There is no doubt about it, Toronto is currently experiencing a frenzied Ramen craze. I sort of feel like I’ve gone back in time, 2008 to be exact, when Torontonians were lining up across the city for “gourmet burgers.” I remember people chortling about “the colourful array of toppings,” nudge nudge, and devout members of the movement would obsessively talk about the fact that “these burgers are made of top quality meat, house made ketchup, its fine dining with a burger!” Rolls eyes. Don’t even get me started on “sliders.”
I’m pleased that for the most part the gourmet burger cult has normalized opening up an entirely new cheap eats comfort food worth obsessing over: hot bowls of Japanese Ramen.
I have reviewed a few ramen spots so far, careful not to become the obsessed and always clear on my intentions to observe the fanatics with their smug mugs and pork broth splattered chins. Long before ramen became hip here we had Ajisen on Spadina and Konichiwa on Baldwin (among a slew of others dotted across the city). Over the past few months ramen has hit the headlines with the opening of David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar and Kinton by our friends at Guu.
It was a rainy Friday night when I spontaneously agreed to dinner with my ramen obsessed friend Matthew. I had heard a new ramen spot had opened up just south of The Village so was thrilled to be able to walk to dinner (what a marvel). I arrived at Santouka located at the corner of Church and Dundas to a massive line that stretched past the building and into the public parking lot a few hop, skips and a jump from Dundas Square.
I stood at the end of the line watching an entirely asian foodie crowd as they pressed their noses to the window with jaws dropped. The interior twinkled with lights surrounded by steam while noodles flung into the air. I chit chatted with the two Korean girls standing in front of me and asked them what they had heard about the restaurant and their personal preferences for ramen in the city. This wee conversation became a heated debate with the entire line. Over the course of the next ten minutes I came face fo face with members of Toronto’s Ramen cult.
Santouka is a tiny little noodle shop that seats just 36 and is the second Canadian outpost for this Hokkaido based Japanese franchise (the first opened for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver). After waiting over thirty minutes for a table we crammed ourselves onto a little two top to the right of the entrance. The room bustled as servers spun around the room with Asahi beer and steaming hot bowls. While we waited for our food to arrive I waved at the excited eyeballs looking in (a line which never diminished) and smiled as I watched hungry faces stuffed with noodles dangling from their mouths.
Matthew ordered a cold salad of tofu and shrimp with a bowl of kara miso ramen. I ordered the restaurants signature Shio Ramen with a bowl of Cha Su Gohan (pork on rice) and little bowl of pickled mushrooms and marinated hard boiled egg.
Ramen is to the Japanese what Matzah Ball Soup is to my jewish friends. Comfort! Matthew and I barely spoke once our food arrived. Each of us quickly snapped with our chopsticks encouraging plump steaming noodles into our mouths. I couldn’t help but realize how ingenious the timing of this craze was. Ramen frenzy in Toronto hits a peak just as we head into the winter months when everyone is frozen to the bone and looking for a soup the nourishes the soul.
The service at Santouka was a delight but but the menu was a bit lacking. While they have a wide selection of ramen bowls (their famous pork jowl I need to return for) they had very few appetizers that grabbed my interest. Kinton and Momofuku do a better job at showcasing a menu that highlights ramen but also offers other tricks and treats for adventurous diners who are looking to sample more than just what is in their bowl. I wasn’t wowed by Santouka’s offerings and would not wait in line in the middle of a snow storm for a second round. I found my ramen bowl to be a bit too salty and had far too much pork lard in the broth. I almost felt like I was sipping on cream. I will be heading back at some point to sample another bowl but will request a broth that is not so fatty. The search for Toronto’s best ramen continues…
Tofu and Shrimp Salad
Kara Miso Ramen
Cha Su Gohan