Chuka Soba-ya Ito (中華そば屋 伊藤); No Frills Ramen, Oji-Kamiya
So my goal for this site is to try and review, in English, as many ramen restaurants in Japan as possible. I started off by trying to visit all of the shops listed in Tabelog’s 2018 Top 100 list. One that has always sparked my interest, as it is continually in the top 10, is Chuka Sobaya Ito in Oji. I made a lot of excuses about not coming here, like its isolated location and how simplistic the ramen looks, but I finally made the jump and ate a bowl and I’m sure damn glad I did. Ito is definitely a “don’t judge a book by its cover” shop as it really doesn’t look all that special, but is definitely an incredibly well made bowl from an incredibly dedicated chef. It’s not the most foreigner friendly shop with an all Japanese menu and staff, but, as you’ll see, it’s not difficult to order at all so I recommend making a visit if you want to try a classic bowl of Chuka Soba.
Opened in 2004, Chuka Sobaya Ito has been a staple in ramen ranking for years. The shop is a ten minute walk from Oji Kamiya station and is open from 11:00-16:00 (or when they run out of soup) and closed on Mondays. Typically the shop is filled with ramen enthusiasts on weekends with construction and office workers filling the seats on weekdays. The main draw here is the master’s ability to perfect his simple bowl of ramen. He offers only two items on the menu. Yes, you read that correctly, two items. Not two ramen varieties, literally just two things on the menu here. You can either choose between the Soba (そば, just plain ramen; 550 yen) or the Niku Soba (肉そば, ramen with pork char siu; 700 yen). When you walk in to the store, a shop staff will seat you and ask for your order. Just tell them, Ni-ku So-ba and you’ll get their pork char siu ramen which is pictured above. For an extra hundred yen, you can ask for oomori (大盛り, extra noodles) on either items. Once the staff takes your order, grab some water at the self service water machine in the back of the shop and wait for your order to be made. All the ramen is made in the back, to order, so you’ll find most people just sitting around watching tv or reading a newspaper. This is the perfect time to people watch normal Japanese people on lunch breaks.
Really not sure what to say here. The soup is a mixture of light Torigara (chicken soup) and Niboshi (dried sardine) soup. It really is no frills and the chef is letting his soup and noodles do all the talking. literally. The entire time I enjoyed my bowl, I didn’t see the chef come out from the back once. And yet, I have no complaints. The bowl really is a reflection of how dedicated the master is at creating his ramen. As I was unable to ask any questions, here are my opinions. Based on the flavor and color, both the Torigara and Niboshi soup are simmered on a very low heat. On higher heat you’ll get a creamy white color from the chicken, or a darker black color of the Niboshi. Here you have a golden soup with a hint of brown and bits of chicken fats floating at the surface. If anything the flavor leans heavily towards the Niboshi. You really get a savory, umami taste in your mouth with the chicken soup adding that fats and oils the Niboshi lacks. You’ll get the initial coating of oils in your mouth, but as you start eating, the gentle niboshi flavors shines through. Due to its light simmer, you’ll find no bitterness from either the chicken or the niboshi.
The noodles are homemade by the chef and has been perfected to pair with this exact soup. It is thin and flat, but very slippery allowing you to slurp up both soup and noodles quickly. I thought this was a nice touch as the soup is so thin that you really do need thin, easy to slurp noodles to get as much soup in with the noodles as possible. There’s a bit of a wheat aftertaste that grows as you chew the noodles which helps accentuate the toasty after notes of the niboshi soup. The sprinkle of green onions gives the bowl a nice refreshing palette cleansing in between bites of the char siu, which by the way is a must order. Prepared with pork belly, the outer rim has a fatty coating, but is primarily good, tender protein. It’s not gonna melt in your mouth as its not overly tender, but it is soft enough that you’re not gonna be chewing excessively on the pork. The marinade is subtle, making sure not to overpower the soup, and honestly tastes refreshing rather than heavy because of it.
All and all, the pictures you see here, or on google, might mislead you to think Ito is a simple ramen restaurant, but it is quite the opposite. What you’ll find here is probably the best display of a dedicated ramen chef at work. What he lacks in flashy presentation, he makes up for in taste and his spot in the Tabelog rankings is proof of that. A perennial top 5 shop, he deserves more customers in my opinion. Hope you make it some time on your next Tokyo ramen adventure!