Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'M ONLY IN TOWN FOR THE RAMEN



Santouka Ramen in Vancouver


Ramen noodle shops are few in Calgary, so while I was in Vancouver for the Slop Press launch party, I made a point of visiting Hokkaido Ramen Santouka on Robson. Not much bigger than a closet, it's a cosy place. The kitchen is glassed in, keeping soupy steam contained and the cooking process visible. Handkerchiefed cooks diced pork and green onion, hoisted hot noodles using chopsticks and poured ladels full of hot broth into waiting bowls.

My unfailingly sweet waitress brought a stand-up caddy for my neighbour's purse and coat, then served me a hot bowl of tan tan men ($10.95), the restaurant's winter-only special soup. Painterly in complexion, oblong chilli blobs, topped its grainy sesame broth. Contrasting the red-orange oil and almost purple broth, was a generous handful of chopped green onion. A small island of crumbled pork was done up with a wild pinch of saffron.

The smooth spicy-warm broth was pure flavour. My side of aji-tama ($1.45), a boiled egg chopped in half, had a real subtle sweetness that complimented the quite-sweet pork. The ramen noodles were medium soft; just right, I think. A big scoop of sesame paste at the bottom of the dish took me by surprise. A bit of a stir and it disappeared into the velvet broth. Like a sieve, my hole-y spoon strained every last bit of noodle and meat from the broth.

Great winter dish, that. I put my raincoat on and hit the slushy street, well armed against the cold, wet weather with a plump, ramen-filled stomach.


Muku in Calgary


Upon returning to Calgary, my ramen lust is wickedly up. On a crazily snowy day — again, perfect soup weather — I step into Muku, the city’s only dedicated ramen house. Situated in the old Globefish Sushi Bar and Izakaya location (now next door), a sign on the front door helpfully reminds patrons that there is “No sushi here.”

The Muku staff, like Santouka’s, are friendly, greeting each new customer through the door. I’m followed in by an equally cheery party of regulars. A good sign.  The open kitchen of this small, sunny place is right behind its central bar. This keeps it nicely steamy and fragrant, but I could do without the overhead TV screen tuned to a UK darts match.

The menu is concise and geographically themed around three Japanese cities: the miso ramen of Sapporo, shoyu ramen of Tokyo and tonkatsu (sliced pork) ramen of Hakata. Also available (among a few select other items) are non-soup ramen dishes. I’ve eaten and thoroughly enjoyed the jya jya men ($8.95) on a previous visit. The dish contains miso-flavoured ground pork, baby corn and sliced cucumber on noodles.

In a steamy moment, I’m dipping into a piping-hot bowl of kanben ramen soup ($12.95) made with spicy ground pork, shredded cabbage, chopped green onion, a few ears of baby corn, tonkatsu and a hearty helping of noodles.

The central ladle of spicy pork is finely ground and golden orange. Its peppery colour slowly spreads through the cloudy broth as I slurp the noodles.  Two pork slices hide in the noodles (I could go for more). They’re straight-up un-marinated pork and thus go nicely with the lightly cooked cabbage shreds.

I hesitate to compare this bowl of noodles to the one I ate at Santouka because the two are of different types, but I did enjoy the regional contrast between them. Two separate regional ramen variations filtered through the cuisine scene of two very different Western Canadian cities produced two excellent, exciting meals.

Though Japanese ramen dishes are widely available in Calgary, Muku is in the enviable though daunting position of being the city’s lone specialist. Santouka is one of many dedicated ramen huts in Vancouver, and so it’s under contrasting pressure to deliver. Both restaurants do so with taste and class not usually reserved for a cheap bowl of noodles.

And I’m thankful that ramen culture has a toehold in this town, because, including airfare, ramen lunch in Vancouver is ridiculously pricey.


Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
1690 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC
604-681-8121
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka on Urbanspoon

Muku Japanese Ramen House
326 14 Street N.W.
Calgary, AB
403-283-6555
Muku Japanese Ramen on Urbanspoon

Ian Doig.
Ian Doig Web Developer

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