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It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear expats and travelers in Japan express shock over the concept of sitting down in a restaurant and paying good money for a bowl of ramen. Seriously, aren’t those the cheap, instant noodles that college students, bachelors, and other people too lazy to cook survive off of?

Things are very different today, though. Ramen is currently the hottest segment of Japanese cuisine in the international dining community, with restaurants dedicated to it opening up in cities across the U.S. The humble noodles’ stock has risen so high that this ramen restaurant in Hokkaido is listed in the esteemed Michelin guide, so we decided to see if it was deserving of the honor.

Hokkaido is considered by ramen aficionados to be one of the best places to sample the dish, and the island is full of restaurants serving it. Even in that crowded culinary landscape, though, Nanabe stands out.

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Popular with tourists and locals alike, Nanabe is located in Sapporo, the largest city on the island. It’s about a 15-minute walk from Heiwa Station, but since the restaurant only has a small parking lot we still recommend making the stroll from the train stop.

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While many independent ramen restaurants are closed on set days of the week, Nanabe is open all the time. Our Japanese-language reporter Nagahashi stopped by on a weekday morning, just a few minutes after the restaurant opened at 11 a.m. He got a seat right away, but he was glad he came early because 10 minutes later there was a line of hungry customers stretching out the door.

Nagahashi asked the staff for their recommendation, and was told that the tori sayu shio ramen, featuring a salty chicken stock, was one of the most popular items on the menu. The reasonable price of 750 yen (US$6.30) sealed the deal, and after a 10-minute wait our reporter had s steaming bowl of tori sayu shio ramen in front of him.

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While some ramen restaurants pile on an almost obscene amount of toppings, Nanabe keeps things simple and elegant. Aside from the noodles and broth, the tori sayu shio ramen comes with green onions, menma (fermented bamboo shoots), and sliced pork.

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In the orthodox style, you’re supposed to begin a ramen tasting with the broth, so that’s where Nagahashi started. He filled his spoon, took a sip, and was amazed at how smooth and refreshing the salty flavor was. As it soaked into his taste buds, Nagahashi described the flavor as “transcendent.”

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Moving onto the noodles, our reporter noticed that they weren’t as super-thick as Hokkaido ramen has a reputation as being. Still, they weren’t as thin as Kyushu-style ramen. Grabbing a mouthful with his chopsticks, he found their texture to be as smooth as the broth’s flavor, and a perfect compliment to the chicken stock.

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But Nagahashi saved his highest praise for the menma. Specifically, Nanabe uses hosaki menma, which have thinner fibers than ordinary bamboo shoots. This helps them soak up even more of the outstanding broth.

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Just how delicious was the menma? “With a single bite, it turned me into a tiger!” says Nagahashi. We’re not sure exactly what he meant by that, but we’re pretty sure that’s his way of saying it’s good.

Restaurant information
Nanabe / 菜々兵衛
Address: Hokkaido, Sapporo-shi, Shiraishi-ku, Sanjo 4-3-21
Open weekdays 11 a.m.-9 p.m., weekends and holidays 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
[ Read in Japanese ]