Ramen Santouka -
How many times have I eaten at Ramen Santouka? I would say in excess of 50 times. Not at their Vancouver location, of course, since it has only been opened for a few months. I’m talking about their location in Costa Mesa, California. Their Orange County outpost is located in the food court of a Japanese Supermarket named Mitsuwa. Among the 5 vendors in the food court, Santouka serves the best food and is the most popular, by far. I would say that, no matter what time of day, around 75% of the people at the food court are eating ramen from Santouka. It is the only stall in the food court to had a regular queue and a lineup is almost guaranteed during mealtime. And there is good reason for it. It serves the best tasting ramen in Orange County.
After trying the ramen from Kintaro, Motomachi Shokudo, Benkei, Sanpachi, Menya, and the local izakayas, I still preferred the ramen from Santouka over any other ramen in Vancouver. My wife, however, didn’t share my views on Santouka. She thought that even though the ramen from Santouka was better tasting than the ramen at Kintaro, it wasn’t better-tasting than the ramen at the rest of the local ramen establishments. She said that there were several components of the bowl of ramen from Santouka that she didn’t like. I prodded further by asking her which were the exact components that she didn’t like, but she said that she didn’t remember. I really wanted to find out so I suggested that we take a trip to Santouka to find out.
Driving across the Lion’s Gate Bridge to get to Santouka was the easy part, it was the lineup that we didn’t want to deal with. My wife wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of lining up for food that she didn’t think was that good. We drove by the place day after day, and day after day there was a lineup. It wasn’t until today, when we were actually planning to have our lunch at another restaurant, that we noticed there wasn’t a lineup at Santouka when we drove by it. What’s more, there was a metered parking space a mere 7 car-lengths away from the storefront. Right then and there, we decided that today was the day we find out why my wife thought that the ramen at Santouka was merely average.
During our previous visits to the Robson location of Ramen Santouka, we were always seated at the communal dining counter located at the front of the restaurant because all the tables were taken. Today we were lucky enough to score a proper two-top. Sitting at the table for two made us realize that we really didn’t get more dining space than we did at the communal counter. With tables located mere inches to the left and right of our table, it was like we were participating in our neighbouring tables’ conversations. What’s worse was that both the tables beside us were occupied by Taiwanese diners who were making negative comments about my wife and I without realizing that we understood Mandarin (Apparently, it was really dumb for us to take photographs at a non-high-end restaurant such as Santouka).
This was a very unpleasant start to our meal, but it had nothing to do with either the restaurant or the food. So we blocked out the talk and focused on deciding what we wanted to order. For our appetizer, we shared an order of gyoza.
Like the gyoza at motomachi shokudo, the gyoza here tasted very ordinary. Though one side of the gyozas’ skin was fried to a nice potsticker-like charred crisp, the filling tasted like supermarket gyoza. I wasn’t able to discern any particularly distinct meat or vegetable flavours from the filling. The soy-based dipping sauce and vinegar did add a tangy sweet-saltiness to the overall taste of the gyoza, but it wasn’t enough to elevate the gyoza out of it’s averageness.
I also ordered a chasu rice bowl as an intermezzo between the gyoza and my ramen.
The chasu rice bowl looked and tasted a lot like Taiwanese stewed/minced pork on rice. The chasu was basically cubed pieces of the marinaded pork slices that came with the ramen. They were placed on top of rice with some sprouts as garnish. The chasu was tender, sweet, flavourful, and definitely went well with rice. The rice was really dry. It was the driest and stiffest Japanese rice that I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t have been able to swallow the rice if it didn’t come with the tender pork chasu. In fact, once I finished all the meat, I couldn’t bear to eat another grain of the rice.
I was looking forward to the ramen after having the lackluster chasu rice. The toroniku shio ramen was what I ordered.
The noodles and broth were as good as always. The borth was pearly white, rich, and unctuous. Once I started having my first sip, I couldn’t stop having subsequent spoonfuls. The noodles were nicely firm, which was the way I preferred my noodles. They were slightly stiff and had a bite to them that I liked. I also liked the fact that the noodles were thin and straight, as opposed to the thick and curly noodles at most other ramen joints. Most importantly, I wasn’t able to detect any unpleasant alkaline flavours like I did with my bowl of ramen at Kintaro.
The toroniku meat was fatty, warm, and tender. It was also marinated so that it had a sweet soy flavour. I liked it but didn’t think it was as amazing as it was made out to be in the menu. Like the chasu pork in the rice bowl, the toroniku tasted like a pedestrian version of Taiwanese stewed pork. It just tasted too familiar to me for me to think that it was anything special. But it was still better than the flavourless and sometimes cold slices of pork that came with the ramen at other local ramen restaurants.
The good toroniku pork, combined with the excellent noodles and broth, confirmed to me that Santouka served the best ramen in the city. I was hoping that my wife would also feel the same after she had her kara miso ramen.
Given the choice, my wife will always order the spicy version of any dish over it’s non-spicy counterpart. The kara miso ramen was the lone spicy option on Santouka’s menu and my wife chose it over every other bowl of ramen. I could tell that she didn’t think the ramen was anything special. She kept pausing after every few bites to talk, which indicated that the ramen was not tasty enough to hold her attention. Without me even asking, she told me why this ramen didn’t do it for her. First of all, the soup had a weak spice. She never tolerates any half-hearted attempt at spiciness and she did not tolerate it here. She was also not a fan of the soup base. Whereas I thought the broth was rich and unctuous, my wife thought that it was too thick and too oily. She thought that it overpowered the rest of the components. Like me, she also thought that her chasu tasted like Taiwanese stewed pork. But she liked the Taiwanese version better because it was thicker and more substantial. My wife was not thrilled with the idea of having only two thin slices of chasu with her bowl when mine came with a whole plateful. Finally, as a noodle lover, she didn’t think that the noodles met the standards of a good ramen. Her main complaint was that the noodles were too stiff. She said that good ramen should be curly, chewy, and the noodles should give a little resistance to teeth biting down on them. She didn’t like the noodles at all and maintained her view that the ramen served at Santouka was merely average-tasting.
If you were to ask me whose opinion you should take as more reliable with regards to the quality of the ramen served at Santouka, I would tell you to listen to my wife. She has eaten way more bowls of noodles than me and she knows what a good bowl of noodle is supposed to taste and feel like. I am more of a rice person and would normally choose ordering a rice plate over a bowl of noodles. For me, a good bowl of noodles need only satisfy three criteria. If there is fatty meat, it is good. If it has a rich, oily soup, it is good. If the noodles are stiff, it is good. Since I think that the ramen at Santouka satisfies all three factors better than other local ramen restaurant, I say that it is the best…but only to me.