Updated: May 13, 2022
Three cheers for the life after lockdown! One of the things I have missed most over most of the past 16 months is being able to get out and go to eat my favourite foods. A little while ago, on a Thursday lunchtime, I visited Heddon Yokocho which opened last autumn in Heddon St. in London's West End on the site of the former Sakagura, the rather pricey Japanese steak restaurant and sake bar. Heddon St. is tucked away off of Regent St, so it is a good location for a lunch break from shopping or maybe a pre-or post-show meal. Heddon Yokocho joins a fairly select bunch of eateries in Heddon St. including Gordon Ramsey's Heddon St. Kitchen and Piccolino, a higher end Italian restaurant.
Higher end, Heddon Yokocho is not. The clue is in the name - in Japanese, 'yokocho" means an alley or small side street - the kind of place where in many Japanese cities, you find little ramen shops and bars tucked away, each having their own specialities and regular, faithful clientele. Heddon Yokocho is decked out to resemble a Japanese 70's or 80's yokocho ramen bar - there are lots of Japanese language signs fixed to the walls to offer that little bit of authenticity. It's cheap, colourful and fun - I liked the feel of the place - bright, tacky unpretentious. There is seating outside - 10 small tables - then for about 30 on the ground floor inside and more in the basement. The basement offers the novelty of a row of little booths set up along a counter where individual diners can enjoy a little solitude, alone with their chosen bowl of noodles. This part of the restaurant appeared to be closed when we visited - there were only two diners downstairs and they both appeared to be staff eating their pre-shift lunch.
We ate outside where I became a little bit mesmerised by the robotic ramen bowl at the entrance - this is a clever ploy - it almost acts as a beacon attracting diners - even if you can't see any obvious signage advertising Heddon Yokocho to passers-by (which you can't because there isn't any) the noodles rising and falling from their bowl is a dead giveway that you've found the right place. (Click on the video on the right and you'll see what I mean.) The tables outside were a little close together but clean and, best of all, no piped music just the gentle chatter of the other diners. (I think we ate early enough to escape the J-Pop). We had to wait a little while to be given menus but not so long that it became a distraction. The waitress was pleasant, apologised for the wait and asked if we suffered from any allergies.
What did we eat?
We ordered the following:
Kumamoto Tonkotsu ramen (photo left)
Takoyaki deep fried octopus balls
The takoyaki octopus balls arrived first which was fine as we wanted to share them as a starter. The two bowls of ramen arrived around 10 minutes later, so timing-wise we couldn't complain.
How did the food score?
Takoyaki deep fried octopus balls 5/10
There were 6 octopus balls presented in a small cardboard tray. They were presented with a little beni shoga (Japanese red pickled ginger) on the side, some drizzled Japanese mayo and brown sauce and a good sprinkling of katsuobushi bonito flakes. Everything was looking good. We each popped one expectantly into our mouths. Flavour-wise the takoyaki balls were OK, if a little too firm on the inside - takoyaki should be crisp on the outside but have a contrasting loose, runny inside apart from the pieces of takoyaki. Which brings me on to the tako (the little diced pieces of octopus) - where were those pieces of tako? My co-diner identified two small pieces in the three takoyaki he ate. I got one piece in three. That was a disappointment - £8 for six takoyaki and only three small pieces of octopus to show for it.
Conclusion: For £8, I really do expect to find more tako in my takoyaki!
Tantanmen noodles 5/10
Tantanmen is a Japanese adaption of the Chinese dish, Dandanmen. The latter dish is from the Chinese province of Sichuan and as you would expect of a Sichuan dish, it is quite spicy, the noodles being flavoured with chilli oil. The Japanese version of the dish isn't so hot and the noodles sit in a spicy (but not sooo spicy) chicken stock broth mixed with soya milk and a sesame paste which give a slightly oily texture and a nutty flavour and enriches the broth.
So, how did Heddon Yokocho's version stand up? The bowl came full to the brim with broth and noodles, topped with minced pork, two large pak choi leaves, a boiled egg, some menma fermented bamboo and some bean sprouts - a generous serving, no doubt about that. There was also a large red chilli pepper sitting menacingly on the top of the minced pork.
How did it taste? I have to say I struggled to get anywhere near finishing this bowl. I left over half of the soup and quite a lot of the noodles. Why? It was way too oily! The spiciness was on the verge of being too hot for a Japanese dish but I could live with that (the chilli pepper was judiciously removed before I started eating). But the broth was so over done with sesame - I suspect the soup is made using raw sesame/tahini paste - that it was too thick and oily to eat very much of it. I've eaten Tantanmen many times in Japan and I've eaten the "original" dish in Sichuan - the Heddon Yokocho version is spicy enough that it is more like the Chinese version than the Japanese (nothing bad about that per se) but I fear even a hardened Sichuanese diner might baulk at the oiliness of the soup/broth.
Conclusion: The serving was generous and had all the right ingredients but the broth was so oily that it spoilt the experience.
Kumamoto Tonkotsu ramen 5/10
Kumamoto Tonkotsu is a dish from the south western city of Kumamoto which sits just inland from the coast on the island of Kyusuhu. My well travelled co-diner can claim to have eaten "the real thing" several times during a stay on Kyusuhu and in Kumamoto itself. Kumamoto Tonkotsu is a dish made from a rich pork broth (although many Kyushu ramen bars use a pork/chicken broth) enhanced with black garlic oil. Like the Tantanmen dish, the Kumamoto Tonkotsu came filled to the brim with all the right ingredients - 3 slices of charshu pork, a whole boiled egg, nori, spring onions, beansprouts, fried garlic, shredded kombu - it looked like a feast in a bowl.
How did it taste? My co-diner initially commented on the pork slices being rich and tasty. Things took a turn for the worse when he tried to eat the shredded kelp, which seemed to be very tough and leathery. The boiled egg - so so - it was very hard boiled. Ramen eggs should not be hard boiled - the yoke should be soft and oozy - what the Japanese call "hanjuku". The egg white should be brown from being steeped for hours in a soy marinade. It rarely happens that way outside of Japan so I've given up on expecting it but if you're going to claim yokocho authenticity, a proper hanjuku egg would be a good way to show it. So to the noodles and the soup. Unfortunately, my co-diner came to the same conclusion that I had come to. The ramen soup/broth was far too thick and oily. That isn't too say it was rich - in fact, we both struggled to find any taste in what was essentially just a thick, oily emulsion. This bowl remained unfinished too.
Conclusion: My co-diner almost never leaves a dish uneaten but couldn't stomach finishing his bowl.
Takoyaki £ 8.00
Tantan Men Ramen £14.50
Kumamoto Tonkotsu £13.90
Summary: I've read some rave reviews about Heddon Yokocho, even some from "professional" food critics - so I was disappointed with the food put in front of me. There seems to be a kind of macho culture around ramen these days where the soup/broth has to be as thick and oily as it can possibly be to satisfy expectant diners (how many days were those bones simmered to make that stock?) There's one, big problem with this approach - authentic Japanese ramen dishes just don't taste like this. If you want to eat something thick and oily to the point where you might leave the table feeling a little queasy, then Heddon Yokocho's ramen might be the place for you. If you want to enjoy a food experience that gets close to the authenticity of the "real thing" then I'd advise you to try Kanada-Ya, Shoryu (which ironically is also owned by the owner of Heddon Yokocho!) or maybe Koya instead. (All three alternatives are only a 10 - 15 minute walk away.) This really is a shame because the concept and ambience behind Heddon Yokocho is both clever and entertaining. So what is going wrong with the ramen here? As I said above, Heddon Yokocho is operated by the same people who run the very successful (and consistently good) Shoryu chain, so I find it hard to believe they are getting their kitchen recipes wrong. Was it the kitchen staff? Maybe they were having a bad day? I have to say, the two cooks on duty did look very young and and not too involved in the task at hand. I am sure it wouldn't require too much re-training of the staff to produce ramen dishes that are far better and closer to the "real thing" (and dare I say more healthy) than the fare they are currently serving up to their customers. Last word: for almost £15 per bowl, I expect a treat in a bowl and I didn't get it at Heddon Yokocho.
Food: ★★☆☆☆ Ambience: ★★★★☆ Value for Money: ★★☆☆☆
You can find Heddon Yokocho at 8 Heddon St., London W1B 4BU. Reservations via
thefork.co.uk and delivery via Ubereats and deliveroo
(PS: the restaurants I review are unaware that I am reviewing their fare and service. I pay for what I eat. My opinions are honest and unbiased....)
But why not make it yourself?
We all love to dine out. But don't forget you can make Japanese food at home which will not only taste as good or better than what you eat out (or order in) and for a fraction of the cost too! I've listed two recipes below for items I ordered during my review. Why not give them a try? Just follow the links to the written recipes and Youtube tutorials.
Recipe #1 : If you want to find a recipe for a pukka Japanese "hanjuku" pickled egg, you need look no further than my recipe for hanjuku eggs. If you want to see my Youtube tutorial, it's here: hanjuku eggs.
Remember, you don't have to have your egg "hanjuku" (semi-soft), just boil it for the full 6 minutes if you prefer a harder boiled version! Either way, once you've steeped your boiled eggs in their soy marinade, they'll have the proper brown colouration and added flavour for whatever dish you choose to add them to. (You might even earn some culinary cred points from friends and family as well!)
Recipe #2 : If you are interested in Japanese food and don't mind making a little investment, you could be making your own takoyaki in no time! My recipe for making your own is here: takoyaki. If you want to check out the Youtube tutorial here: takoyaki. I guarantee that once you have made your own little octopus balls, there'll be no going back! If you can't source fresh octopus where you live, crab sticks / seafood sticks make a great (and much cheaper) alternative. (Of course, you don't have to stop at octopus or crab sticks, there are lots of other ingredients you can pop in to your takoyaki maker, once you've got the hang of using it!)
If you decide you want to buy your own takoyaki maker, you can find an excellent quality Iwatani brand takoyaki maker by popping over to my Goods section.
(PS: I. make a small commission from sales like this which contribute to the upkeep of my this website.)
About the reviewer.
Hi, I'm Kurumi, a cooking writer and blogger. I'm Japanese but I have lived in London for the last
30 thirty years. Back in the days before the internet, I was a food writer. My first book published in English was called Japanese Cooking for Two which I wrote in 1994. It has become the 9th best selling Japanese cookbook ever… yaaay!
My other books were ‘The Noodle Cookbook”, “The Soy for Health Cookbook” and “Healthy Noodles.” I also published a book in Japanese “English Home Cooking”. Then I had children and my life changed!
By the time my children had grown up, the world had changed quite a lot too! Internet, Youtube, Insta etc. So, these days, instead of books, I publish recipe and articles on my website and on my Youtube channel. I hope you'll check out my recipes - they are all tried and tested (some more times than I care to mention!) until I think you will get them right first time when you make them and enjoy eating them.
If you’d like to read more about me or my books, then copy and paste the link here:
Happy eating! Kurumi XXXX.