“Don’t scream and run away.”
That’s the disturbing advice you’re given when you sit down for dinner at Menbakaichidai. This tiny place in a nondescript suburb of Kyoto, Japan, is considered one of the best ramen joints in town. It also sets your ramen on fire. In front of your face.
Masamichi Miyazawa (the kitchen staff just call him “master”) opened this place 32 years ago. The ramen uses kujo-negi, a type of sweet green onion grown in Kyoto. He discovered that setting it on fire brings out its flavor. Thus, fire ramen was born.
The flames take every customer by surprise, even though they’re expecting it, Miyazawa tells me.
“Nobody has been dead ‘so far’, lol,” he adds, before explaining that only the staff have sustained minor burns.
Fire ramen is a dinner of rules. From the moment you arrive, sternly-worded instructions are barked at you from laminated scraps of paper on every wall and surface. The first rule is: “Please obey the rules”.
Stay seated no matter what. Put your bags under the counter. Don’t forget to pay (I wonder if the experience is so traumatizing that you forget basic social norms). Don’t make a fuss. Don’t run away. I immediately feel a defiant urge to make an elaborate scene and exit the building at speed…without paying.
The little restaurant is shabby and worn, but clean. It’s just a small kitchen behind a counter, with one row of seats for about 10 customers. Oil burns plaster the bar.
The brisk but friendly staff take our order from the sparse menu—there’s just one main item: green onion ramen (there’s a veggie option). You can add sides of fried rice, gyoza and fried chicken. We wisely order a few pints of cold Asahi.
We’re then given white paper bibs to cover our chests and legs. “Why are these made from paper?!” my friend whispers, wide-eyed. We’re told to put our hands well out of harm’s way and lean back, which, given you’re sitting on a backless stool, results in a fairly significant core workout.
One of the many rules is that you can’t take photos, presumably because you’ll end up with a broken oil-slicked phone and third-degree burns on your selfie hand. So the staff sling your phone in flimsy-looking bungee cord behind the bar, ready to film the whole sordid affair.
Fear begins to set in. I see a small child sitting at the other end of the bar looking unfazed, calmly working his way through a big bowl of noodles. If he can do this, surely I can? It seems like his eyebrows are relatively intact. But I tie back my hair just in case.
As we sit nervously under our paper bibs, the chef moves quickly down the line of diners, pouring blazing hot oil over our bowls of ramen. Huge flames engulf the whole bar. It is hot. It feels like my face is on fire. I check to make sure it’s not.
When the flames have subsided, the staff insists on taking your photo at an intensely unflattering angle. You’re instructed to dip your head, look up, smile crazily and mime shoveling noodles into your mouth.
Then you get to actually shovel noodles into your mouth, thankfully, because fire ramen is much more than a fiery gimmick. The dish is seriously good: smoky and textured, with a real depth of flavor.
It’s no wonder the master’s slogan is “no ramen, no life”, which you can buy—with a photo of him staring menacingly, arms crossed—on a button on your way out. Just don’t forget to pay.