“A bowl of ramen is a self-contained universe with life from the sea, the mountain and the earth all existing in perfect harmony. Harmony is essential. What holds it all together is the broth. The broth gives life to the ramen.”
Ever since arriving in Hong Kong at the end of 2010, Butao Ramen in Central still attracts the hungry hordes daily, for its focus on quality over quantity (output is capped at 250 bowls a day). Thus, drawing inspiration from Sun Zi’s Art of War by “attacking where the enemy is weak” (孫子兵法: 攻而必取者，攻其所不守也), I decided to focus on the new Causeway Bay branch on Tang Lung Street, which opened around November 2011.
Due to the tiny capacity of 25 people, there were people queuing even at 3:30pm on a weekday. To avoid blocking the street, the system now is to wait in an alley opposite the shop. Fortunately the wait was short and once everyone in our party of three had arrived, we were let in.
As it was my first visit I opted for the original “Butao King” (豚王) ramen ($75), while my friends had the spicy “Red King” (赤王)($88) and “Green King” with basil and parmesan cheese (翠王)($90).
To save time before you’re sat down, you get a sheet to customise your ramen, authentic Japanese style. I chose “normal” taste, sauce and garlic levels, no spicy Butao sauce, hard noodles, and extra black fungus/what they called “tree mushroom” (黑木耳)(+$5).
My friend’s Green King came first, and the keen staff urged us to eat it first whilst warm. Nice to see this level of attention towards both the customer experience and the food, maybe due to the high staff-customer ratio (about three in the kitchen and two servers, vs 25 customers max). I tried a bit and it was, well, pretty cheesy! With the green leaves it tasted almost like a garlic and pesto pasta, which isn’t a bad thing, but don’t eat this expecting a traditional ramen. But do eat this if you want to fill up!
The dilemma was solved however as soon after came the other two bowls of steaming ramen (I think they try to have the orders arrive together anyway)! As is tradition, I eyed my opponent and bowed deeply before opening with a sip of the broth – not the leanest, but the temperature was just right. For my Butao King, the generous slab of char siu pork was thin cut with a few bits of fat, and was oh so mouth-meltingly tender. After my adventures at Ippudo, I think hard ramen works better for the al dente feel, plus who wants super soft ramen anyway? Having polished off the ingredients, I took a few spoonfuls of the rich, creamy broth now infused with endless flavour and of course, no MSG. Awww yeahhh.
Due to space and hunger restrictions (i.e. the hunger of my friend) I didn’t get to try the Red King, but I was assured that it good, albeit slightly oily.
There were many fresh condiments on the table, like pepper, vinegar, garlic cloves (complete with garlic press!) and bean sprouts, but I only used the sesame grinder. This was probably for the best, as the guy next to me used his chopsticks to pry a garlic clove out of the press after squeezing. We were also issued complimentary water which apparently the Central Butao doesn’t have.
The service was friendly throughout and they proactively offered to take photos for us outside. The staff truly seemed to enjoy their job. The only downside is the high turnover combined with HK-style Japanese dining, which means lots of enthusiastic yelling of stuff like “IRRASHAIMASE!!” and “ARIGATO GOZAIMASHITA!!” in a confined space (interpersonal space: dai pai dong/intimate). I suppose it adds to the atmosphere. The only thing missing is an efficient “hai, douzo!” when they serve your meal.
Finally, in case you’re wondering where that quote up there is from, there’s actually a 2008 Brittany Murphy movie called The Ramen Girl. I guess it’s about a Karate Kid who’s Lost in Translation, but with an American girl and ramen.
Butao Ramen focuses on doing one thing and doing it well, devoting all their love to the art of ramen. No side dishes and no drinks aside from Coke/Sprite (although I’d rather have green tea). The four flavours and endless customisation possibilities means I’ll be back for more!
Along with the new waffle and cake place next door, Ocio, and several other Asian eateries, looks like this little street near Times Square is about to enjoy a culinary renaissance.
PS I promise the next restaurant won’t be in Causeway Bay!
Restaurant rating: NOM NOM NOM NOM N- (out of five).
Address: G/F, 40 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay 銅鑼灣登龍街40號地下 (Google map here.)
Tel: 2893 3190
Opening hours: Mon – Sat, 11am – 9pm