One of Tokyo’s Most Extreme Ramen Styles Finds a Home in San Jose

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Bowl of ramen with an exorbitant amount of toppings: bean sprouts, chopped raw garlic, pork belly, pork fat and marinated egg.
Inspired by Tokyo's legendary Ramen Jiro, the Buta MAX at Ramen Champ in San Jose comes overloaded with decadent toppings. (Luke Tsai)

San Jose’s most extreme bowl of ramen comes topped with a mountain of bean sprouts so massive, you can barely see the broth underneath. Everything about the “Buta MAX” ramen at Ramen Champ is extra: the noodles and pork that are cut extra, extra thick. The vampire-murdering portion of raw garlic. The portion size, in general, abundant to the point of intimidation.

It’s a meal you would eat to prepare yourself for a long winter hibernation. And it also happens to be one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten this year.

Cloistered away in an anonymous South San Jose shopping plaza, in a city jam-packed with similar-looking strip malls, Ramen Champ is the only Bay Area ramen shop I’m aware of that specializes in what’s known in Japan as “Jiro-style” ramen. The restaurant is the creation of chef-owner Shogo Hara, who opened Ramen Champ in December of 2021 after spending the past several years working at other South Bay and Peninsula ramen shops while also running a bento box catering business.

“[Chef Shogo] wanted to have a different style of ramen, as opposed to the very neat-looking ramen styles,” explains Kento Takahashi, a Ramen Champ employee who helped translate for Hara and spoke on his behalf. “The Jiro style was very visually appealing.”

Exterior of a ramen restaurant. The sign reads "CHAMP" in bold yellow lettering, with "Japanese Ramen" in white underneath.
Ramen Champ is located in an anonymous-looking strip mall in San Jose. (Luke Tsai)

To really understand the legend of Jiro ramen, however, you have to trace the style back to its origins in Tokyo, where it enjoys a cult following that’s unusually fervent even in a nation of dedicated ramen heads. Yamada Takumi opened the original Ramen Jiro in the Meguro neighborhood in 1968, but the shop’s popularity didn’t take off until a few years later when it moved to a storefront near Keio University. There, it carved out a niche selling huge, relatively inexpensive bowls of ramen to frugal college kids. That in itself wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the specifics of the ramen style that Yamada developed were: the absurdly large mound of bean sprouts and cabbage, the raw garlic, the nubs of soft pork fat and generous quantity of braised pork belly, which came in big chunks instead of your typical sliced chashu.


Ramen Jiro soon came to be known as a quintessential soul food for Tokyo’s university students. The style is probably too heavy and rich — and the portions too large — for it to achieve broad mainstream popularity. (One skeptical Japanese food writer even speculated that 90 percent of the people in Japan don’t like Ramen Jiro.) But the shop has a legion of devotees who call themselves “Jirorians” and consider it a point of pride to visit all 42 of the restaurant’s current locations, each offering its own slight variation on the style. Online reviews tend to focus on what a monumental challenge it is to even finish the bowl.

“You either love it or you don’t,” says chef Tommy Cleary of San Francisco’s Hina Yakitori, who is a fan of the style. He first came across Ramen Jiro in 2009 when he was working as an apprentice at a yakitori restaurant in Tokyo.

“Being a lot younger, I was totally into eating huge amounts of food, and I was broke. Seeing [the Jiro ramen] was like looking at a piece of art for the first time,” he says, recalling how awestruck he was by the portion size. “I’ve never seen anything like it before or since — it’s a one-of-a-kind creation.”

The Bay Area has no shortage of stunt ramen — the five-pound bowl you have to finish within a fixed time limit in order to win a T-shirt,  or the various wallet-busting versions that come topped with every luxury ingredient under the sun.

Ramen Champ isn’t that kind of shop. The other more traditional styles that it offers, like its tonkotsu and its soupless, fat-slicked mazesoba, are all top of the line for the Bay Area. As for the Jiro-style Buta MAX, once I got past the shock factor of the portion size, all I could do was marvel at what a well balanced and artfully crafted bowl of ramen it was.

Like the original Jiro ramen, its foundation is a clear, shoyu (soy sauce-based) pork broth that’s surprisingly light on the palate. The little nubs of slow-simmered pork fat, perhaps the most luxurious of the toppings, serve a secondary function of flavoring the soup while it steeps, so that the broth becomes richer and more intense over the course of the meal. The noodles are custom-made by Iseya Craft Noodle, a Hayward-based noodle maker that provides fresh ramen noodles for a handful of top-tier Bay Area ramen shops. In the classic Jiro style, the noodles are thick and wide so that they can hold their texture while you work your way through the mountain of vegetables. They have a delightful bounce and chew that remind me of hand-pulled Chinese noodles.

A plate of sliced cucumber served as an appetizer.
A cucumber appetizer at Ramen Champ. (Luke Tsai)

Mostly, though, what makes the Buta MAX memorable are those toppings — the classic combination of well-seasoned bean sprouts and tender, fatty pork and the addicting pungency of the raw garlic, which keeps you coming back for another spoonful, and then another, until, to your great surprise, you’ve somehow managed to finish the entire massive bowl. By the time you trudge back to your car, slightly woozy, you’re already thinking about when you’ll come back.

Could such an extreme style of ramen be the next big food trend here in Northern California? In the copycat world of Bay Area ramen, stranger things have happened. Already, Ramen Champ’s Takahashi says, a couple of other South Bay ramen shops have added versions to their menu. But for now, their restaurant is the only one that truly specializes in the Jiro style.

“It’s our bestseller,” Takahashi says.


Ramen Champ is located at 6229 Santa Teresa Blvd. in San Jose. It opens at 11:30 a.m. daily — check the restaurant’s website for exact hours.