Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.
Out in Changning Qu, on the northernmost tip of Gubei road, right before it ends at a bridge that will take you into Putuo, lies a strip of Japanese izakayas occupying a "temporary" structure that's four years old. The first time I passed Ji Zhou Tonkotsu Ramen
, I was a bit intimidated. Deep black wooden planks adorn the exterior and the only writing is on a pair of lanterns. It looks like a dojo, or a secret meeting place for the sizable Japanese expat population living nearby.
That was back in 2011, when proprietor Mr. Liu first set up shop with his two Japanese business partners that he met while attending university in Wakayama prefecture. While at school, the friends formed a bond and hatched a business plan to one day open up an authentic shoyu tonkotsu ramen joint in China to capitalize on the growing Chinese economy and the closely guarded ramen recipe his Japanese friend held.
Let me just get this out of the way: The tonkotsu ramen at Ji Zhou is a beautiful display of minimalist perfection. What you have before you are just five components: rich layered pork broth, springy alkaline noodles, house made charshou, beansprouts, and scallions. Four years after their inception, the quality holds firm, although the same can’t be said for the exterior décor, which has since weathered like a neglected ship.
At first, Mr. Liu is hesitant to give too much information about the process of making the incredibly rich broth, laden with good collagen, fats and protein. But the more I expressed my fondness of the product, the more excited he was share the intricate details that go into the painstakingly slow 12-hour process of creating the tonkotsu base.
While local ramen chains such as Ajisen and Ippudo
strive to capture a predominately Chinese market (largely by pushing ramen creations that have every ingredient topping imaginable and therefore resemble a pig trough), Ji Zhou stuck to the basics done right and in the beginning, the clientèle was 90% Japanese. They are finally seeing a good mix of locals and expats prior to 11pm, but from 11pm onwards, it is overwhelmingly Japanese salarymen, flush in the face and arms linked around their KTV hostess that they have wrangled in for a midnight meal. It is a Izakaya after all. If you don’t mind the second hand smoke and rambunctious atmosphere, I can’t think of many better spots to grab a bite at 2am.
The space at Ji Zhou is small and cozy, with seating for 35 on the first level, and another 20 up top. Ramen isn’t the only game here; they also put out some pretty decent yakitori and kushiyaki. There is Asahi and Kirin on draft, 15rmb for a regular and 19rmb for a large. Bottled Japanese beers come in at around 23rmb, and there is a well-curated list of drinkable yet inexpensive sake. The charshou ramen with a few extra slices of melt-in-your-mouth charshou pork belly comes in at a reasonable 40rmb. A black pepper shaker is served with each bowl, and I highly recommend you be liberal with its application -- a hot bowl of this broth with an abundance of black pepper will chase away even the nastiest winter ailments.
As for future plans, this location was only meant to be a temporary construction, and they plan on finally tearing it down in about 12 months. So, one year left for Ji Zhou at this location, and they are actively searching for a new spot nearby. But for now, they are open late for you to come in with a thirst, a hunger, a date, or all three. They will feed and ply you with drinks till you’re deep into the wee hours of irresponsibility, and I applaud them for doing so.