神座 (Kamukura) - vegetarian beware!
This ramen shop, four blocks from Tsutaya / Starbucks on centa-gai in Shibuya had caught my eye a number of times. Due to their use of pork stock as a base, conventional ramen shops are generally just a no go, as there are no veggie options or easy ways to modify this dish to make it veggie-friendly. What made this place stand out was a large English sign hanging under their menu that claimed their ramen could be made without pork on request. I consulted with a staff member on our way in, who assured me that as their soup stock was shoyu (soy sauce), based and meat free, there would be no meat or fish used whatsoever if I gave the "no pork" instruction.
We headed in, took a seat at the counter, and started to catch up, talking about how our lives had evolved in the 3 years since we'd last met. Our ramen arrived and we dug in. One thing I liked about this place was that there were a number of add ons you could make to your meal. I always find ramen a bit lacking in the vegetable department, so I appreciated that for 100¥, I could get a little side of bean sprouts to top up my dish. It was fairly tasty, though I'm happy to report, I found it no match for the veggie ramen offered by Loving Hut, T's Tan Tan, or (my favorite) Cafe Proverbs 15:17 in Kyoto or their Tokyo sister Kickback Cafe.
I was satisfied by the experience until, near the end of the bowl, my chopsticks pulled up a little chunk of something distinctly meaty. It was an unhappy end to the meal, but I tried not to let it kill the good vibes the evening. I now regret leaving the restaurant without saying anything. I was struggling to think of a polite way to explain in Japanese that I was really disappointed by the apparent lack of care that let a chunk of pork slip into a meal that was promised to be without. Other than being upsetting for vegetarians, this kind of thing could be a really big deal for those whose religions forbid eating pork, or people with allergies. Alas, I couldn't think of a good way to explain this without making too much of a scene, so we just left. As for the reason the pork ended up in my ramen, my guess is that they do in fact use a vegetarian, shoyu base, but that they're not particularly careful with the utensils they use to transfer ingredients around. Which is something they might want to work on if they're going to display a huge "we can cook every noodle without pork" sign.
On a more positive note, I'm glad to say this is only the third such incident I've had in my 3 years in Japan, and given that I've done a whole lot of dining out, I consider it not too bad an error rate. So I suppose my conclusion is that if it's important for you to feel sure you are digging into a meat free ramen, you are advised to give 神座 (Kamukura) a miss.
* Hachiko is a popular meeting spot in front of Shibuya station, named after a famously loyal dog.