I’ve always liked such as cupcakes, or macaroons (“macarons,” if one must be pedantic), or homemade ice-cream, or even tea, becomes a food fad, fueled by Internet hype and marketing, the question must be asked whether the momentary hype has enriched the food scene, educated our palates and enhanced our understanding.

In other words: Are we left with a better bowl of ramen and a better appreciation for it, or is it just a feast for food writers’ one-upmanship as competing restaurants hawk their claims of greater authenticity?

Ikkoryu serves a very decent bowl of ramen, but it is not the elixir of life, and I would recommend waiting for the crazy people to go away before dropping in for a light supper. I can’t wait for the ramen wars to be over, so that I can get back to enjoying my ramen.

Ikkoryu Fukuoka Ramen is at the 5/F, East Wing, Shangri-La Mall; tel. 4778333.

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