Ramen in Toronto – Hits and a Miss
As the summer of the Taco in Toronto came to an end this August, the fall has found the city besieged by a ramen craze. Every month one new restaurant if not two pops up and there seems to be no slowing down as we hit the winter season. Luckily I am a huge fan of ramen so I whole-heartedly agreed to hit the streets in order to get the lowdown. As I stopped in at each restaurant and closely watched each operation while slurping on broth and noodles, I felt like I was living that great ramen shop montage scene in Tampopo where the main character goes on a mission to spy on her competitors. And what I found was a city that doesn’t always celebrate the humble roots of this traditional Japanese dish; instead it often tries to make it something it’s not. Ramen when done right is an elegant yet hearty comfort food that is supposed to heal whatever ails you, but here in Toronto it has become overhyped, glamourized and doesn’t quite hit the complex notes one expects in this not-easy-to-perfect-dish. Perhaps in time as the ramen scene here matures it will get there. Below are three places that made the biggest impression. Good and Bad.
Kinton Ramen, 51 Baldwin St, Toronto, ON M5T 1L1
This offshoot of the Guu restaurant empire delivers ramen with the same raucous energy that has made their Izakayas so incredibly successful. Once again you can expect loud greetings at the door, a noisy eclectic mix of music, a sleek, stylish setting, and unfortunately long line-ups. On a Tuesday evening when we arrive at 6pm, the hostess informs us that our wait will be over an hour – though this doesn’t seem to faze their dedicated following. When you’re in, hopefully you’re seated at the long bar in front of the open kitchen, where it is very entertaining to watch the cooks in action. As for the ramen itself, ignore all the regular Shio and Shoyu soups which are slightly bland and go for their signature hi-octane version: Spicy Garlic Ramen. And double down on the pork shoulder to make it a more satisfying meal. With a small scoop of minced garlic set right in the middle of a fiery pepper broth this is a definite cold- buster. Their Spicy Garlic is considered by many to be the best ramen in town and I can see why, though I am more of a ramen traditionalist myself.
Santouka, 91 Dundas St East, Toronto, ON M5B 1E1
Santouka is the second Canadian restaurant for Hokkaido, a Japanese based chain that specializes in Tonkatsu-style broth – a creamy broth built from simmering pork bones for two days – and they claim this location has a better version than even their Japanese cousins. I am excited as Tonkatsu is my favourite type of Ramen broth, and yes, they do a fantastic version of it. With each slurp your belly warms and you feel revitalized. Easily the best broth in the city, it far out shines a too decadently thick Tontaksu they are serving a few blocks away at the recently opened Vancouver import Raijin Ramen. And if you are really hungry and want to take it to the next level go for their famous Toroniku ramen which features a side plate of pork jowl. If you close your eyes you feel like you may be in Tokyo. The room is a simple open concept that is best visited for lunch and like Kinton their kitchen is in full view to check out the noodle slanging. No fancy cocktails or exotic ramens here just great filling soulful soup, and when winter really begins to hit its stride that is all you should really ask for in your favourite ramen shop.
Momofuku Noodle Bar, 190 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3
I couldn’t offer a definitive take on the ramen scene in Toronto without addressing the much buzzed about Momofuku Noodle Bar. Proprietor David Chang first made his culinary mark with his take on the classic Japanese noodle bar, long before he became the globe-trotting phenomenon that he is today. Unfortunately, the experience he gives us here in Toronto is extremely lacklustre compared to its once hip New York counterpart. First, there is the lame generic feel of the space, in which everything seems overthought to the point where it is so inoffensively trendy that it becomes offensive. It feels like you’re sitting in someone’s design plan, like one of those condo model rooms you find in sale offices. Secondly there is the music – I don’t mind the volume but once again the choices are obvious and don’t enhance the experience. It just becomes background noise that you feel the need to shout over to converse. Where is the rock and roll rebel spirit that seemed so central to Chang’s earlier ventures? You will most definitely not find it here.
When it comes time to order I opt for the regular Pork Ramen which when executed properly is one of the most satisfying food experiences on the planet and I am immediately disappointed by the lack of depth in the broth. The noodles seem all wrong (much too dense) and the egg oozes its uncooked yolk (way too runny for my liking). The whole bowl lacks soul. The one thing it had going for it was the delicious pork shoulder which was easily the best I have ever eaten at a noodle house. Unfortunately my dinner partner opted for the Vegetarian version which was more of an insult to vegetarians than a true ramen. It contained no broth and an anemic amount of vegetables that included such filler as cabbage on top of the same dense noodles. We both couldn’t get out of there any quicker when our bill came. Like many others before me I am not the first to note that we all expected a lot more from David Chang here in Toronto.