Ramen joint Ikkyu offers classic Japanese dishes and more

Try the spicy tuna don, volcano style.

Ramen is a centuries-old noodle dish. Making its way to the United States after World War II, it originated in China before gaining popularity in Japan, where regional variations of ramen, which translates to “noodles in broth,” are many. Some of those regional varieties have taken root in the U.S. In Tucson, Japanese restaurant Ikkyu is one of them.

Owners Hiro and Yukari Fujimoto opened Ikkyu in 2008 as a second location to Hiro’s fast-food Japanese restaurant Samurai, which he ended up selling in 2009 after 23 years of business to focus on Ikkyu.

“Ikkyu” was named after a famous Zen Buddhist monk. Located in the same plaza – by intent – as Lee Lee International Supermarket on Orange Grove, Hiro and Yukari opened Ikkyu with the simple goal of providing quick, popular, and affordable Japanese fare to guests. Although they offer an assortment of popular Japanese dishes like sushi and rice bowls (donburi), Thursday through Saturday are the only days ramen is available.

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The ramen broth is made from scratch starting with a pork and chicken broth before mixing it with one of three sauces: miso, shoyu, or tonkotsu. The miso sauce is made with fermented soybean paste, shoyu from soy, and tonkotsu from pork. The ramen noodles are then added, which sink to the bottom, often followed by chashu (thinly-sliced) pork, bamboo shoots, crispy thin slices of scallions, and petaled fish cake, or narutomaki, for topping.

Ikkyu’s Shoyu ramen is deep, earthy, and salty, and lustrous with rich oil. It’s also the simplest of their ramen dishes. The miso ramen offers a heavier broth, creamy and opaque from the fermented soybean paste, while the slurp-able tonkotsu features a thick and potent cloudy broth that spent extra time soaking up flavor from the pork, gathering heat for a beautifully complex bowl of spicy soup.

During the warm months, Ikkyu offers cold ramen with chashu, egg, cucumber, crab stick, seaweed, and ginger, topped with sesame sauce instead of a broth. It’s more of a chilled noodle salad than a soup.

Aside from Ikkyu’s ramen, favorites include the spicy tuna don, volcano style. The spicy tuna don is fresh, finely chopped tuna with spicy mayo on a bed of white rice topped with sweet, tangy eel sauce, tempura flakes, and thin strips of seaweed. Additionally, teriyaki chicken, stir-fried yakisoba noodles, neatly portioned bento boxes, and Japanese style curry is available.

The Fujimotos return to Japan every summer to visit family and research newly-popular dishes to keep their restaurants up to date. They find that sushi and ramen remain timeless favorites. In the future, Yukari says she wants to keep all the favorite items on the menu that guests have grown to love but also sees room for some new additions to the menu.

Besides the variety of familiar dishes, Hiro and Yukari pride themselves in running their business differently. Customers order at the counter — each meal generally less than $10 — and they don’t accept tips. Yukari says she would rather have people save money and come back again than leave a tip. Orders are ready within a few minutes and guests are expected to bus their own tables. Servings are filling and served on simple tableware in an unpretentious space. Most of the work is done behind the counter with a focus on preparation and a speedy ticket time once an order is placed.

Yukari Fujimoto is incredibly grateful for the network of people who have made Ikkyu not only possible, but successful, from her 16-person staff to her customers. Advertising is mostly just word of mouth. Ikkyu’s premise is simple: comfortable and quick, but still special.

“I appreciate the customers who come to Ikkyu to eat,” Yukari said.

Ikkyu is located at 2040 W. Orange Grove Rd. # 180. For more information, call (520) 297-9011 or visit ikkyutucson.com.

Meredith O'Neil is a barista and radio host who likes to ride bikes and spend time with her spaniel, George.