It's more than 40ºC on a hot summer's day in Dubai when I make my way down to Al Mina. The sweltering heat, I notice, does not deter true-blue foodies from queuing up outside a modest Japanese restaurant, a veritable hidden gem, in Wasl Port Views.
It's not a cold dessert these eager diners are lining up for, either, but rather a simmering bowl of ramen, sometimes even drizzled with spicy oil to up the ante.
IchiRyu credits its success – and that of its signature noodle soup – to social media.
“The response has been overwhelmingly good,” says co-owner Karl De Guzman.
However, he admits the “overnight fame” brought on by videos that quickly went viral posed a challenge, as the team had to cater for a higher number of diners and maintain quality and taste. The restaurant has been open for less than three months.
Thankfully, the Filipino entrepreneur hasn't been manning the ship alone. Instead, he works with his brothers, the restaurant's two other owners. Each brings his own expertise that keeps the ramen house running smoothly.
With his experience in events management, Karl is the brains of the operation and ensures smooth service on the floor.
Nicolai, the youngest of the three, is the creative eye, whose love of anime comes through in the restaurant's catchy design. His own collection of Gundam figurines and other Japanese pop culture artefacts dominate the venue.
“This is like a gallery of my own collection,” says Nicolai, who is wearing a stylish grey kimono accessorised with a wood-bead necklace on the day I visit.
At the heart of the restaurant is chef Raul, who speaks fluent Japanese and has mastered the art of ramen-making having spent 16 years in Japan immersing himself in its culture and solidifying his love of the country's food.
“When I had my first ramen in Makati in the Philippines, I knew I wanted to learn how to make it and have my own ramen shop one day,” says Raul, who named the restaurant after his son Ryu.
He moved to Japan in 1990, when he got a scholarship for an electrical engineering course. Despite being busy with his studies, his ramen dreams didn't fade away and he tried to wiggle his way into the local restaurant scene.
“I tried working at a ramen shop, but they weren't hiring Filipinos at the time,” he says. Then Raul met a Japanese chef who agreed to teach him how to make an authentic broth. Raul spent years mastering the art of cooking the noodle dish, then set about establishing a chain of 12 ramen restaurants in Cebu in the Philippines over the past decade.
On the menu
IchiRyu serves everything from small bites to desserts, but the main event is ramen. Variations include shiro paitan white broth; spicy tantanmen; and midori paitan with pesto.
I sample the tantanmen, and can attest that it justifies the long queues and the trip to Al Mina. The broth is packed with umami flavour and is a testament to the hours of simmering each soup goes through.
The restaurant also blends its own red iced tea infused with mint, which adds a refreshing kick to the otherwise saccharine drink.
What has also boosted the ramen house's popularity on social media is its solo dining area made up of bocchi seki or "lonely seats" in a sectioned-off booth. At first, the De Guzman brothers were hesitant about incorporating this popular Japanese concept because dining in Dubai is typically a “social thing”.
But the reception has been phenomenal, they say, and it has fuelled their plans of replicating the concept in other locations.
Love letter to Japan
There is something almost electric in the rapport the brothers share, and they all agree that IchiRyu is, first and foremost, a labour of love.
In many ways, their story is a reflection of the greater Filipino diaspora, a significant portion of whom are in the Middle East as well as Japan.
The trio's passion for Japanese culture is heavily reflected in the way they run IchiRyu, from the look of the place, which has a faux cherry blossom tree, to the attention to detail that chef Raul infuses in his culinary creations.
Being the sons of a Filipino migrant worker in Japan, the trio recall growing up with vibrant memories of their father's life in the East Asian country.
“I was only seven years old when I mastered the use of chopsticks,” says Nicolai with a chuckle. “My father would tell us stories about how beautiful Japan is – its culture, its people, its food.”
IchiRyu, then, is the trio's love letter to Japan, a country that has been generous to their family over the years. “Our Japanese diners are touched just seeing how a non-Japanese person can give so much respect and tribute to their culture,” says Nicolai.
“Designing the place came so easy to me because I was simply enjoying myself,” he adds.
When asked if they run into occasional disagreements, the three brothers unanimously shake their heads. Karl says their close-knit upbringing and collective struggles have never allowed them to seriously fall out. There is intermittent bickering, he says, but “at the end of the day, we all meet in the middle”.
“It's about the love and the respect we have for each other. We keep in mind that whatever decision one makes is for the ultimate good of the business.”