Monday, February 17, 2014

Restaurant Review: Butao 豚王

Location: Wellington Street, Central
Type of food: Japanese ramen
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

In 2010, restaurateur Chandler Tang recruited chef Ikuta Satoshi (生田智志) and opened a small ramen shop on a back alley in Lan Kwai Fong. Butao, one of the few authentic ramen joints in Hong Kong at the time, had only 15 seats and served no more than 200 bowls of Hakata-style (博多) noodles daily. The queue outside the hole-in-the-wall would snake around the block and the wait time would average 90 minutes. 

The creation of Butao marked the beginning of a citywide ramen craze in Hong Kong and its success didn’t go unnoticed. Tang not only inspired local copycats but also invited competition from Japan, including the country’s largest noodle restaurant chain Ippudo (一風堂), which now runs five locations across the city.  

Butao on Wellington Street

Not to be outdone by Ippudo, Butao has branched out to Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Shatin. A fifth shop is being planned for one of the “new towns” in the New Territories. Last July, the Central restaurant moved to a bigger space on Wellington Street, doubling its seating and making it easier to get to. 

This past Friday I visited the Wellington Street shop at 11:00 am to beat the rush. I got seated at the counter without incident and chatted with the friendly staff about the ramen revolution in Hong Kong and how citizens are willing to wait hours just for a bowl of noodles. One of the staff members offered me a tip: arrive before 11:45 am, which is when the line starts to get insanely long.  

No gimmick, just good noodles

At Butao, an order of ramen with a half-boiled egg costs just over $100. The thin noodles, characteristic of the Hakata area, are cooked al dente, although the hardness can be adjusted according to the customer’s preference indicated on the order form. The creamy tonkotsu () soup base is MSG-free and prepared overnight in a factory in the New Territories for at least eight hours. Other soup base options include the black (squid ink), the red (chili oil) and the green (olive oil and grated cheese). Every day, the chef serves 30 bowls of the daily special, which changes once a month. 

Butao gets my vote as one of the best ramen shops in the city. I give it high marks for the authenticity it offers, not only of the food but also of the experience of slouching over a dimly lit counter and slurping steaming hot noodles without fanfare or fuss. Ramen is not a gimmick and a ramen shop doesn't need to become a theme park. Butao understands that.

The original location in Lan Kwai Fong

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