- The Noodles and Soup
- The Toppings
- The Atmosphere
- The Service
Warning: very long post!
Over the past year or so, the number of ramen noodle houses that have sprung up in and around Toronto is uncanny! Toronto Life Magazine coined it the “Toronto ramen wars”. The new kid on the block is Santouka Ramen. With winter rolling in and the Canada Goose jackets coming out, it’s the perfect time for Santouka to hit the streets to warm everyone’s bellies. This noodle house has made quite the entrance in Toronto. Social and traditional media channels have given Santouka a buzz, noting its global reach and success. I did some research and it looks like Santouka already has locations all over Japan, across the United States, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. It finally reached our Canadian shores, landing in Vancouver just in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It seems like Toronto always has to wait endlessly for the good things and at last, in November 2012, Santouka has arrived in our city nestled at Church and Dundas. The story of how the restaurant chain became so widely recognized sounds like the typical “work hard and it will pay off” dream! The founder, Hitoshi Hatanaka, ate some ramen > didn’t like it > decided he could make it better > opened his own small shop > people liked it > he expanded > and voila it’s a global franchise! With all sarcasm aside, Hatanaka did indeed derive a fantastic recipe that thousands and thousands of ramen lovers enjoy!
91 Dundas St. E
Toronto, ON M5B 1E1
I saw a bunch of trending social media channels talking about the pending opening of Santouka. Its official grand opening is November 23, when its full-fledged menu would be available for ordering. Patience has never been my thing, so I decided to drag my friend along to try it out for its soft opening.
We arrived at 6:15PM on a Thursday night and immediately identified the storefront by the massive line-up outside. Luckily for us, it happened to be relatively warm that evening so standing outside for the 40 minutes wasn’t too bad. I noticed that the Japanese name of the restaurant was written in graffiti on the wall. Very cool! The inside was brightly lit and everyone looked like they were having a good time. I couldn’t wait to get inside. The bus girl took my friend’s name down on the wait list, which was interesting to see actually. The bus girl was Japanese and wrote my friend’s name in Japanese characters to mimic the English sounds. When she called the name, it definitely sounded like my friend’s name but the girl was surely pronouncing it using Japanese. Hilarious! But effective nonetheless…
The seating area was small, which was expected in ramen noodle houses. Like most other noodle houses, the kitchen was open with a bar area where you could sit and watch the food being cooked in the back. We saw down at an actual table and I left my laptop bag on the floor. The waitress came and gave me a foldout compartment to put my bag onto. I was thoroughly…thoroughly impressed. It was very thoughtful of them to do this. Never has a restaurant done this for me! It works well when people have purses, shopping bags, scarves or anything to store. Big points! Another thing that impressed me was their ordering system. The waitresses all held smart-phones that had an iPhone app called Auphan Dining Mobile installed onto them. I looked this up on the App Store and learned that it was a free application that allowed users to order food which connected directly to their point-of-sale system. Quite impressive that Santouka was so tech savvy. The menu was moderately priced…about $10 – $15 for a bowl.
A bowl of ramen is very challenging to cook albeit its seemingly simple appearance. The noodles, soup, sides, meat all have to come together. Santouka’s noodles were al dente – chewy, springy, and had “bite”. You’ll know what I mean when you try it out. The obvious highlight of each noodle bowl is the soup base. Santouka’s Tonkotsu soup takes quite a bit of effort to make. Pork bones are simmered for 20 hours before vegetables, kelp and fish are added. What you’re left with is a milky white soup that is packed with pork bone flavour. We asked for less salt and no MSG so I was able to taste the purity of the soup – it was very good. My friend ordered the Cha-Shu Ramen. The Cha-Shu is a thinly sliced piece of pork from the back ribs, cooked on a slow simmer. I got the Toroniku Ramen, which served Santouka’s famous pork jowl, or pork cheek. Both choices were equally delicious, with the pork jowl being tenderer likely due to the extra layers of fat. Pork jowl is found in limited quantities per pig…200g to 300g per pig according to Santouka’s website. This can be compared to the toro in tuna. My meal warmed me up and it felt good on the brisk autumn evening. Alongside the bamboo shoots and pickled plums served with each bowl, I was thoroughly satisfied.
Overall I’d give Santouka a fairly positive rating. The savoury Tonkotsu soup and al dente noodles coupled with the delicate simmered pork were all the pieces that completed the ramen puzzle. Service was also amazing by the way. Despite having a slight mix-up in the orders, our waitress was overly polite which actually made me feel bad for asking her for something. On top of bringing me a compartment for my laptop bag, and when she found out she mixed up our order slightly, she kneeled on the ground and apologized repeatedly. I don’t expect people to kneel and ask for forgiveness (LOL) but her dedication to serving her customers was astounding! So far in the race, Santouka leads the pack for me personally, but each of you should try this place out and decide for yourself who should win the “Toronto ramen wars”!
Tip: Eating ramen is an art. Unlike using a fork to roll spaghetti, ramen should be “slurped”. The chopsticks should be used to literally shovel the ramen into your mouth. Or you can put the noodles into the spoon and slurp from there. Whatever your method, slurping is widely accepted in Japan as paying respect to the chef to show him/her that you enjoyed their ramen!
The Damage: $35 after tax before tip