The best place for cheap ramen

by Laura Welch

Kourakuen is a chain store that has its roots in the Tohoku area – it was founded in 1954 in Fukushima – although it now has many stores all over Japan and several in Sendai. It aims to provide cheap, tasty ramen. I went to the store in the Ochiai area, about 20 minutes walk from Rikuzenochiai Station (there is also a bus, but it's infrequent). It's hard to miss with its big, bright yellow sign.

I certainly can't argue with the first part of that – one glance at the menu showed me some of the cheapest ramen I've seen. The cheapest is a chuukan soba at 290 yen (without tax). The most expensive is 590 yen. They also also offer specials and limited edition ramen; when I went they had an evening special of teppan chahan – a sort of egg-fried rice that you can mix yourself at the table for maximum freshness. They have a wide selection of extra toppings, from spicy miso or egg to butter or sweet corn. Gyoza and rice can be ordered as a side, or both together as a set for the hungry diner. There is even a children's size and dessert (which is unusual for a ramen restaurant).

As I went in, I was greeted by a member of staff who had that artificial aura of corporate training. I couldn't complain about the service though. I was shown to a booth, although there are also counter seats available. The atmosphere was pleasant – it felt open and it was brightly lit by numerous bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The black tables were quite stylish and the seat cushions provided a bit of color and were quite comfy.

Sadly, this is where my good impression stops. I had ordered basic miso ramen and gyoza, and when they arrived at my table they looked fairly decent. But as soon as I tasted the ramen I could instantly taste the difference with the other ramen stores I'd been too. The noodles were all texture and no taste, the meat almost had a dry quality to it and the texture of the soup was a bit grainy. The gyoza weren't bad for commercial gyoza, but I've had better in terms of both pastry and filling. I left feeling a little unsatisfied.

The moral of this tale? If you buy cheap ramen, that's what you're going to get. It's a nice restaurant, but if you're looking for a taste experience, Kourakuen isn't the place for you.

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