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Toyako's Robot Ramen

This cute robot in a shabby Hongkou mall is making ramen, but it's not that good.
Jan 19, 2016 | 15:24 Tue
It seems like ramen robot technology hasn't changed much since the early 2000s. The two robots at Toyako Ramen, or robot arms, to be precise, don't seem so different from their ramen robot ancestors. There have been a few noticeable upgrades, however. These are next generation. Now, your ramen robots have two bright and shiny eyes, a thinner, sleeker body, and can 'speak' in Chinese.

Local and western dinning media platforms have given plenty of exposure to this newly opened Shanghai ramen shop in Hongkou, but the question remains: Is it actually good?

Robot Ramen is located in a half empty shopping mall called North Bund Center (北外滩中心), about a 5-minute walk from Tilanqiao station (提篮桥), Line 12. It is the most worn-out 'new' shopping mall we've seen for awhile. It looks like it's from a third-tier city: creaking sounds emanating from the escalator, fake flowers and weird decorations everywhere, random worldly French quotes on the wall, no toilet papers in the restroom, and you can actually still smoke inside the mall with impunity.

Once you set foot in the restaurant, the tackiness is still noticeable, despite the fact that Toyako had their first restaurant in the fancy Hengshan Boutiques. The place is like a sci-fi-themed Japanese restaurant. Waitresses are dressed up in loose-fitting, cheap-looking kimonos and waiters are decked out in suits. Outdated Japanese love songs play quietly in the background. The cool hands of robot technology are dutifully at work in the kitchen.

Although the restaurant looks cheap, these robots are most certainly not -- they cost more than a million yuan, apparently. They can only make one specific dish -- braised pork ramen, in less than two minutes.

Actually, the process is less like cooking and more like quickly and carefully assembling ingredients together according to a system: drop ramen in the boiling water, pour the soup into the bowl, drain the noodles and put it in as well, add the pre-cooked egg, bamboo shots and pork, push the dish out and that's it. Then, a waiter delivers the ramen to your table. Now if only they have a trolley robot to get rid of the human component entirely...

During the process, the robots spout out comments like "Everyone is looking at us!" "I've worked 25 hours a day!" and "Please give us a round of applause!" in a funny voice.

We have to admit, when the robots are in action, the room did feel a bit more electrifying. People would stop eating and walk towards the window with their phones already pulled out of their pockets. On our visit, a kid would stared at the fast-moving arms in awe every time robots started to make ramen, completely fascinated.

As for the braised pork ramen itself, which costs 58rmb for a bowl, it's not bad. Under the purplish light, everything looked a bit lifeless, the pork and the medium-boiled egg are slightly colder than the noodles, but the broth is rich, savory. The pork is tender enough, although it's more of a fatty cut, and tasted a little gamy.

Their seafood ramen -- made by outdated human chefs -- came out just a couple of minutes later. It wasn't poorly done either. Shrimps and squid rings were not stale, and the soup tasted alright. Side dishes like the smashed cucumbers (16rmb) and chilled tofu (12rmb) are just tolerable.

Toyako's Robot Ramen would definitely benefit more had they not taken up a location in that horrible shopping mall. We won't go back, that's for sure. But in an era when us humans still treat robots like second-class citizens (i.e. see the poor fate of the hitchhiking robot HitchBOT), or simply ignore them, like the talking crosswalk poles on Huaihai Lu, it's cool to have them displayed so closely to consumers, and with such admiration.

These two robots could be the beginning of a glorious chapter in 'Consumer AI History'. Let's just hope restaurant owners treat them respect, lest they righteously rise up and make us all obsolete for our collective inefficiencies...


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