Setting your dinner alight is a sure-fire way to spice up your evening, as well as create a delicious bowl of ramen!
This isn’t just some overly dramatic stunt to get a few extra guests—setting your dinner on fire is a sensible move according to the ramen family that runs Menbakaichidai. With 30 years of experience in flame-thrower food, the key to this is the green onion. Without them, there’s no point in the fire, as when burned quickly with oil, they release a more subtle flavor into the broth. But let’s be honest, who needs convincing? Fire ramen is fire ramen, and it’s awesome.
In a pretty unassuming but by no mean inaccessible area of Kyoto, the small restaurant is located just above Nijo Castle in a quiet suburban area. There are a few hostels near by and it’s a pretty nice spot if you’re after a more relaxed stay, but easily reached at the end of a day’s travels. The restaurant itself is easily spotted as there is not shortage of flaming signs, so no worries there. As they do not take reservations there can occasionally be queues, so there is a number ticket machine outside. Simply take a number and if it’s busy wait you turn or you’ll be invited in if not. There are about 15 seats inside and since ramen is a relative fast food, it doesn’t take too long compared to most places, even with the additional fire time.
Ramen, rice and rules
Once in, you will be asked where you are from, which is more to ascertain which language menu to hand you rather than hearing your life story. At your counter seat you’ll be given a menu explaining the different options, which are pretty simple, with four options. The cheapest is straight Fire Ramen which will set you back 1,280 yen, two middle-range sets with fried rice and dumpling options, and the final set which has both, plus fried chicken and a cool badge for 2,150 yen. With phrases like “Let’s put our differences aside and eat a bowl of ramen” or simply “FIRE!” among the badge phrase options, you may find yourself giving this set more thought than you may expect. The only stipulation is that each person orders a bowl of fire ramen, as people cannot share a bowl. After ordering, you menu will be flipped to show you the Fire Ramen Rules.
The rules are taken seriously, as they should be. Simply, you should remain seated, keep your apron on and not touch your bowl as the oil will stain clothes. The real kicker though is no photos. “How will I capture this ridiculous scene for all of mankind to witness?!” you may cry internally, with the smartphone moulded to your palm as if it were an extension of your very being. Fear not, young millennial, you will be fine. The restaurant has seen through the rise of cameras and smartphones and have moved with the times. Behind the counter are multiple selfie sticks, fixed securely with adaptable cases to hold your adopted first-born safely and to capture your ramen experience.
Since holding a phone would obviously end badly, this is a great idea and gives a really good view of both the flames and your horrified faces as you try not to “make a fuss” as they owner terrifyingly warns you what not to do in his pre-fire pep talk. Hands down, probably the most legit use of a selfie stick I’ve ever seen.
To look extra cool and to save your clothes you will be given both a paper leg cover and apron to shield you from the oil (but not the harsh judgement of fashion critics everywhere). You will be told to sit with both hands on the back of your chair, no doubt to avoid instances of people involuntarily falling backwards in the heat of the moment (sorry not sorry). The bowls are prepared nearby, and you’ll see the small mountains of green onion being piled on top:
The bowl of yet-unfired ramen will be placed in font of you, hopefully not too close, and you’ll feel nervous. Don’t imagine you will be magically chill here, you won’t be. It’s intense, the owner is intense and although their menu says no one has died yet, part of your brain still quietly suggests that you could be the first. The owner stares at you with yet more intensity, as he heats the oil in a pan. He will stride, full of indifference, and pour streaming flames into your ramen which scorch not only the onions but your horrified face as they tower above you. It is great. The flames don’t last long but the heat is undeniable, and genuinely really exciting.
Once your table area has been cleaned and your bowl slid across to you with orders not to touch it, you are almost ready to dig in. But not quite. The owner, before turning your smartphone, will demand that you pose very specifically: “Pose! No eating! Mouth open! Head up! Look up! NO EATING!” For the love of god, pose quickly with your noodles raised, mouth open looking up, because he will not relent. There is no explanation for this given, but the pictures are pretty funny, and the experience certainly keeps your adrenaline up.
The actual ramen
Once permitted to eat, the ramen itself is full of flavor, a chicken and seafood broth with chashu pork and additional toppings available, but mostly hidden behind the mountain of green onion. This is the key to the burning, apparently, as the local Kyoto-grown type of onion used releases the best flavor when burnt. The ramen is tasty, if not ground breaking, but definitely a good, filling bowl with a touch of an unusual flavor.
The menu states that a vegetarian soup is available too as well as providing a list of allergens, meaning it’s pretty accessible for most. You can enjoy your ramen while hopefully watching others endure the same fiery fate around you. While you cannot take videos of your own experience, you are welcome to film the chef serving others, but maybe try and avoid faces, Japan is not so hot on public filming.
Once finished, you may be given a tour-guide book with spots picked out by the owner as some of the quieter and more unknown shrines and temples in Kyoto.
You can also enjoy the various signs and pose with them, personal favorite being “Its Fucking Good!!!!!” and “Be there or be square”—neither of which, I believe, were ironic. The staff are friendly but serious when it comes to the fire section, and although the owner comes across as terrifying at times, he is actually pretty nice, so don’t worry. You can even get T-shirts and bowls adorned with the phrase “No Ramen No Life” to remember your fire ramen experience.