This ramen chef could work anywhere, but there’s a special reason he’s kept coming back to the same place for almost 30 years.

While Japan’s nationwide ramen chains are never a bad choice for a meal, part of the fun of the country’s rich ramen culture is that it rewards you for digging deeper. We love finding out about hidden ramen joints from superfans, and to help us with our never-ending quest to fill our stomachs with tasty grub, our Japanese-language writer Great Muromachi told us about a hole in the wall in Kyoto…except, it’s debatable whether or not it has what you’d ordinarily call “walls.”

Muromachi lives in Kyoto’s Ukyo Ward, and when he feels a nighttime noodle need, he often takes a stroll over to Ponta, a ramen provider that’s about a 10-minute walk from either Uzumasa or Tokiwa station. At least, that’s where it is during its dinner hours. During the day? Muromachi isn’t sure, because Ponta is actually a van.

Specifically, it’s a kei van, one of Japan’s class of ultra-compact cars. Ordinarily you’ll see kei vans used by handymen and independent merchants in narrow-street suburbs. Ponta’s owner, though, has converted his van into a mobile kitchen, and the steam billowing from the cooking pots, as well as the red lantern with “Ponta” written in Japanese (ぽん太), are the signals that he’s open for business.

It’s pretty hard to eat ramen while holding the bowl in your hand, though, so once Ponta parks for the night, the owner sets up a folding table and a couple stools in the parking lot. But despite the temporary, could-relocate-at-any-moment nature of the operation, Ponta’s owner is committed to this quiet residential spot, as he’s been serving customers here for 27 years and counting.

The house…er…van specialty is chicken-broth ramen. While the ramen boom of the last 10 years has tempted some chefs to go for increasingly heavy flavors, Ponta has stood by its recipe for broth that’s flavorful but has a clean finish, keeping lingering oily sensations largely off the palate.

As for the noodles themselves, they’re a little softer than what you’ll find in Tokyo, which Muromachi tells us is the style for Kyoto ramen stands. However, if you’d like yours firmer, you can ask the owner when ordering (just say “Men ha katame de onegai shimasu”) and he’ll be happy to oblige.

The menu is simple, both in that there’s a small number of items and also in that the sign itself is handwritten. A standard bowl of ramen is 700 yen (US$6.35), with extra chashu pork or karaage fried chicken add-ons for 200 yen more (or both for an additional 400 yen). There’s also a miso-broth ramen for 900 yen, and extra-large orders of noodles are a temptingly affordable 100-yen splurge.

For first-timers, or really any-timers, Muromachi recommends the chashu ramen, since Ponta’s is cut extra-thick and always satisfies.

But all this begs the question: if Ponta’s food is so good, and also reasonably priced, why does the owner set up in this exact place every night? Wouldn’t he attract more customers, and make more money, by firing up the engine and driving to one of downtown Kyoto’s entertainment districts, which are packed with domestic and overseas travelers?

Sure, he probably would, but as he told Muromachi, he’s got two reasons for sticking to the same spot. “First,” he explained, “I live in this neighborhood. But also, I keep Ponta here because I have customers who’ve been coming to eat here for years.”

With nearly three decades in business, there are people who ate at Ponta as kids, grew up, and now come back to eat with their own children. That kind of loyalty isn’t the sort of thing Ponta’s owner is going to turn his back on. “For as long as my body can handle it, I’m going to keep serving ramen right here,” he promises, so if you’re up for a slight detour from the typical Kyoto sightseeing itinerary, you know right where to find him.

Restaurant information
Ponta / ぽん太
Address: Kyoto-shi, Ukyo-ku, Uzumasanakasujicho 12
Open 9:30 p.m.-2 a.m. (approximate times)
Closed when raining

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