Ah, ramen in it's most basic form has two ingredients - noodles and broth. Complexity in ingredients, taste and presentation gives each their own unique twist.
The famous Japanese ramen place - Hokkaido Ramen Santouka - finally comes to Vancouver, BC. Situated along Robson street among other nearby ramen places and izakaya establishments, it fits right in to join the crawl. Well, that is if you're patient enough to brave the line during prime hours which gets pretty much crazy. With a lot of buzz being generated in the foodie scene, it's best to go off-hours if only to try what Santouka has to offer. We went on a Friday around 5.30pm and we were seated just fine. However, by 6pm the place was packed and the line started to build. When I passed by before around 7pm, you wouldn't believe how patient people can be to line up like that.
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
1690 Robson St, Vancouver, BC V6G 1C7
Pricing: Moderate (when compared to other Ramen places in the area)
Pros: Nice, modern interior.
Cons: Cash Only; More expensive than comparable ramen places in the area; Smaller servings for the price; Rough operation typical of newly opened restaurants
Overall Rating: 6/10
Notes: Cash only; No reservations so best to come off hours for now
The restaurant size can be a tight squeeze once the tables are fully occupied. By the entrance you'll find a communal oblong table perfect for larger groups, families with children on strollers or requiring a high chair. Past that is a tighter area for smaller groups on one side. While on the opposite side is a bar-like seating arrangement on stools facing the open kitchen.
The menu is presented in synthetic leather cover. There is a good amount of description with photos. And if that isn't convincing enough, right outside their window are displays of all the dishes they serve complete with pricing, too.
Each table has their own condiments and utensils - pepper, hot chili powder, chopsticks, soup spoons, toothpicks and paper napkins. It's important to note that they don't provide any salty condiments like, err, table salt or soy sauce. Checking their website, you'd understand they care about the taste of their broth which one will just have to accept and respect.
I tried two ramen dishes. The first is their "Limited quantity. First Come. First Serve." Toroniku Ramen ($12.95). You have four choices of ramen - Shio (basic salt broth), Shoyu (soy sauce broth), Miso (fermented soy bean paste), and Kara Miso (spicy version). This is coupled with a side dish of their special toroniku meat (simmered pork cheek) which you have a choice on munching by itself or as a topping on the ramen.
Here is the Shio ramen which is the most basic among the four. Known for a clear, light broth. With Santouka's version, I did find a hint of a milky flavour.
The light yellow ramen noodles were chewy and not mushy. However it was clumped together and restrained in quantity.
The simmered pork cheeks were tender, delicious and on the salty side. I enjoyed munching it on it's own in between sips of the broth. If you find it too salty, then it would be best to dilute the taste by dunking a few pieces at a time right on the soup.
We also tried their combination dish ($13.40) which was their regular sized ramen and a small bowl of donburi. For the ramen, I got the Miso variety which unlike the limited quantity ramen had all the ingredients and toppings served directly in the soup. There were three slices of chashu (simmered pork shoulder) which were soft, but personally does not come close to the pork cheek. However, if you don't like a strong taste then this is the route to go.
I chose the Ikura donburi which were large Salmon roe (caviar) toppings on simple Japanese rice and slices of omelette. It's not much in terms of quantity and taste, but it does break the redundant taste of the ramen.
Oh, and the combination meal came with another side dish of pickled hard-boiled egg and pickled cabbage. Again, a nice touch for the palate.
I honestly had higher expectations from Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. The nightly line up built the hype. The window displays whet my appetite. When it came time for me to try it out, I was yearning for a better experience than the other ramen places in the area. Why not? Santouka was commanding a higher price for smaller portions and lesser ingredients. If they were doing such, then I can only expect the same.
In the end, I can only compare Santouka from Kintaro with gigantic bowls, richer broth, and tons of ingredients included where I would have to pay to add with Santouka. Oh and unlike Santouka's pricing, they give more bang for your buck. Of course, Kintaro is aging like a true hole-in-the-wall that it is. Santouka is the new face of ramen restaurants with a price to boot. Pick your weapon.