Chuka Soba Nishino (中華蕎麦 にし乃); Prince of Koike, Hongo Sanchome
A sure fire way for ramen shops to grow their business in Tokyo is to capitalize on their popularity by opening a new shop or to franchise. Recently however, ramen enthusiasts have been wary of franchised ramen shops as there is a growing notion that second shops never live up to the standards of its original counterpart. In order to counteract this false preception, ramen shops have begun opening second brands, or entirely new ramen concepts, while drawing inspiration from its original recipe. Chuka Soba Nishino is actually the second brand of the famous Ramen Koike in Kamikitazawa and you’ll find a number of similarities between the concepts of the two restaurants, but a remarkably different bowl of ramen. Nishino is located just a short walk from Hongo Sanchome station on the Marunouchi and Oedo line or a brisk 15 minute walk from Akihabara station. Open for both lunch and dinner, be sure to come for lunch if you want to ensure they don’t sell out of your order.
Weeknights at Nishino isn’t too packed so if you want to swing by for dinner, leave yourself about ten minutes and you’ll likely be seated within that time. However, as the shop is located in a busy office district, lunch is incredibly popular at Nishino and they sometimes run out of their side dishes by the time dinner hour comes around. The most popular side dishes are the Roast Pork Mayo Rice Bowl and the Shrimp Won Tons. If you really want those side dishes, be sure to line up for their lunch hours. If not, and you’re just good with ramen, dinner is completely fine. A little side note here, the Roast Pork Mayo Rice Bowl is actually the same as the one they serve at Koike so if you already had it there, you’re not missing out, but if not, its definitely a must try at least once. Unfortunately I arrived for their dinner hours so I was unable to try the shrimp won tons so I will have to make a separate review for that at a later date. I was, however, able to try both their ramen and I began with their regular Chuka Soba with a side of won ton.
The best way to explain this bowl is simple is best. While there are very few components to this ramen, each one is made with great care and dedication which shines through with its amazing flavors. The broth is primarily fish based and the flavor of the bonito hits your palette first. A hint of bitterness from the niboshi adds another depth of flavor which is rounded out by the light shoyu tare that flavors the broth. The soup itself is light and airy, leaving you warm and comforted by its gentleness. Noodles are straight with a slight weave cooked perfectly and folded neatly in to the soup. I enjoy a bit of a chew to my noodles and this had exactly that, not losing its texture to the pipping hot soup. Finally the bowl is topped with a couple slices of tender roasted pork char siu, naruto fish cake, and blanched komatsuna mustard leaves. The char siu was tender which complimented the chewiness of the noodles while the naruto had a nice springiness giving a variety of textures to the bowl. The perfectly blanched mustard leaves were shocked in an ice bath shortly after its soak in boiling water which helped retained its color and flavor, a detail that is overlooked, but makes a great difference.
My ramen also came with pork won tons which they served to me on the side. Nishino, much like its sister store Koike, pride themselves on every aspect of their menu. The won tons were no exception and they recommended I try one without soaking in to the soup with a bit of vinegar to start off. The won tons were incredibly flavorful and juicy. The chef’s recommendation of the vinegar was spot on as it helped cut through the meatiness and fat content of the pork won ton, pairing it perfectly. Soy sauce is also available, but it tastes perfect just with the bit of vinegar in my opinion. The pork is well seasoned and can stand alone without the extra saltiness of the shoyu. As for the other won ton, I dunked it in to my soup and let it get to know the soup a bit before biting in. I was disappointed at first when I couldn’t order the shrimp won ton, but it was hard to feel too bad tasting the pork won ton with the soup. The casing is perfectly cooked so it doesn’t fall apart in the broth while having just the right amount of ridges to help cling the perfect amount of soup. I highly recommend ordering a side of the won ton and if it wasn’t for my huge order, I may have gotten a couple more.
Once I polished off my noodles, I ordered my “kaedama” or extra noodles which comes as it does at its sister store Koike. If you have ever visited Koike and ordered their kaedama, you might already know the procedure, but you want to mix the noodles and try them on its own first. The noodles come with a bit of their specialty sauce that tastes fantastic as is as well as some diced water soaked onions and cubed char siu. Be sure to get a bit of the “gyofun”, or fish powder, mixed throughout the noodles to get that extra umami throughout. The tare is a sweet soy sauce and is absolutely delicious. Once you have a few bites with just the noodles, go ahead and add a bit of the Japanese vinegar that is provided on the table. It gives the noodles a tang which spices it up even more. Once you’ve had enough of just the noodles, toss them in to your soup and enjoy the vinegary, sweet, umami flavor change of the soup. For an extra couple hundred yen for the Kaedama, the amount of different flavors you can experience makes it an incredible bargain.
Finally the last thing on my order was this bowl of Sansho Chuka Soba. To be completely honest with you, I was not planning on ordering two bowls this trip. However, the chef had asked me what the photos were for and when he found out about my website, he recommended I come back and try this one as it was vastly different than the original bowl. Having not eaten lunch that day and planning on a run that evening, I decided to splurge and order it this trip. First taste of the soup and I immediately knew I made the right choice. This bowl is unlike any ramen I have had since beginning my ramen reviews. Sansho is a Japanese pepper that is primarily used for Unagi and other fish entrees. It makes sense why it would work perfectly with this soup as its primarily a fish stock, but I never would have imagined it would taste this good. The spicy, sansho pepperiness really enhances the fish broth and gives it just enough of the bite to tingle your tongue. It truly was addicting and a bowl that I will definitely be making a second visit for. A fair warning though, when I was a kid, I was not fond of the Sansho peppercorn. If you have never tried Sansho before, I definitely recommend sampling it elsewhere before having it here. The flavor is quite strong and distinct and as it is mixed in to the soup, you won’t be able to mask it if you find it unpleasant.
While the Chuka Soba had already blown me away, the Sansho Soba definitely takes the cake for best bowl in house. Again, I know some people might not be the biggest fan of Sansho peppercorn, so be forewarned. And Koike fans, if you haven’t tried this second brand already, be sure to try it (shout out to Edo, my Koike lover).