I don’t think I need to list the various ramen shops in the West End and on Robson for you to know that Maruko is joining a crowd instead of providing an unique dining option. They must be really confident about their ramen to open up in the proximity of the highly-regarded Santouka and the inexplicably popular Kintaro.
The one thing that I can say upon entering the restaurant and reading its menu is that they are unique in not having gyoza on their menu. Instead of gyoza they have onigiri, which is not a common item on the menu of local ramen places. Moreover, the restaurant was showcasing this uniqueness by offering onigiri for free with every bowl of ramen ordered.
The complimentary onigiri was of the BBQ pork variety. Instead of stuffing BBQ pork in the middle of the rice ball as a filling, they separated the pork meat into floss-like meat fibers and thoroughly integrated them into the rice. This was probably done to ensure that there were flavours of the BBQ was present throughout the entire rice triangle, but it actually achieved the opposite effect of thinning out the flavours of the BBQ pork. The onigiri also had rice that was way too loosely pack and too soft for its own good. The rice triangle hardly had a texture to call its own, and it also lost its initial shape after the first bite. Even though the onigiri was heated up in the oven, it had none of the nicely charred flavours or enjoyably crispy textures usually present in roasted/BBQ’d onigiri. It was probably a good idea for the restaurant to offer this item for free and beta test it before it was ready for prime time.
Fortunately, the two bowls of ramen that both my wife and I ordered felt like they were finished products that customers would have no qualms paying for.
I had the BBQ pork ramen (or was it the pork ramen?)
The soup was of medium thickness. It was definitely not as thick and fully-bone-flavoured as the tonkotsu soup base from Santouka, but it was as thick or even thicker in consistency. It might have been that the soup was thickened by the remnants of the starch from the noodles or they might’ve purposely added starch to thicken the noodles…I don’t know what it was, but the soup felt artificially thickened. The flavour of the soup, however, was naturally flavourful enough to act as a decent base for the meat and the ramen noodles. The ramen noodles were of the curly yellow variety, which I liked less than straight white ramen (but that’s just personal preference on my part). I applaud them for cooking the ramen to the correct not-too-limp-and-slightly-firm texture that at least allowed them to become tolerable for me. I felt that the worst component in the bowl of ramen was the BBQ meat. It was almost as unenjoyable as the repulsive BBQ pork from Kintaro. It had the same previously-refrigerated feel and the same weak flavors as the BBQ pork from Kintaro. Because the meat at Maruko seemed to be sliced thinner, it at least had the benefit of becoming slightly more reconstituted when submerged in the soup for an extended period of time. In the final analysis of this bowl of ramen, I would say that the soup was decent, the noodles acceptable, and the meat below average. This bowl received a passing grade, but the most praise I can heave upon it is that it was average-tasting.
My wife ordered the spicy miso ramen.
My wife basically shared my views on the BBQ pork and the noodles. She also thought that her soup did exhibit bone flavours while feeling thicker than it should be. She was not that impressed with the spiciness of the soup. It was really weak. It felt weaker than the already weak heat levels of the spicy miso ramen offered at other local ramen places. Even after she added spoonful upon spoonful of the chili oil into her soup, she still could detect only a hint of spiciness. The only component of her bowl that had no deficiencies was the soft boiled egg. The egg had the perfect consistency that straddled the border between soft-boiled and hard-boiled.
We also ordred a side of BBQ pork bits and a side of chicken bits for my son to have with his rice.
The pork bits were even less enjoyable than the pork slices that came with the ramen because there was no soup to heat-up or tenderized the bits. The chicken was much better tasting. The chicken meat bits were not fully dry. They actually had a bit of tender texture in them as well as a small but detectable amount of juiciness. They tasted very much like the flavours of white boiled chicken/white chopped chicken/guai fei chicken (imperial concubine chicken??) served at local Chinese/Cantonese restaurants. The chicken was so much better than the pork that I will definitely be ordering the chicken ramen if I ever return to this restaurant.
Finally, we had an order of almond tofu for our dessert.
This version tasted very ordinary and unspectacular. It did not have the same, enjoyably teeth-bouncing texture found in the almond tofu from Kingyo. It had a texture that could only be described as not-fully-settled gelatin. The almond tofu did exhibit the requisite almond flavours as well as having the requisite pieces of canned fruit on top. Like almost every other item we ordered, it was merely average and veering towards the mediocre.
Average bordering on mediocre ramen would be totally acceptable if the ramen restaurant was located in, say, Ambleside in West Van (or anywhere on the north shore). But in an area teeming with ramen joints, Maruko simply does not stand out with any of its menu offerings. Its location might ultimately be its undoing. Then again, people might really like its ramen just like they can’t stop queuing up at Kintaro. It might very well be that every bowl of ramen that disagrees with my tastebuds is a bowl of ramen that is popular with ramen aficionados.