This place is truly a godsend, a perfect opportunity to get away from the Western World in the middle of the work day and pop into a Japanese ramen-ya to feel a little bit local for an hour. Conveniently located on Wo On Ln in Central, a 5 minute walk from the bustling brand-clad Queen’s Road, Butao King gives one a chance to forget about work for a few minutes, enjoy life through flavor, and leave feeling satisfied, happy and whole. I’ve gone here several times and it’s always been pretty much the same, simply brilliant.
The restaurant is a shoebox-sized hole in the wall with 3 small tables and a bar facing the matchbox-sized kitchen in the back. Across the street from the place is a line of people waiting to occupy the 10-12 seats therein, kept hydrated with a very helpful staff member bringing out complementary ice-water. While you wait, you are handed a little form on which you are asked to fill out your preferences on which type of broth you want (plain, spicy, basil pesto or squid ink), the texture you want you noodles served, how much oil you want and, interestingly, how powerful you want the flavor to be. You can also specify whether you want extra of anything. I usually tick “little” for oil and “a lot” for flavor, but normal for everything else. The stuff is perfect already. I’ve tried all four of the soups at the place and not one of the, have let me down.
Once you’re in, you’re part of it. The experience is a loud one. The chefs and the 3 waiters yell things back and forth almost constantly, their shouts punctuating the slurping of restaurant patrons. The place is cramped. People are close together and the already tiny eating surfaces are full of chopsticks and containers of pickled bean-sprouts and chili pastes. The two chefs in the back work tirelessly to feed the hungry masses and they move around in that tiny kitchen gracefully, as if entwined in some sort of beautiful noodle-making waltz. And the stuff that comes out of there… artistry every time.
There are four main types of ramen dishes served at Butao King but each of them are adjustable, customizable even.
Butao King: Although this one is considered the “basic,” there is nothing simple about the harmony and complexity of flavors and textures within. The tonkotsu pork bone broth is absolutely wonderful, comforting and creamy. The thing resonates with flavor, conducting the essence of the pork without actual BEING pork in much the same way as bone marrow does when roasted. This is probably the result of the chefs allowing the bone to give up everything it’s got flavorally to the liquid around it, by interacting with it for 20 hours cooking time. The collagen from the bone and the starch from the noodles within thicken the sauce, giving it a beautiful glossy, rich texture to support that beautiful meaty flavor. The Hakata-style noodles are incredible as well. They are, first of all, white like they should be and unlike the yellow stuff you normally get in inauthentic versions. They are incredibly thin and cooked perfectly. The first bite always seems a bit too al dente to me (probably for the Western palate) but it becomes evident after 3 bites that this initial reaction is only an unfortunately side effect of too many past bowls of overcooked noodles, easy to chew, easy to swallow flabs of wet dough lazily slobbered down without taking a second to appreciate the texture. These noodles are different. One bites these noodles, cuts them with incisors and chews the mass of them before swallowing. The starch boiling in the broth makes the exterior of each noodle a tiny bit slippery, allowing them to stick together and move down your throat with ease. The Chāshū (Japanese style pork, rolled into a log, braised in red wine and a bit of soy sauce at a low temperature and sliced thin) is also heavenly. Super thin, beautifully marbled, lean. Hate this expression but it really does melt in one’s mouth leaving nothing but a bit of flesh-fiber fizz and wonderful pork flavor. The small heap of black fungus added a bit of a crunch while the big mound of chopped spring onions freshened up the heavy flavors of the broth.
To enrich your ramen-slurping experience even more, add a ni-tamago to your soup as an extra. Ni-tamago is a traditional Japanese-style egg which is soft boiled in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, ginger and sesame oil, sliced in two and served as a soup topping. The white becomes fluffy but firm, and the yolk becomes bright orange and incredibly gooey, velvety smooth and luxuriously thick. Some Butao guests are civilized enough to dunk the egg into the broth, allowing the yolk to “flavor” it as well as add its own texture to the soup as a whole. For me this is far too large a sacrifice. I can’t help eating the thing off the top of the soup, biting into the egg and then slurping out the yolk, savoring each drop and preventing it to get lost in the broth. Besides, the broth, as I’ve mentioned, is already perfect. It needs no thickener or flavor-donor. Egg on the side, please.
Green King: This is the funky Italian-fused version of the stuff which, while is very creative and delicious, is a bit too much for me. But that’s just because for me the Butao King itself is already complex and perfect and adding more elements to it puts me on an acid trip of flavors which overexcites me more than it does soothe my soul. This version is made with basil pesto mixed into the broth and pork fat and olive oil drizzled over the top. What results is a super-thick, creamy, herbal, deliciously fatty broth. What makes it even more naughty is the copious amount of dry, grated cheese sprinkled over the top, cheese which melts beautifully into the fat, mixes with the basil flavor of the pesto and makes everything that much more luscious, salty and oily-rich. While I do immensely enjoy the first few bites and sips of this variety, towards the middle of the bowl it starts feeling like a bowl of pasta with pesto sauce instead of ramen. The clarity of the broth, which to me is the most essential part of this dish, is lost.
Red King: This one is a little intense and is guaranteed to leave you, as it did me, red in the face and drenched in some of that healthy, toxin-ridding sweat. The base of the broth is the same as that of the original Butao King but mixed in are a wild array of hot spices, chiles and mature miso. One knows after the first spoon-full of the broth that consuming this soup will involve a bit of suffering but one consumes every last drop, regardless, because it is wonderfully flavorful and because that addictively comforting fatty pork flavor lingers in the background, threatened but not conquered by the heat of the flavoring. In the center of the bowl is a delicious, mushy ball of miso which resembles, in texture, a very soft minced meat ball. It is topped off with dry red miso which gives it a salty umame punch. The rest of the soup is similar to the other 3 characters – thin, fall-apart chāshū pork, crispy green Chinese onion (scallions?) and more of that perfectly cooked, slippery, slurp-able Hakata noodle. After a blase morning at the office, this soup is sure to wake you up and get your blood pumping. Just be sure to order plenty of water to go with it!
Black King: The most menacing off all the kings. The pork broth is dyed jet-black with squid ink which gives an incredibly subtle marine flavor, as if the essence of shellfish were extracted from the squid and mixed in with the pork. Kind of the same idea as when scallops are wrapped in bacon or when linguiça/chorizo is used to flavor Portuguese seafood stews, except the other way around. Here, the pork flavor (through the broth) is still the main character but the oh-so-subtle minerally, marine brine of the ink gives it a little something extra. The surface looks a bit too oily but it actually isn’t – the broth needs that much oil for it to truly shine and at no point does it feel particularly heavy. As in the Red King, a ball of mushy, soft, moist miso in the middle graces the bowl and is topped with a bit of dried miso sprinkled on. This adds a depth of earthy flavor, a bit of salt and an awesome textural contrast to the dish. The Chāshū behaves the same as in the other kings and the Chinese onions and fungus add a freshness and a crunch in the same way as well.
Every experience I’ve had at Butao King so far has been wonderful. It’s a bit of a lunch-time sanctuary where no one talks while eating. Instead, guests focus on their food, sucking and slurping up the noodles, chewing the delicious Chāshū, scooping up and savoring each drop of that wonderfully complex broth. I don’t know how much longer the place will stay as it is – small, exclusive, specific – or how much longer the Chef will stay in Hong Kong at all, but I hope it is for many more years to come, so that I can recommend this place to any and all who visit Hong Kong and rest assured that they will also have a great experience there.