山頭火 santouka: best in shio (west l.a.)
My very first, decidedly unglamorous experience with Santouka ramen involved styrofoam containers and folding tables set up in the bakery section of a grocery store. Mitsuwa Marketplace has long been known for their seasonal food festivals, weekend events featuring regional Japanese specialties. Popular ramen shops are often showcased, complete with cooks and staff flown in, just for the occasion, like rockstars.
Santouka featured at precisely one such “Hokkaido Fest,” and three years on, the Asahikawa-based chain has established an actual North American operation. Purveyors of arguably the finest ramen outside of Japan, they’ve gone from the supermarket… to the food court?
That’s right. The best noodler in town is roughly the Japanese equivalent of a Panda Express or an Orange Julius.
With three shops in Southern California and branches in New Jersey and Chicago (i’m guessing it’s a ramen oasis out in the Midwest), Santouka may well have planted the seeds for an eventual Starbucks-like conquest of American hearts and minds. I used to drive the forty miles to Costa Mesa Mitsuwa at least twice a month simply to fuel the kick; when Santouka Torrance opened up a couple of years ago, surprise surprise, I came up with all sorts of excuses to visit the South Bay. The West Los Angeles chapter opened last December, so perhaps a revolution is in the offing. Well, one can surely dream.
Santouka ramen comes in Japanese-sized portions. Ordering oomori will get you roughly the equivalent of a regular-sized bowl of ramen elsewhere; a medium is a small thing and the small, a snack I usually power down whenever I’m near a shop, whether it’s right after lunch or just before a dinner elsewhere.
That said, it’s a compact, rich, and filling bowl of goods, with firm, toothy noodles, generously cut wedges of naruto, and the butteriest slabs of chashu you’ll likely find in L.A. Both the men and the toppings certainly make the grade; you even get a pickled plum umeboshi with the signature shio ramen. But let’s face it. None of this would work without the wet stuff to back it all up.
Ramen in the Asahikawa style is characterized by a tonkotsu and seafood soup stock paired with one of the traditional tare of shoyu, miso or shio (salt). It gets its richness, much like Kyushu ramen (with which it is often confused), from pork bones. But unlike other ramen styles, this decidedly regional variation evokes a deep, marine sweetness through the use of shellfish native to Hokkaido’s waters. Due to the cold climate, an extra layer of oil is added to lock in heat for the duration of the meal. That initial bowl of Santouka shio ramen, the one from the food festival, was blisteringly hot and nearly burnt my tongue off. And yes, it hurt so good, as every aspect of that sweet soup, that depth of flavor, was retained for oh, the minute and a half it took for me to inhale the whole thing.
A proper bowl at Santouka will never emit steam as heat is simply not meant to escape. Poke at your noodles if you will; little puffs of vapor should rise and dissipate like geysers in the morning frost. Under the harsh glare of food court lighting, this may not be all that discernable. But these guys have got it down. Especially at the West Los Angeles chapter. Newly opened, something tells me they just try just a little bit harder. The flavor is all there but the noodles are a little firmer and the soup, I dare say, just a tiny bit hotter.
By all means, try this stuff if you haven’t already. A bowl of Santouka’s flagship shio ramen, or if you happen to hate your arteries, the tokusen toroniku ramen option (with plated toppings and even fattier cuts of chashu) will quickly turn you on to how they really do it across the Pacific, to the possibilities of just how good fully realized, authentic regional ramen can be. It’s enough to make a rameniac out of anyone.
Further reading: rameniac reviews Nissin INSTANT Santouka ramen!
Even further reading: a pictorial of Santouka’s grand opening in West L.A.!!
And the test post that startd it all: ビクター plays with his Santouka toroniku!!!
|rich and luscious, santouka's asahikawa-style tonkotsu shio broth is the reigning champion of world class ramen in los angeles. the shoyu, miso, and spicy miso versions are also quality, but it is in the trademark shio broth where the sweetness of the seafood combines with the pork bone to near perfection.||9|
|many people expect thin, hakata-style ramen noodles whenever they see tonkotsu soup, but santouka's ashikawa tradition calls for a thicker, curlier noodle with a firm chew and a typically shorter length. it's not bad, just different.||7|
|buttery, melt-in-your-mouth chashu, fresh kikurage wood-ear mushroom, green onions, bamboo shoots, and a crunchy umeboshi pickled plum leave little else to be desired.||8.5|
|santouka's side dishes are a mixed bag. from a hard boiled, chinese-influenced tea egg to small rice bowls topped with radish sprouts, cubed chashu, ikura salmon roe or even natto (not for the faint of heart!), they are decent complements should one's appetite be larger than a bowl of noodles.||4.5|
|it's in a Japanese supermarket food court! but you go there for the most addictive ramen in town, not for the vibe after all.||0.5|
|finally, quality authentic japanese ramen exists outside of japan. it is my firm belief that, should top flight ramen be made available on a global scale, there would be no war - only peace, harmony, and manzoku satisfaction the world over.||8|
3760 Centinela Ave.
10:00am - 7:30pm daily