I love noodles and one of the most perfect bowl of noodles you can eat is ramen. I’m not talking about the instant ramen bricks of dried noodles that you buy for 50¢ at the grocery store, I’m talking about years of studied Japanese perfection in a bowl. Richly layered umami packed broth with perfectly cooked noodles topped with pork and fresh vegetables, ramen is one of my ultimate comfort foods.
Vancouver is nothing compared to Japan with it’s corridors of ramen shop upon ramen shop, but still, Vancouver is a fairly ramen-friendly city. Take a walk near the corner of Robson and Denman and you’ll see the city’s love affair with ramen materialize in four (yes, four!) ramen shops all literally within five minutes of each other.
It was there, in that ramen corridor, when I came up with an utterly wicked idea. I turned to Mike and challenged him to a ramen-off.
Me: I bet I could eat more bowls of ramen than you.
Mike: You? I could eat twice the amount of ramen you could eat.
Me: You’re on!
With dreams of bowls and bowls and bowls of ramen in my head, I submitted my ramen round-up challenge to Foodbuzz for 24, 24, 24: a blogging event featuring 24 meals, 24 hours and 24 blogs.
Twenty-four hours, five ramen houses, ten bowls of ramen, and two crazy noodle-loving gluttons. Will we be able to do it?
The rules we set out for ourselves were simple:
One bowl of ramen each per ramen shop had to be consumed, not including broth.
The winner would be declared when the loser could eat no more. (We had back-up ramen restaurants in mind, if by some miracle, we could easily consume five bowls of ramen.)
We decided to stick in the downtown core with one wander out to Richmond to a ramen-ya housed in a shipping container. The shipping container, Shoryumen, was our first hit of the day.
When I heard that ramen was being served out of a shipping container, I knew I had to try it. I didn’t have high expectations for the ramen here, but the kitschy concept drew me in. Shoryumen is located in a parking lot that has been transformed into a mini outdoor Japanese food court. There’s a ramen container, a giant takoyaki container and a container serving temaki (sushi cones).
The parking lot was deserted when we got there, which was good because most ramen places in Vancouver have long line-ups and I was hungry and eager to start my ramen binge.
Shoryumen is basically a take-out joint with a stand-at counter, no seats and biodegradable take-out bowls. They offer four soup bases that come with seaweed, green onions and veggies; other toppings are extra.
I decided on Ton, rich pork stock and Mike got the Kuro, classic soy sauce broth. We both added Japanese pork as an extra topping for a $1. The noodles were served up quickly and we took our steaming bowls of ramen to a plywood shack with random counters for eating.
The Ton was good, but not great. The soup had salt as the main flavour as opposed to the super-porky broth that I was expecting. The shredded pork was tasty, but cold, which was a strange contrast to the hot noodles and soup.
The Kuro was a clean, soy flavoured broth that had a deeper flavour than the Ton. It really let the noodles shine, which were springy with a good chew. The bowls were on the small-size, but with four more bowls to go, I wasn’t complaining. In fact, I was still a little hungry, so we headed back to Vancouver to hit up the newest Ramen joint to join the block.
When I challenged Mike to this eat-down, it was right outside Ramen Santouka. They were in the midst of construction and weren’t open, but the prospect of a new ramen restaurant joining the party had me all excited. I wasn’t sure if it was going to open in time, but the Ramen Gods were smiled upon me and the soft opening was scheduled for February 26th.
Santouka isn’t a huge resturant, but it’s not tiny. There’s lots of dark wood, stainless steel, comfy banquettes, a counter and an oval shaped communal table for lone diners. Santouka has an open kitchen, so you can watch the ramen chefs doing their thing (behind glass).
Mike ordered the Kara Miso, a spicy red miso based broth. His bowl of noodles was topped with two slices of pork, green onions, and arage kikurage. The broth was pleasantly spicy, but had a touch too much salt. Santouka claims that their broth is at the optimal temperature for enjoyment, and warns that some people might find it to be lukewarm, but this broth was steaming hot.
I had the Miso ramen, which came with two slices of pork, green onions, arage kikurage, a slice of fish cake and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. The broth was a mildly sweet and delicious balance between miso and pork. The pork slices were tender and not too fatty.
The noodles at Santouka were a typical medium-sized curly ramen noodle. They were chewy, with a nice bite. The portion size wasn’t gigantic, but my tummy definitely felt satisfied, maybe even full.
I was starting to think that this challenge wasn’t such a great idea, but I couldn’t back down after two bowls. The plan was to move on to the heavy hitter in the ramen competition, Kintaro, but I needed a break, so we wandered the streets for a bit, mingling amongst the soggy Canadian fans determined to enjoy the second-to-last day of the Olympics.
A good hour later, we headed to Kintaro. Kintaro is the ramen restaurant most often claimed as THE ONE. People have a lot of Kintaro love and will willingly line up to have one of their steaming bowls of noodles. They hand-make their noodles and their portions are huge, which I’m sure is a draw.
Kintaro’s kind of a dump; it’s been around for a long time and their focus is on ramen, not comfort or design. It’s tiny and has a in-and-out feel to it. If you sit at the counter, you get a front row seat to the ramen making magic show.
Kintaro offers the option of rich, medium or light broth and fat or lean pork. I ordered the Shoyu ramen, a soy sauce broth and Mike ordered the Shio ramen, a sea salt broth. Both the Shoyu and Shio stocks have a pork-bone base.
The Shoyu, which I got with medium broth and fat pork, was topped with bamboo shoots, green onions, bean sprouts, two huge slices of barbecue pork and seaweed. The broth was rich, creamy and subtle with an underlying soy flavour.
Mike’s Shio was rich broth and fat pork, which was apparent when you tasted the stock. It was rich, unctuous and porky, in a good way. Shio comes with the same toppings as the Shoyu, minus the seaweed and plus an unseasoned hard boiled egg.
I found the noodles at Kintaro a tiny bit over done. The meat on the other hand, was the perfect ratio of meat to fat deliciousness. The pork is described as barbecue pork, but it’s not your typical barbecue pork. In fact, it isn’t even barbecued. Instead, a piece of pork belly is rolled into a round, tied and then boiled and sliced thickly.
It was a solid bowl of noodles and I didn’t have any problems polishing my bowl off before starting on the order of gyoza that I had to have. I have a thing for dumplings, and when I see them, I want them. It was probably a bad idea, but the plump, crispy, juicy morsels were calling to me, so I ate them. I inhaled off three and left Mike two.
I woke up feeling refreshed and not alarmingly full. There was no way I was going to let Mike win this eating contest. I’ve always been proud of the fact that I can eat a lot and if I had to prove it to myself and Mike by stuffing myself with ramen, then I was going to stuff until there was no where left to stuff.
The brisk walk to Benkei did a tiny bit to work up my appetite, so when we got there I was actually feeling pretty good. Benkei usually plays second fiddle to Kintaro; it’s the place people go when they don’t feel like lining up. Benkei has two locations downtown, so they must be doing something right.
Both Benkeis are larger than Kintaro and easier on the eye. They epitomize the typical ramen-ya look with wood and more wood. They don’t have much going on interior design-wise, but it’s clean, comfortable and fast. Benkei isn’t licensed, but they made up for it slightly by having old-style Coke in glass bottles. The menu is typical: five soup bases to choose from and various toppings you can add on.
After consuming three bowls of traditional ramen, I was looking for something a bit different so I ordered the Shiro, a creamy tonkotsu broth with pan fried chicken, spinach, butter, corn, garlic and milk. The broth was amazing: creamy, buttery, and porky. It was like a really good Japanese-style cream of corn soup. The spinach was a refreshing green touch, but the two chicken slices were a strange combination of tender and a bit dry.
Mike had the Akaoni, a spicy miso ramen. The bowl was topped with pan fried green onions, bamboo shoots, minced pork, burnt garlic, sesame oil and roasted sesame. The bamboo shoots were unseasoned and had that fresh out of the can taste and smell, so if you’re on the bamboo shoot fence, definitely opt out. The minced pork was reminiscent of the meat in dan-dan noodles: spicy, juicy and well cooked.
By the time I finished my tasty, filling bowl of Shiro, I felt like my tummy was bursting with noodles. I was happy there was only one more restaurant on our list. If I couldn’t beat Mike, then at the very least I could be his eating equal.
Motomachi Shokudo was the last ramen restaurant we visited. It’s on Denman, just a few stores down from Kintaro and it’s actually owned by the same Chef. If Kintaro is the universally appealing mainstream celebrity, then Motomachi Shokudo is the witty, underrated indie actor.
With it’s mysterious wooden storefront, it’s a bit like stepping into a ramen-ya in Japan. The tables are low, the stools are wooden and the accents are green. The concrete-glass interior somehow manages to be inviting and trendy at the same time. The atmosphere in Motomachi Shokudo is the best of the Vancouver ramen-ya: relaxed and quiet but busy.
Motomachi Shokudo is organic and uses no chemical seasonings. I order the Nama Shoyu, which is flavoured with unpasteurized raw soy and burnt onion oil. It comes with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, barbecue pork, green onions, chives, nori and a soft boiled egg. It’s a pretty big bowl with a lot of noodles. The broth is clean, super-flavourful and meaty. The two slices of pork are fall apart deliciousness. The meat doesn’t rely on fat for flavour like most of the other ramen joints do and I think Motomachi Shokudo has the best meat of the bunch. The noodles are on the thicker-side of things and bouncy with a good bite.
Mike got the Japanese style cold ramen, which he quickly declared the best bowl of ramen he’s had in Vancouver. The cold ramen came with thick, green, seaweed flavoured noodles in a cold shoyu base soup. It was topped with a slow poached egg, cucumbers, naruto, and sweet and spicy sliced beef. The noodles were super-springy with an excellent chew. The beef was no where near spicy, but it was sweet, flavourful, and complimented the other toppings.
While looking at the menu, I kept seeing little tempting plates of gyoza pass me by, so of course I ended up ordering some. They were crisp, juciy and so good I gobbled up two before the ramen arrived.
When ramen did arrive, I couldn’t finish it. It was the damn gyoza! They took up valuable stomach space. The look of disappointment on the waitresses’ face when I asked her to take away my half-eaten bowl of noodles was heartbreaking. I wanted to tell her, “no, it’s not the ramen’s fault, I love it, it’s just that this is my fifth bowl in under 12 hours,” but I didn’t want her look of disappointment to shift to disgust, so thankfully I kept my mouth shut.
Mike on the other hand, deserves your looks of disgust. He easily finished all five bowls, and the last bowl, the cold ramen, actually had more noodles than a regular bowl. At Motomachi Shokudo, the cold noodles have 190 grams of noodles, where as their regular bowls have 150 grams. For reference, 190 grams of noodles is just a little under half a pound. In his defense, he said that the cold noodles made it easier to eat more, but all I can think about is my mixed feelings of disgust and jealousy that he can pack away so much with such ease.
Now that it’s all over, I’m disappointed in my stomach capacity and I’m also questioning my judgment. Why did I ever think I could eat five bowls of ramen in a row? Sadly, I’m not cut out to be a ramen-eating-monster. I think I’ll stick to enjoying my bowls of ramen once a day from now on. Not that I’ll be craving ramen anytime soon; I’m all ramened out.
If you want to be a crazy ramen monster, here’s my number one tip: do your stomach a favour and do not be tempted by the tiny morsels of deliciousness known as gyoza. Keep your eye on the prize and focus on the ramen!
With all the delicious ramen joints in Vancouver, your craving for ramen will never go unsatisfied. Which ramen restaurant is the best is a matter of opinion. What component of a bowl of ramen makes it phenomenal for you? Is it the rich, slurp-worthy broth; the deliciously marbled cuts of pork and freshness of the vegetables; or the bouncy, chewiness of the noodles? Does atmosphere and alcohol availability play into your ramen making decisions?
All five ramen-ya that we visited rate differently on each scale. For me, I’d most likely be visiting Motomachi Shokudo and Santouka again and again.
All that being said, I would gladly snub any of the ramen shops in Vancouver for a bowl of ramen from New York City’s Momofuku or Ippudo.
Momofuku ramen broth is deep, meaty and luxurious, the noodles are springy til the last drop, the pork belly and pulled pork shoulder are melt in your mouth wonderful and the creamy slow poached richly coats strands of noodles you pull them out of your bowl. It’s truly a well thought out bowl of ramen.
Ippudo does a fantastic Akamaru Modern. I dream of the delicious, creamy tonkotsu broth, the perfectly al dente super skinny strands of Hakata-style noodles, the luscious pork, and that mysterious red ball of spicy miso paste. I’m pretty sure I could eat five bowls of Akamaru Modern in 24 hours. In fact, I think I’m going to have to set up a challenge to do that.