Friday, October 23, 2015

Tonkotsu King -The Jewel in King Keisuke's Crown

I first discovered chef Keisuke Takeda's Tonkotsu King in 2013, when it was only 1 tiny branch at Orchid Hotel and served the best Tonkotsu ramen in Singapore. It was so good that I had planned to leave it as the conclusion to our ramen series. Needless to say, it proceeded never to materialise. During my period of self-rationalised procrastination, Tonkotsu King has expanded into 4 branches island-wide, and still consistently serves the best Tonkotsu ramen in Singapore, bar none (Ikkousha's version has better balance, but ever since it's move from Ramen Champion, it's standards have been fluctuating, to say the least). That being said, out of the 4 branches, the original one at Orchid Hotel is still the jewel in Keisuke's crown, and the one most worth visiting, if travelling to Tanjong Pagar isn't a big inconvenience.

Come early (at say, 11:15am) to avoid the queues
Tonkotsu King isn't tough to spot at all -just look for the throng of people standing at Orchid Hotel and you'd have found it. The fact that it still attracts long queues and longer waiting times, even years after opening in fad-obsessed Singapore (read: even after the frenzy has largely shifted from ramen to other crazes), is a testament to Tonkotsu King's lasting greatness. 

The eatery itself is tiny, accommodating only 18 people at any one time. Even then, to move around, these 18 lucky ones have to contort their bodies in various yoga positions. This is why, in line with the utilitarian ethos of the eatery, it might be wiser to simply sit down, shut up and enjoy your ramen.

Despite its Japanese interior, Tonkotsu King isn't one of those eateries that pretends to be what it isn't -that is, despite its success, it remains true to its roots of being a humble ramen shop. The only concessions it gives towards decor would be the various Japanese posters pasted around the shop, including some articles featuring Keisuke himself.

In light of this, this isn't a place where you'd go to for attentive, personalised service. Neither is it a place conducive for conversations or "hanging out" of any kind. Instead, this is a utilitarian, almost gritty place, one in which food quality comes first and customers second.

What's arguably the most important to the atmosphere of an eatery is how it makes the customer feel. In this regard, Keisuke does an amazing job in importing the ambience of a small, traditional ramen shop, as Tonkotsu King makes one feel as though he's dining in a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Japan. To put it simply, Tonkotsu King exudes authenticity, which is often missed by most restaurants. In line with ramen's roots as a humble salaryman's dish, Tonkotsu King indeed feels like an establishment that a salaryman would visit after a long day at work. The phrase "the devil's in the details" could not be less apt; simplicity and authenticity are details that Tonkotsu King excels in.

Taste and quality:
What I had -Tonkotsu King ramen with a flavoured egg, strong taste and more oil. Go big or go home

Like a true traditional ramen shop, Tonkotsu King does not have many options. Essentially, what a customer has control over is the saltiness and oiliness of the pork-based soup, with an additional option of choosing various sauces (black or red) to add spice. The newly-initiated should go for "normal" levels of saltiness and oiliness in a plain Tonkotsu soup base, which might be too strong compared to other eateries. This is how ramen's supposed to taste though. For subsequent visits, the "strong" levels are worth venturing into. 

The perfect bowl of ramen?
Mmmmmm, fats...
Upon receiving the order, the amount of fats floating within the soup might be shocking for the faint-hearted. Don't fret though, the fats add richness to the soup. Forget momentarily about cholesterol and sodium content; this is one of the best bowls of ramen you're gonna get in Singapore, so enjoy yourself and eat up. While we're on the topic, the soup is exceptionally thick, and for lack of a better word, "creamy". It tastes as though a live pig was thrown squealing into a pot of boiling water, and kept there until its flavour has thoroughly infused every water molecule. The broth is definitely a hard-hitter and takes no prisoners. When compared to some of the ramen we had in Japan however, Tonkotsu King's broth is more reliant on oil to bring about its heaviness and taste, whereas ramen in Japan was less oily but still more substantial and flavourful -perhaps due to the differences in pork quality, the duration of boiling or the amount of pork actually used. With that caveat aside, Tonkotsu King's broth is definitely one of the best you can get locally.

The taste of a bowl of ramen is important, but so is its mouthfeel. Amidst all the attention paid to the taste of the broth, the greatest contributor of mouthfeel is one that's overlooked -the noodles. In roping in his noodles supplier to support his Singapore venture, Keisuke clearly understands the importance of the noodles used, which can make or break a bowl in subtle ways. In doing so, Tonkotsu King's noodles have a decent amount of bite (choose the "normal" option), they are of an appropriately medium thickness befitting the thick broth, so just the right amount of soup clings on to them. Crucially, the noodles and the soup are perfectly complementary, as though they're made for each other. ‎

In my opinion, all of Keisuke's ramen eateries (ie including Tori King, Keisuke Ramen Tokyo) have mastered the art of making the perfect flavoured egg (or ajitsuke tamago). The flavoured egg has a beautifully molten core, and as seen from its dark exterior, has clearly been seasoned. It's also refrigerator-cold -a nice refreshing touch, so eat it before the soup warms it up! Keisuke's pork chashu is similarly well-marinated, unlike most other shops which don't marinate theirs. A huge slab of pork cut thick, it's a very generous serving of chashu. Due to its thickness, it doesn't have that melt-in-your-mouth texture that some ramen shops' chashu have, but with its marination, that's perfectly alright. 

If you get tired of the heaviness of the meal, there's also a free flow of marinated beansprouts to help take some of the edge off the meal. I'm not sure what sauce that is, but as an ex-beansprout-hater, I've come to love those at Keisuke. 

Incredible beansprouts!
Keisuke's Tonkotsu King is a ramen shop that any true ramen fan would be loathe to miss, and with 4 branches in total, it's more accessible than ever. It could just be my nostalgia speaking, but it's probably worth mentioning that out of its 4 branches, the one at Orchid Hotel is the most consistent, which I suspect could be attributed to the fact that its smaller seating capacity gives them more control over quality. ‎
The ideal state of a bowl of ramen -in my stomach

Quality & Taste(75%)
Not as good as Japan, but probably the best in Singapore
Value (15%)
Reasonable pricing, sizeable portions, fantastic quality
Ambience & others (10%)
Entirely reminiscent of a hole-in-the-wall shop in Japan -good or bad, you decide
One of the closest to Japan’s ramen standards you’ll get in Singapore

#01-19, Orchid Hotel, 1 Tras Street, 078867

Opening Hours:
Daily: 11:30 - 22:00 

My obligatory thanks:
As a man of my word, I am bound to reluctantly acknowledge that the photographs above were taken using an iPhone 6. I still typed the entire post on my BlackBerry Q10 though. 

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