This sleek, chic ramen restaurant tucked away in Kyoto’s backstreets serves a phenomenal chicken yuzu ramen. The best time to hit up river ramen? On a cold, rainy weeknight, when everyone else stays home.
Kohaku Ramen at river ramen. – image © Florentyna Leow
I’ve become a harsh critic: if a place doesn’t hook me on the first go, it’s almost certain that I won’t be back. Sometimes I wonder how many great restaurants I’ve missed because I didn’t give them a second chance.
Shiro, which looks better than it tastes. – image © Florentyna Leow
Frankly, I nearly didn’t write about river ramen – not because it was bad, but because my order was unmemorable. I’d had the Shiro, which looks beautiful. It’s topped with curry powder-dusted fried potato strings. The white miso-spiked chicken paitan (white soup) broth is gently soothing and creamy from long hours of simmering. But the whole affair was much like a pleasant first date with someone who you struggle to recall hours later. Why tell you about an average bowl of ramen?
You really do have to slurp fast – these noodles go soggy quickly. – image © Florentyna Leow
I was quite ready to write this place off, rather than write about it. There are other, better paitan ramen bowls out there. But friends who had eaten there suggested a second visit: I’d apparently ordered the wrong dish.
The inside of river ramen. – image © Florentyna Leow
So it was I found myself walking in again the following evening, shaking the rain off my cheap convenience store umbrella. I poured all the coins I had on me into the dinky ticket machine at the entrance of the shop. I gave my order tickets to the waitress and watched her frantically wave at the tourists who had just walked straight into the shop: Ticket. Ticket! Ticket! I sat down and waited. Everyone seated around me seemed to have ordered the Kohaku.
Another picture of the Kohaku ramen – it’s so beautiful… – image © Florentyna Leow
Some places are really worth second chances. The Kohaku is exactly my kind of ramen bowl: a gorgeous blend of chicken and seafood broth, fragrant with yuzu and smoky fish from the katsuobushi shavings dancing and curling on top. The noodles are curly and springy, a robust contrast to the thin broth. You taste yuzu and salt with each mouthful of soup.
Another closeup – the noodles are gently wavy, a little linguini-esque. – image © Florentyna Leow
Vegetables in ramen are hideously underrated. I often feel that ramen is an incomplete meal because of the lack of vegetables involved (bamboo barely counts, in my book). So I like that the Kohaku is heaped high with a pyramid of green and white, peppery sprouts and the pungent white parts of Japanese leek cut finely on the diagonal. Below that, some Chinese cabbage pieces. Combined with yuzu, it’s like slurping a soup rendition of the classic Japanese pickle – salted Chinese cabbage with yuzu. Try sampling the pickle at one of the pickle shops in Nishiki Market, and then try the Kohaku ramen. You’ll see it. It’s so lovely to encounter these classic flavor combinations in unexpected dishes.
Two beautifully fried chicken wings. – image © Florentyna Leow
Like any good ramen place worth its shio, there are extra toppings and side dishes a-plenty to choose from. Forget extra chashu. Pick up some fried chicken wings instead. They aren’t innovative but they’re well-executed and incredibly satisfying: crisp-skinned without, just-cooked and juicy within, dusted with salt and sansho pepper.
Their sign is stylin’. – image © Florentyna Leow
Like most New Age ramen places, river ramen looks like a coffee bar inside rather than a noodle joint. But truer to Kyoto-style restaurants, its blond wooden door doesn’t try to entice you in with gaudy signs or menus outside. No windows for tantalizing glimpses inside, either. All you can do is trust that there are good things waiting for you behind this brightly-lit door on a dark backstreet.
Personal preferences play a big part in eating ramen. river ramen recommends ordering soup noodles on your first visit before trying the dipping noodle (tsukemen) on subsequent visits. If you like cream of chicken soup, something soothing and a little bland and comforting, much like the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, then the Shiro might be the right bowl for you. I prefer broths closer to Chinese soups, clear and thin but powerfully flavoured. river ramen’s Kohaku bowl is what Afuri’s chicken yuzu ramen should be and isn’t. (A recent visit to one of the Afuri branches in Tokyo showed that alas, standards have fallen – it’s a mere shadow of its former self.) The Kohaku is what to have on a cold, rainy night in Kyoto.
Behind this door lies a very good bowl of ramen. – image © Florentyna Leow
Directions: Take Exit 1B of Hankyu Kawaramachi Station. Turn right, and right again. Walk along the road, with the canal on your right. You’ll reach an intersection, and you’ll see a Thai restaurant on your left across the road. A few steps ahead is a small bridge across the canal to your right. Cross the bridge and walk along the narrow street. river ramen is somewhere on your right a few meters down.
Name in Japanese:
1F 225-3 Sendocho Nishikiyamachidori Shijo-kudaru Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
11:30am – 3:00pm (L.O. 2:30pm)
6:00pm – 11:00pm (L.O. 10:30pm)
3-minute walk from Exit 1B of Hankyu Kawaramachi Station, or 6-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station on the Keihan Line
:: Read customer reviews of river ramen on TripAdvisor
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