The Japanese can be known for some funny, odd, and quirky things..things that make you think, “Uh…okaaay…”
Really good ramen noodle soup, however, is not one of them. Ramen noodle soup is one of the best things to come from Japan. It is more likely that you will think, “This is sooooo good!”
But eating ramen in a booth by yourself so you can eat in silence and savor the ramen experience? THAT is a bit quirky.
Ichiran is a well-known Japanese ramen noodle chain restaurant that has a couple of outlets here in Hong Kong. They are known for really good ramen soups with their perfectly cooked noodles and rich tasty broth. Suffice it to say, you don’t find sushi or potstickers on the menu. It’s all about the ramen here.
Ichiran is know for their “Original Counter”. What is the Original Counter? As this sign says, you sit in a “private booth-type counter to concentrate on the flavor”, and that it is “an atmosphere that intensifies your senses”.
Hey, but it’s intriguing enough that I wanted to give this place a try and see what it’s like! My friend, Kara and I embarked on this Ichiran eating-ramen-solo experience because we were both curious as to how this works. We actually went to an Ichiran location, only to find it was a regular restaurant with tables and no booths. Then we discovered that we went to the wrong location! Whether you like a regular dining experience or a solo one, I’ve included the locations for both at the end of this post.
Back to the Original Counter…these are the private booths. Kara and I still got to sit next to each other, so we could still chat. But once the food arrives, it’s actually quite hard to keep a conversation going when you are not actually facing the other person.
This was my allotted space. In front of me, through the opening, is the central area where the employees are. You can see them walking back and forth, but the wood blinds are just low enough that you can’t actually see their faces. If you look through the hole (at least from the booth I was sitting at), you can see the other private booths opposite you.
In case the private booth experience is completely baffling to you, there is a handy-dandy System Guide available at every booth. Again, I feel like this is another example of Japanese quirkiness. I have never seen instructions in a restaurant, let alone a System Guide. It makes me think I’m learning how to use a major appliance instead of eating a bowl of noodle soup!
All ordering is done via a form you fill out. Circle your preference for everything from flavor strength and richness of the soup, to how firm or soft you like your noodles. For first-timers and children, the menu makes suggested recommendations. Specify how much chili sauce you want (if you want any at all) and whether you want our ramen with or without pork. After the basics, you can add on items from a list of extras. Choose items such as a half-boiled salted egg, tofu, mushrooms, or an extra helping of noodles.
If following along in your System Guide, this is when you push the button for service. A (faceless) employee will suddenly appear in the window in front of you, check your order form, sign off on it, then leave you a receipt and disappear.
While you wait for your bowl of ramen, you can help yourself to water from your very own spigot! Each booth has one and you can drink as much as you want. There is no need to ever flag anyone down to refill your glass! And as the sign says, the water is “delicious!”
Within minutes, faceless person reappears and presents your bowl of hot steaming ramen noodle soup. The server then says a bunch of grand things in Japanese. (I can say I’ve heard those some combination of sounds before, and I think it’s all about good wishes and happy thoughts, but I have no idea what is actually being said.) He bows (still can’t see his face), and he lowers the wood blinds in front of you.
You are now alone with your ramen and can “concentrate on the flavor in an atmosphere that intensifies your senses”.
And after all of that lead up, is the ramen any good?
Yes! Yes, it is! I had chosen a medium broth and richness, green onions, a little garlic, level 1 spiciness, pork slices, and medium firm noodles. The broth was rich and flavorful, totally satisfying those umami tastebuds. Level 1 on the chili sauce was perfect for me, offering just the right amount of hot to balance the broth. And the noodles were a perfect medium with just enough of a bite. I thoroughly enjoyed it and slurped it up quite quickly…probably because I didn’t have Kara to talk to. She was too busy anyway in her private booth, concentrating on her ramen flavors!
Quick note — if you look closely at the photo above, check out the notch in the soup spoon. The notch prevents the spoon from slipping into the bowl. How clever is that??
Once you are done with your meal, you take your receipt to the front counter to pay. There is no need to signal for anyone to come back to your booth (unless you need something). Just leave everything, go pay, and you’re done! Needless to say, this is not the type of place where you go with friends and linger after a meal. Unless you go the location with the regular tables, it’s too difficult to socialize! That being said, if you’re on your own, this might be the perfect location to try!
So whether you want the solo private booth dining experience or the regular tables, Ichiran is worth a visit if you like a good bowl of ramen. It’s definitely a place I want to return and a place you should try!
Where To Find Ichiran:
For the Original Counter, private-booth dining experience, visit Ichiran in Causeway Bay:
For the regular tables and “social” type seating, visit Ichiran in TST: