Tombo (とんぼ); Best All Around Ramen Restaurant, Kichijoji
When looking for ramen restaurants to visit I typically look at a combination of magazines, ramendb, Michelin Guides, and tabelog.com. I typically rely heavily on the tabelog.com’s annual top 100 ramen restaurants, but if a ramen restaurant is new, and hence not on the list, or gets featured in a magazine, I’ll try it out to “beat” the crowd. Tombo was one of the latter featured in the TRY (Tokyo Ramen of the Year) magazine as the best new ramen restaurant of 2017-2018. I was able to convince one of my friends to join me as they won multiple awards in different ramen variety categories so I think the following will be quite a comprehensive review. Tombo won the award for Shoyu and Shio, with some honorable mentions in the maze soba (no soup) category. The following is my review for what I consider to be the best, all around ramen restaurant in Tokyo. You can’t go wrong with any bowl you order here and you might see why.
As with most of the ramen restaurants in this Musashino area of Tokyo, the interior and decor is very chic and modern. The aesthetic isn’t that of a traditional ramen restaurant and reminiscent of a cafe, likely catering to the upper middle class that typically reside in the area. The shop itself is a bit of a walk from the nearby train stations; 12 minutes from Kichijoji and 10 minutes from Inokashira Park station so enjoy the brisk walk to build your hunger on your way here. Before entering, a hand written sign hung outside regarding a specialty, miso ramen they had for sale that night limited to 15 orders. My buddy who came along with me is a huge miso ramen fan so our final order for this visit came out to one Miso, one Shoyu, one Shio, and one Maze Soba. Not one to pass up a roast pork char siu rice bowl, I rounded out my order with that and took our seats after purchasing the tickets.
As always, my order began with the rice bowl. As my ramen was still being made, I obviously had no idea what to expect in terms of the char siu so when my rice bowl arrived, I was pleasantly surprised with how delicious it looked. Huge, thick cut slices of their pork char siu surrounded a generous bed of rice and a handful of green onions adorned my bowl. Each slice was charred right before serving, rather than at once before slicing, giving each bite an incredibly smoky aroma and taste. The char siu itself was so tender it was literally falling apart in my chopstick as I picked them up. A combination sesame oil shoyu tare seasoned the pork and I think a bit of chili peppers were added to give it a spicy kick. The pork had the perfect meat to fat ratio where you got the best of the protein chew and fatty goodness in one bite. It paired incredibly well with the rice and both the white and green parts of the green onions was a nice touch to add some freshness and crunchiness to the bowl. I had a hard time putting my bowl down when my first ramen arrived, but I was able to withhold my temptation and saved a bit for later.
My first ramen I received was the Shio as I didn’t want the flavors of the other soups to muddle with the gentleness of the Shio. The ramen was beautifully presented with their noodles folded in to a bed in the golden soup and their incredibly tender char siu placed above. Menma bamboo shoots and soft boiled egg adorned the rim with thinly cut white parts of the green onion topped it off. A couple sprigs of Mizuna (water greens) and golden, fried onions finished off the bowl. I immediately went for the soup and right off the bat I had a good understanding as to why both Shio and Shoyu won the best newcomer award. The broth is a gentle chintan soup made through a low simmer of primarily chicken bones with a bit of pork added. Dried fish is added to enhance the umami of the broth. What results is a very light, but flavorful broth that I can see pairing with a variety of tare options. Flavoring oil used at Tombo for the Shio ramen is quite mellow and rounds out the bowl quite well. My only gripe is that the noodles were a bit too soft for my liking. I’ve found that a lot of the newer ramen restaurants have been going back to the old school, well cooked noodles which I’m not a fan of, but this is probably a preferential bias than a legitimate flaw in the bowl. I was grateful for the generous serving of the menma bamboo shoots, but I didn’t need it to be completely honest. Overall though, the broth more than makes up for any shortcomings I saw as it was truly a delicious soup, well above any chintan soup I’ve had recently.
As my buddy and I both had another bowl coming, we decided to split our Shio and Shoyu so we can try the flavors for both. I admittedly did not have any of the toppings in the Shoyu as it was essentially the same (swapping the Mizuna with traditional dried seaweed) so my review will be purely soup and noodle based. Sure enough, the broth base for the Shoyu ramen was the same as the Shio and just the flavoring oil/tare was changed. I preferred the Shio tare to the Shoyu, but my buddy swore that the Shoyu was better so again, I think this is more based on preference over taste. However, I will admit, the Shoyu was incredibly well made. I was expecting it would follow the trend of using a smoky shoyu tare as most restaurants have been implementing, but to be the best, you have to stand out with something different which is what Tombo does here. As do a lot of dedicated Shoyu ramen restaurants, Tombo uses a combination of a variety of shoyu to get the perfect flavor components to match the broth. Based on what I tasted with my unrefined palette, Tombo went with the savory, saltiness of the shoyu rather than a sweeter blend or a more aromatic smoky blend. I actually thought that was a good choice as the broth here is the highlight of the ramen, and the latter two would have changed the flavor profile of the broth significantly. As with the Shio, the bowl already gets a nice smoky component from the crispy fried garlic so I thought the savory shoyu blend gave a different flavor profile. The Shoyu had a bit more of the chicken oil than the Shio which was evident with how buttery my lips felt when I had a spoonful of this soup. The noodles worked better here as the soft noodles soaked in more of the shoyu flavor that I feel match with a softer texture. For a place with so many ramen varieties, I thought this was an extremely well made bowl.
My buddy’s second bowl was this specialty Miso ramen which they only have a limited quantity of during days they actually decide to have it on the menu. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of Miso ramen, but this was fantastic. It’s quite a bit different from their Shoyu and Shio ramen because of the intensity of the miso flavor as well as a different noodle used for the bowl. Again, this was my buddy’s bowl so I only had a few bites and soup so take my review with a grain of salt. The broth definitely tasted different than the Shoyu and Shio ramen. I’m not sure if it was a more condensed version or a different one all together, but the broth was creamy and rich which was even more amplified by the miso. I would have preferred a bit more vegetables, but from what I had it was a great bowl, perfect for a cold winter night.
So my favorite bowl here, which surprisingly didn’t win first prize, was this Spicy Maze Soba. You can get it without the spice, but it actually wasn’t very spicy so it added a nice additional flavor. The toppings on this Maze Soba are the roast pork char siu, menma bamboo shoots, green onions, dried seaweed, Mizuna (water greens), and the miso ground pork saute. The way you eat a maze soba is to mix all of the ingredients together until all the flavors combine and get a bit of each component in each bite. I thought at first there wouldn’t be as much flavor since it kinda looked like they skimped on the miso pork saute, but as you can see from my final mix, it was more than enough. The sauce coated each noodle perfectly and the flavor wasn’t so overpowering so the toppings were able to accent the sauce and noodles. The noodles were similar to the miso ramen in that it was thicker and chewier than the regular ramen varieties, but made for a better texture and held up to the thick, flavorful sauce. Noodles for the Maze Soba are cooked, then shocked in water so it stops the cooking process and since its not in any hot soup, they retain its’ texture throughout your meal. Pork char siu is served chilled and still just melts in your mouth when you bite in to them. The tenderness of the pork contrasts the chewy noodles and has a great balance. The crispy Mizuna and crunchy menma bamboo shoots also add to the texture variety.
For those who are always unsure of what to order, this is my recommended spot because you’re not gonna go wrong with anything you end up choosing. Of course, you can bring a friend like I did so you can sample a bit of everything, but again, you’re not gonna leave disappointed with any of their ramen.