Santouka Ramen. Santouka Santouka Santouka. Everywhere you look, someone is saying how great Santouka ramen is. Is it really *that* good? Is it everything everyone says it is? Or is another case of ‘don’t believe the hype?’
This was actually the fourth time I’ve been to Santouka Ramen. The first time was in Tokyo, where it was also hyped by a friend as great ramen. The Santouka we went to was on the top floor of a department store in Shinjuku, and it was the fanciest ramen house I’ve ever been to. It was swanky and hip, as if it was a ramen house for ‘the pretty people.’ I eagerly ordered and devoured a bowl of shoyu ramen and …
…was completely unimpressed and somewhat disappointed. I thought it was overpriced and overhyped, decent, but not spectacular. I loved the ‘Hey, I’m eating ramen at a trendy gourmet restaurant!’ atmosphere, but in the land of ramen, Santouka hardly qualified as excellent.
When Santouka opened in the Mitsuwa Supermarket in Costa Mesa, replacing the (very mediocre) Tampopo Ramen about two years ago, I thought I’d give it another try. I mean, this is a famous Japanese ramen chain with over 50 stores after all! At the time the ramen was served in a styrofoam bowl. What the heck? Again, I was unimpressed with their shoyu ramen. Not being one to learn from my mistakes, I went back a *third* time…no difference.
Recently, I discovered that maybe I was going about it the wrong way. It seemed that Santouka is known for their shio (salt) ramen, not their shoyu ramen. Ah! Since I never got around to reviewing it, I decided to go back and give them yet another chance.
My wife and I went there on a late Saturday afternoon, and considering it was around 2 o’clock, the long line was impressive. Would their shio ramen change my mind? I was excited to find out.
I ordered the reasonably-priced negimeshi combo with shio ramen, which comes with a bowl of their green onion rice and a flavored hard-boiled egg.
The ramen comes topped with chashu, bamboo shoots, green onions, mushroom slices, naruto (fish cake), and an ume (pickled plum) in the middle, which is a nice aesthetic touch. The first thing I did was eat the (very) sour ume to cleanse my palate. With that out of the way, I took a bite of the noodles. The noodles are thin and does a good job of absorbing the flavor of the soup. They were a bit on the soft side for someone who really likes their noodles to be al-dente.
The other toppings were decent, thought personally, I’ve never cared for naruto in my ramen because I think the mild flavor of the fish cake detracts from the rest of the ramen. The pork was tasty but not great. It’s fattier (read softer and tastier) than the too-lean pork at Ebisu and thicker than the thin pork slices at Shinsengumi but not nearly as good as the pork goodness at my new favorite Chabuton. There’s a more expensive pork you can order, but I opted to stick with the basics this time.
The soup was neither here nor there. It’s surprisingly light, with a good blend of saltiness and not an overwhelmingly strong pork flavor. Some people will say that the soup is well-balanced and not too heavy. The problem I have is that nothing stood out. My favorite ramen broths have a very rich complex flavor in which all the ingredients are distinct, yet blend together to create a flavor that enhances everything. Santouka’s shio is good, but there’s a generic flavor to it that doesn’t excite me.
I hope this review doesn’t give the wrong impression: Santouka Ramen is good. It just doesn’t qualify in my book as great. Since I’m still kicking myself for not ‘upgrading’ to the
Toriniku Toroniku pork, I’ll probably be back for one more try. For their shio ramen, Santouka gets a respectable 7.