In fact, you can pretty much walk through any neighborhood and find a decent bowl of noodles.
But nestled down a quiet street in Kyoto, is a ramen place like you’ve never seen before.
Menbakaichidai has been a staple in the community for 30 years—burning through the competition with its famous “Fire Ramen.” I innocently assumed that the ramen earned its name for being spicy, as are most “fire” dishes in the culinary world. It wasn’t until I was inches away from a four-foot flame, that I finally realized this restaurant had taken things to the next level.
The ramen starts off like your typical bowl. Hot broth goes in first, followed by a dash of salt, boiled noodles, and slices of beef. Then two handfuls of green onions are added to the top.
This is where we took a sharp left turn.
The owner, Masamichi Miyazawa is a stone-faced man who reminds me of that uncle you assume hates you, until he slips you a $20 dollar bill. He’s serious about his ramen, and smiles are reserved for, well, no one.
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As he prepares for the main event, his son, Shin, casually hands out oversized bibs to all of the patrons sitting at the bar. They also offer up hair ties for long-haired diners.
Then there are the rules … so many rules. First, you must keep your hands to your side, you have to lean back in your seat, and you can’t take photos while oil is being poured. While this might seem like a lot of red tape to eat a bowl of soup, I quickly learned that it was all done to keep my eyebrows from getting singed off.
Soon, it’s show time.
With the precision of a samurai, Masamichi slowly pours scolding hot oil on top of the ramen. The oil reacts with the green onions, creating a large flame typically reserved for accidental grease fires. The heat from the flame hits your face like a gust of wind, and for a brief moment you have to close your eyes to deal with the impact.
It’s terrifying and thrilling—like diving with sharks or not filing your taxes.
For Masamichi and his son, this blazing hot act is their livelihood.
Seven years ago, Shin was actually out on his own making a living as a realtor. However, when the economy took a dip, he left his job to work at the restaurant and help his father. Today, Masamichi is the face of the business, but Shin has quickly emerged as the brains. He’s started social media accounts for the restaurant, and mounted selfie sticks across from the bar so that guests can record their Fire Ramen moments. He’s taken a local favorite and created international buzz.
At times, Masamichi is shocked that his little restaurant has survived for three decades. “When I started this 30 years ago, I just dreamed to set up a restaurant, but I never thought about foreigners coming,” he told Yahoo Travel.
“I’m very happy when people visit, and then return again years later. That’s special for me.”
Watching this duo expertly navigate the small kitchen reminded me of the father and son in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” They work in tandem without talking, and make their signature dish with passion and precision … every time.
Sure, Menbakaichidai doesn’t have any Michelin stars, a pricey menu, or a months long waiting list like the duo in the documentary. Still, the heart of this family, and their blazing dish, are sure to make you one of those visitors who returns again years later.
This article was originally published by Yahoo! Travel under the headline Up in Flames—Discovering Japan’s Sizzling Fire Ramen. It is reprinted here with permission.
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(Photos: Brittany Jones-Cooper)
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