Toronto ramen roundup: where to get your fix in the 416

My very first bowl of ramen (the fresh stuff, not the packaged instant kind) was about five years ago in Toronto. My super cool cousin Alan, repatriated after a brief sojourn in Japan and well aware of my penchant for Asian food, was eager to introduce me to the dish that was all the rage in that gastro-centric island. The only ramen restaurant, to our knowledge, that existed in Toronto at the time was a little Korean-run spot called Kenzo, located in an unassuming blink-and-you’ll miss it strip mall near Yonge and Steeles (just south of glorious Centrepoint mall, for those of you, like us, who lived in the area). One bite and I was converted. But it certainly wasn’t easy convincing friends that it was worth trekking north of the subway line’s end just for a bowl of noodles. For awhile, despite the rising popularity of ramen in other food-savvy North American cities like New York, Vancouver and San Francisco, that first outpost of Kenzo remained the only spot in Toronto to get your slurp on. Within the past year though, and the past couple months in particular, our ramen landscape has drastically altered, with a surge of new spots popping up all over downtown. Indeed, we’re (finally) in the midst of ramen mania (or ramenia, for the portmanteau lovers out there).

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Santouka’s shio ramen, with pickled plum garnish. Go get yourself a bowl asap.

Raijin's shio ramen

Raijin’s assari toridashi shio ramen, made with chicken broth

In Japan, ramen is not just the newest food trend, but a fundamental element of contemporary food culture – consumed by everyone, obsession to many, and for some, a way of life. Across the country, there are over 4000 shops turning out bowls of these beloved brothy noodles, which means an immense range of style and quality. People wait in hour+ lines to try the work of a legendary master or of a new innovator. There are scores of blogs, both Japanese and English, dedicated to documenting the best ramen shops, along with ramen magazines, mangatv shows etc. There is even a ramen museum (not to be confused with the Cupnoodle Museum of my inaugural post) where visitors can learn about the history of the dish and sample bowls from some of the country’s most famous purveyors (I obviously made a special trip there while in Japan, where I had my first ever encounter with ramen coma). And of course, ramen movies, like the1985 critically acclaimed Tampopo, a hilarious and extremely well-made “ramen western” which you should totally watch. I know it looks hokey, and it is, but trust me – watch it.

As for the composition of the dish itself, preparations can vary immensely, particularly between regions, but there are generally four basic elements: the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. The broth is usually pork and/or chicken (+ vegetables), though some use seafood, with each shop developing its own blend. As the element that gives the dish most of its body and flavour, it’s generally the battleground on which ramen shops compete. The tare is like a strong seasoning sauce, spooned into the bottom of the bowl to later mingle with the broth. There are three basic varieties, with the tare being the factor to determines the ramen’s type: shoyu, which is soy sauce based; miso, the notorious fermented bean paste; and shio, a salt-based sauce that also contains some seafood and seaweed essence. To make it all more confusing, there is a fourth type of ramen, tonkotsu, a rich, creamy pork bone broth which has tons of flavour in itself, and may or may not be mixed with tare. Noodles can be thin or thick, curly or straight, but are usually wheat-based alkaline noodles. For me, the noodles are as important as the broth – must be chewy! Serious shops use fresh handmade noodles rather than packaged stuff. Finally, the toppings usually include roast pork (belly or shoulder), a boiled egg, and some simple vegetables like bean sprouts, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.

Sansotei's tonkotsu ramen

Sansotei’s tonkotsu ramen

Kinton's miso ramen

Kinton’s miso ramen

Unsurprisingly, there are many variations on these basic elements, with lots of interesting, sometimes funny, innovations and trends. Tsukemen, for example, is an extremely popular style where broth and noodles are served separately. The broth is more concentrated than that of a typical ramen and serves as a dipping sauce for the noodles (inspired by the traditional way of eating soba). Then there’s a shop called Jiro ramen which has become insanely popular in Japan for just loading on heaping tons of toppings.

There are even places using ice cream in their ramen, like this one with an actual ice cream cone in the bowl, or this chilled soy-milk broth ramen with chili oil ice cream and chicken. Eek. While Toronto’s not quite at that stage yet, we’ve finally got a respectable number of ramen shops slinging their own versions, including some creative bowls in the mix. Without much further ado, here are all the spots to score yourself some slurpy goodness:

(1) Santouka (Dundas and Church)

A Hokkaido-based ramen shop with several locations worldwide and many devout followers. Their signature, shio ramen, is topped with a pretty pickled plum and is just plain incredible. Try it. They also serve tsukemen, the dipping ramen, which I’ll have to go back for.

(2) Ramen Raijin (Yonge and Gerrard)

From the owner of some successful Vancouver ramen shops, Raijin’s the newest kid on the block. They were in soft-opening for awhile but now serving their full menu as of yesterday. Their ramen is great and they have the most diverse menu by far, including a vegetarian option, chicken broth ramen (which are clear and light – they’re pretty salty too but you can ask them to adjust when you order) and tsukemen. Their most unique dish is a bamboo charcoal dark miso ramen, which actually contains food-grade charcoal powder (apparently considered a toxin cleanser). Also some tasty sounding sides like pork buns and Japanese poutine. In addition to their food, one of their biggest draws is that the restaurant is huge compared to other places, meaning you probably won’t have to wait long in line, if at all. It could also accomodate large groups.

(3) Sansotei (Dundas and University)

Their signature is the pork-bone broth tonkotsu ramen and it is definitely something to write home about (if you’re from a food-obsessed family like mine I guess). I literally drank every last drop. They were getting some flack from customers about not having the chewiest noodles to match their amazing broth so they actually listened – they upgraded to Japanese quality noodles and are now offering customers a choice of noodle type.

(4) Kinton Ramen (Baldwin Village)

From the people who brought you Guu, it’s the most fun and lively of all the ramen shops (as expected from Guu). Their noodles, made in house, are excellent and their pork belly is serious business. Options include a cheese ramen, with swiss cheese and basil toppings (I haven’t tried but sounds good) as well as a corn kernels topping (yum). On Wednesday evenings, they do a limited amount chicken ramen.

(5) Kenzo (Spadina and Bloor; Bay and Dundas; Yonge and Wellesley; Yonge and Sheppard)

The owners of Toronto’s first ramen shop at Yonge and Steeles (now under different ownership) have since expanded to four locations throughout the city. While it’s not the best bowl of ramen ever – their broth isn’t the richest nor noodles the chewiest – it’s stil really tasty food that hits the spot. I’ve been there a handful of times and always order the King of Kings ramen. It’s good stuff.

(6) Momofuku Noodle Bar (Richmond and University)

From the infamous and innovative David Chang. There’s only one bowl of ramen on the menu, and it’s made with bacon. Not traditional, tastes great.

(7) A-OK Foods (Queen and Shaw)

This place just opened last week so I have yet to try it, but it’s from the people behind Yours Truly, who used to serve the tastiest snack menu (R.I.P.), so hopes are high. Amongst other snacks, they have a shio ramen and a tsukemen sichuan ramen (mmm, sounds good). I’m gonna guess they’re both untraditional.

(8) Ajisen (Spadina and Dundas; Yonge and Empress)

Big menu. Don’t have much to say as I just don’t really like this place.

(9) Ramen and Izakaya Ryoji (College and Montrose)

Set to open sometime before Christmas, Ryoji, with several branches in Okinawa, promises to bring us some Okinawan style ramen.

Go get your slurp on.

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So I Finally Momofukued…

A few weeks ago, after months and months of delays and anticipation, New York’s acclaimed Momofuku restaurant (which means lucky peach in Japanese, but as I wrote in my first post ever, might refer to Momofuku Ando, the father of instant noodles) finally opened its doors in Toronto – and it’s all anybody’s been talking about since. How long did you have to wait in line? Did you try the pork buns? Along with every food-blogger, every local and national publication has also covered some aspect of it, like here, here, here and here. I think Toronto is feeling rather chuffed that of all the cities in all the world, the empire has chosen us to include in its realm. Ok, Sydney might have been first, but we didn’t get just one Momofuku restaurant – we got three (plus a bar).

Adjacent to the new Shangri-La Hotel at Univeristy and Adelaide, the glass cube structure houses all four Momofuku establishments: the infamous Noodle Bar on its ground floor; Nikai, a second-storey lounge/bar where you can have a drink while waiting for a table (although its birds-eye view of others’ tables as they happily slurp away at their noodles seems kind of torturous ); the third floor Daisho, which serves large family-style meals like whole fried chicken; and Shoto, also on the third floor, which serves a fancy-pants $150 ten-course tasting menu. I’d eventually, someday, like to try all of them but Noodle Bar was first on my list – not only because it was the first of the three to open but quite obviously because it serves NOODLES. Also, I’ve never been to the original Noodle Bar in New York and have heard so much about it. Also, I was totally enthralled with the first issue of Momofuku-founder/chef David Chang‘s Lucky Peach magazine (it’s the ramen issue, and is entirely, obsessively devoted to all things ramen) and while reading it, I thought (a) this guy totally gets me and (b) someone who’s so obsessed with noodles must turn out some pretty good ones – and I must try them.

The restaurants’ entrance on University, with a smidge of the gorgeous Zhang Huan sculpture that dominates the building’s exterior

Bird’s eye view of Noodle Bar from the second floor bar – hi guys!

For all the praise and cult-like worship this place gets though, there’s also the inevitable, and often disproportionate, hater backlash – and Toronto has been no exception. Within the first week, I heard/read a whole range of reviews – some people were in love, bowing at the altar, others said it was a total disappointment/doesn’t compare to the New York location/is totally not worth waiting in line for an hour +. And then most people were somewhere in the middle – thought it was good but didn’t get what all the hype was about. Despite some lowered expectations, I was still extremely excited to check it out for myself.

A group of five of us went there on a Friday afternoon at 1:00. We were told the wait would be 1.5 hours and they took our name and number down on an iPad and said they’d text us when our table was ready. Somehow we got lucky and before we even made it to the closest coffee shop to distract our stomachs, we got the text and were seated within 20 minutes – woot! Despite its name, only about half the dishes on the restaurant’s menu are actually noodles, while the rest is other delicious sounding things, like smoked chicken wings, kimchi stew with rice and the infamous pork-belly steam buns,. With five pairs of big eyes, we actually tried to order one of everything on the menu. (Un)fortunately, the waitress told us it would be way too much food (party-pooper) so we scaled down a bit. Here’s what we tried:

Kimchi jar

Shiitake and chicken buns – nope, we didn’t get the pork belly

Ramen with pork belly + shoulder, poached egg, fishcake and cabbage

Chilled spicy noodles with sichuan sausage, fresh spinach, fermented black bean, and candied cashews

Smoked chicken wings (with some background carnage)

Ginger scallion noodles, dressed with a light vinaigrette

Roasted rice cakes in a sticky/sweet/spicy red chili sauce

The ramen was a good bowl of noodles – springy noodles, comforting, meaty and well-salted broth, and a beautifully yolky egg. Purists beware, this is not a traditional Japanese ramen and doesn’t claim to be (there are other places in the city doing that, and quite a few more on the way – stay tuned for my ramen low-down). It’s instead an interesting variation on the theme. The ginger scallion noodles were also really tasty – a more light and refreshing take on a noodle bowl. The chilled spicy noodles were decent, although not something I’d crave or go back for. The best things we had were actually the non-noodle goods. For me, total sleeper hit was the shiitake buns – did not expect to like these at all but as soon as I took a bite, I was taken. Same reaction for the roasted rice cakes. Rice cakes in chili sauce is otherwise known as dukbokki, a common and extremely popular Korean dish that can be found for about $5 at any of the Koreatown restaurants near Christie and Bloor. This is an elevated version of it though – by untraditionally roasting the rice cakes, they get a crispy crunchy coating and an ooey gooey centre which goes so well with the sweet sticky sauce and green onion and sesame garnish. Overall, I’d say the food was good and tasty but not omg-amazing-best-ever. Certainly not the absolute best bowl of noodles I’ve ever had (which I was kind of hoping for) but I’d go back for a couple of the dishes, and to try the pork belly buns, and maybe also cause it’s a cool atmosphere. Worth waiting in line for? At least once. And depending on your outlook, the line-up can be half the fun.

Inaugural post – Japan and the Cupnoodle Museum!

I’ve been talking about writing this blog for a long time, and thinking about it for even longer. Well thanks to a recent trip to Tokyo and some extra time on my hands, it’s time to finally put my noodles where my mouth is.

Japan is infinitely inspiring and stimulating for noodle enthusiasts like myself. Whereas people in Toronto are all like, “huh? what? a whole blog JUST about noodles?”, people in Tokyo were all like “but which kind of noodle are you interested in?” In a land that is known for cultivating subcultures and fandom as well as taking great pride and care in its local cuisine, my trip to Japan kinda felt like a pilgrimage – a journey to one of the great noodle homelands where my devotion would be embraced and encouraged. As a case in point, where else would I be able to visit not one but TWO noodle museums?!

Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama

Ramen Museum in Shin-Yokohama

The Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama was, for me, the coolest place ever. It was opened by Nissin in 2011 to pay homage to the company’s infamous instant cup noodles – you know, that one that used to be displayed on a giant billboard in Times Square. It’s basically a 3-floor noodle shrine. The first floor is dedicated to teaching about the invention and history of istant noodles. First, there’s a room called the Instant Noodles History Cube – a 3D timeline chronicling, in plastic package form, the historical development of instant noodles, from the very first package of chicken flavoured noodles, created in Japan in 1958, to the endless variety (I think it was actually in the range of 3000) of instant noodles across the world in the present. Beyond its design appeal, the display was actually successful in making me think about the social significance of cup noodles – they’re portable and cheap and one can have a full belly by simply adding hot water. Although perhaps not the healthiest, cup noodles are an accessible meal to many people.

Instant Noodles History Cube

After the history cube, there was the Momofuku Theater, where visitors watch an animated film about Momofuku Ando, the Japanese inventor of instant noodles. I’m guessing New York’s Momofuku is named after this guy. On that note, I’m sure you heard that Momofuku is expanding its empire to Toronto this summer, right? I’ve never actually been to any of their restaurants – not even noodle bar! – so am really looking forward to trying it – if it will ever be possible to get a reservation there.

Anyways, the film was adorable (so kawaii!) and informative. It was all about Momofuku’s toils in developing instant noodles, which took him about 30 years or something. First he had to figure out how to dry and preserve noodles (answer: flash-fry), which led to the first ever package of chicken flavoured instant noodles (it was called chikin ramen). But then, after a visit to the US, he was inspired to package his noodles in a heat-retaining styrofoam cup so that eating noodles would be as simple as peeling back the lid and adding hot water. Apparently it took a really long time to figure out the whole noodles in cup thing (the block of noodles always ended up crooked in the cup and could not be sealed), but eventually he did it (the key was dropping the cup inversely onto the noodles). And the results were obviously massively successful. The movie, and the entire museum actually, was quite endearing in its emphasis on perseverance, innovation and creativity as the keys to success.

After the movie, there was a bunch of cute interactive exhibits about the whole invention process and some cool visual displays. Like these:

Modern noodle art! Hilarious and amazing – hilazing.

The next floor of the museum was My Cupnoodles Factory where you get to make your own personalized cup noodles. First, you design the styrofoam cup with coloured markers. Then you choose your soup base flavour as well as the ingredients to accompany your dried noodles. You watch them assemble it all in the factory, and then they package it in this adorable inflatable bubble bag with strap to wear around your shoulder. Unfortunately, by the time I had arrived at the museum that day, all the tickets to the factory were already sold out so I missed out on the chance to make my own noodles 😦 It looked like all the kiddies were having a really good time. So jealous. Further along on that floor there was also the Chicken Ramen Factory where you get to actually make ramen noodles from scratch – but apparently that’s booked up months in advance.

THEN, on the third floor of the museum, there was the Noodle Bazaar where vendors sell eight different types of noodles from around the world (apparently inspired by the kind of noodles Momofuku Ando encountered during his travels in search of the origins of ramen). Pinch me! I couldn’t believe my eyes! Noodle fantasy come true! The noodle offerings were as follows: Pasta alla amatriciana from Italy (wheat pasta with a guanciale, pecorino and tomato sauce); Lagman from Kazakhstan (wheat noodles with lamb in a soupy tomato, pepper and paprika sauce); Lanzhou style beef noodle soup from China; Naengmyeon from Korea (cold buckwheat noodles in a sweet and spicy red pepper-based sauce); Beef pho from Vietnam (rice noodles in a flavourful beef broth that has been seasoned with various ingredients such as star anise, cinnamon, ginger, garlic and coriander seed, and often garnished with basil, bean sprouts and lime); Tom yum goong from Thailand (rice noodles in a spicy and sour broth that’s usually made with lemongrass, lime, galangal, fish sauce and chilis); Laksa from Malaysia (usually rice noodles, although sometimes, as here, served with yellow egg noodles – mee – in a coconut milk-based curry broth with tofu puffs, bean sprouts and hard-boiled egg); and Mie Goreng from Indonesia (egg noodles fried with garlic, shallots, cabbage, chicken and shrimp).

In order to get yourself some noodles, you had to first purchase a ticket from a vending machine and then pass it to the vendor who would cook up your meal. Ordering through vending machines is actually quite common at noodle shops and curry houses in Japan. Thankfully, there was the option for a half-portion so that you could sample several different dishes. I opted for three – Laksa, Mie Goreng and Lagman, since I had never tried any of them before. Despite Toronto’s diverse and abundant food offerings, there are not many/easily accessible Singapore, Malay or Kazakh places around. However, part of the purpose of this blog for me is to seek them out, so stay tuned!

To be honest, none of the dishes at the noodle bazaar were particularly delicious. They all lacked flavour, depth and proper noodle texture (shame!) and seemed to be toned down versions of the original dish.I suppose I shouldn’t have expected too much from a kid-focused noodle wonderland (btw, I forgot to mention that further along on that floor there was actually a noodle theme park with interactive games where kids get to see noodle production from the perspective of the noodles – ha). Regardless, it was still fun to try them all out.

Inside the noodle bazaar

Laksa – you’re supposed to suck the guts from the prawn head

Mie Goreng

Lagman ticket vending machine

Lagman

And more lagman – I think there are some garlic scapes in there too

Finally, after filling yourself with noodles, the last stop at this noodle Graceland was, of course, the gift shop. Lots and lots and lots of noodle-themed memorabilia, and all sorts of things with the Cupnoodle Museum’s red and white graphic logo, which kinda looks like three exclamation marks but I think is actually borrowed from the design band on the Cupnoodles cups. I bought myself some noodle coasters, a box of fancy instant noodles, glittery ramen stickers (why not?) and a Cupnoodles Museum umbrella since it started to rain as I was leaving. Still a little bummed that it didn’t fit into my suitcase to bring home. Here’s a smattering of some of the other noodle-themed gifts on offer:

Noodle sticky tabs to mark pages in your book

Cupnoodle notebooks

And even Cupnoodle disposable chopsticks

And that was my trip to noodle land! Despite the mediocre noodles they serve, the museum itself was so much fun, really well designed and inspired some future noodle quests in Toronto.