Review: Santouka Ramen

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In my pursuit to find tasty bowls of ramen in the Toronto food scene, I think back to when all that the city had was two out-of-the-way Ajisen Ramen joints. I celebrated when the third downtown location opened at Spadina and Dundas; even though it served just slightly above cup ramen quality noodles (no disrespect to cup ramen intended), it was Japanese ramen with similar ingredients as a Japanese salaryman might order and get in a similar-looking restaurant in Sapporo.

With that in mind, I had marked expectations for one of the newest ramen shops in town: Santouka Ramen, by the corner of Church and Dundas.

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With plastic ramen bowl models on display through the front windows, as well as right-to-left kanji and “Hokkaido ramen” proudly advertised on the website and on the side of the building, the place looked perfect in matching the Japanese chain’s offerings. Early reviews had suggested that this was the place to be; that finally, Toronto would get the taste of quality Japanese ramen from a top-level ramen chain.

At lunchtime, I went for the “Chef’s Special” toroniku or simmered pork jowl meat ($6.90) and kara tsukemen ($12.95) – cold ramen noodles served with hot dipping soup of spicy soy sauce, according to the menu. Both were served an impressive 10 minutes after ordering. The toroniku was the pork version of otoro sashimi served just off Tsukiji Fish Market: 7 pieces of tender, melt-in-your-mouth cool fatty goodness. The kara tsukemen, on the other hand, disappointed on three levels: first, the “ramen” noodles were the fatter Chinese variety; the “hot” dipping sauce was lukewarm; and the amount of noodles was small, despite the menu advertising the portion as being “twice the amount of a regular ramen order” and adding another $1 for a large-sized portion. All that aside, the pork chunks in the dipping sauce were tender and tasty, and I would recommend this order as a cool summer alternative to zaru soba or zaru udon.

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Seeking a broader review as well as a full stomach, I ordered again; this time, I went for my gold standard to measure Santouka against its competitors – miso ramen ($10.95). It was a small bowl topped with bamboo shoots, jelly ear fungus, and naruto. The thin and lean cha-shu was flavourful, though the simple presentation contrasted sharply with the flame-licked fatty pork belly slices of Kinton Ramen. The soup broth was thin and light on miso, yet oversaturated in salt. And at the heart of it all, the noodles were clumped and springless, with what little flavour it had drowned away by the briny broth. (And this was an improvement; on my original attempt to write a review of Santouka, the miso ramen broth was even saltier and the noodles even more tasteless.)

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Ajisen Ramen now has competition in the ramen chain matchup in Toronto, though the comparison is
hardly praise; the imagery of the Japanese kitchen evoked from outside Santouka did not match the expectations of the Japanese salaryman in my stomach. I will have to visit a Santouka Ramen joint in Hokkaido on my next trip to Japan in order to compare the miso ramen on its home field; but, until then, I’ll be looking for ramen in other places.

Santouka Ramen
91 Dundas Street East (at Church)
647-748-1717
www.santouka.co.jp
Monday through Sunday, 11:00am – 11:00pm

Review and photographs by Johnson Kong

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