When making our initial plans for our 2015 Hong Kong trip, our dining options were significantly more fanciful and upmarket, including an ambitious plan to dine at no less than three separate restaurants with 3 Michelin Stars. The serious decline of the Australian dollar over the year really put a damper on those plans, and we realigned our meals to better reflect the changed economic situation. Thankfully, Hong Kong has many excellent restaurants at the more affordable end of the spectrum and we refocused our energies on trying many of the city's best bowls of Tonkotsu Ramen. Having tried Ichiran in 2013 (and revisited it as part of this trip) as well as the equally excellent Kamitora Ramen, Alissa and I decided to visit Butao - the noodle shop often credited as having started Hong Kong's Ramen Craze.
Back in its early days, Butao's shop in Central was like the original Tim Ho Wan - a simple hole in the wall that would lead to long Ichiran-style queues snaking down the street. Since then, Butao has expanded its operations to include 3 additional branches, and the original Central shop has moved to a larger premises befitting the restaurant's popularity.
The interior features a similarly typical Ramen Shop look to Kamitora, complete with stools surrounding the open kitchen and obligatory wood panelled walls. The restaurant is considerably larger than Kamitora, and featured a large table at the front of the restaurant that we were seated at.
Like Ichiran and Kamitora, Butao are specialists in Hakata-style Tonkotsu Ramen. Although they offer some fairly intriguing variations on the theme (including a Parmesan and Basil version!), we decided to keep it simple so we could make more direct comparisons between Butao and the other two stores. Alissa ordered their signature Butao Ramen, which features their Tonkotsu broth without any additional flavours. The broth was noticeably thicker than Ichiran and even Kamitora, and we agreed that it was heading towards the almost gravy-like thickness of Gumshara in Sydney. Accompanying the thickness of the broth was a serious depth of porky umami flavour that unsurprisingly split the difference between Ichiran's refined style and the intensity of Gumshara. This could definitely not be called a weak broth, and is the strongest Tonkotsu we've had in Hong Kong. The noodles were similar to both Ichiran and Kamitora and were not noticeable better or worse than either. The Chashu on the other hand was definitely superior at Butao, being exceptionally melt in your mouth slices of porky unctuousness. Finally, the marinaded Eggs were very good, even if they were just a touch behind the perfection of Kamitora.
Being a chilli fiend, I decided to order Red King, which is the Butao signature broth with the addition of a Chilli Bomb, Shimichi Togarachi and (presumably) Chilli Oil. The Resulting bowl was similar to their Standard bowl in all respects, expect for the spiciness level obviously being turned up. I always find the richness of a good bowl of Ramen can really take a considerable amount of heat without interfering with the broth's flavour, and the Red King was no exception. It wasn't the hottest bowl of Ramen I've had, but the heat levels were at the right level to give the dish and extra kick without being overwhelmingly hot.
The Verdict: Excellent +
Butao Ramen proved to us yet again just how serious Hong Kong's Ramen Scene is compared to most stalls Australia; this was the third Ramen in Hong Kong we've given an Excellent + rating, and only the fourth overall. Butao make a mean bowl of Ramen, with a rich, porky and collagen thick broth that was thicker than the competition at Ichiran and Kamitora, and some of the most impressive Chashu we have been served. Choosing between the three stalls would be hard however; I find Ichiran's broth more refined (but at the cost of a long queue), Kamitora to have a great all round bowl with the best Eggs we've had and Butao to have the second thickest Tonkotsu broth we've tried after Gumshara in Sydney. For those who like their broths as kotteri as possible, Butao would be your best bet. For everyone else, Butao's central location in Central still makes it an essential food pilgrimage stop for any Ramen fanatic visiting Hong Kong.