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山頭火 santouka: best in shio (west l.a.)

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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.

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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.

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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.
Los Angeles, CA 90066
(310)398-2113

10:00am - 7:30pm daily

CASH ONLY

24.5
Get Directions!

Comments

Wow- sounds like I’ll have to do my grocery shopping and ramen eating all at once next time.  I never understood why the ramen sets are served with donburi- seems like an awful lot of food, no?  Anyway, thanks for the tip.

Posted by Anne on 05/15 at 03:20 PM

Tried both Costa Mesa and West LA.  Which one do you like better and why?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 05/16 at 09:09 PM

it’s been a while (maybe a year or so) since i’ve hit the costa mesa one, so i can’t really recall. the last couple times i went to west L.A., their soup seemed a bit hotter and their noodles a little firmer than the one in torrance. i think it’s probably because they’re new and maybe the staff is a little more focused. CM and torrance definitely have better ambiance however.

Posted by rameniac on 05/17 at 11:59 AM

We always go to the Santouka in Torrance when we visit my folks. At xmas time, we went there twice. Heading to SoCal in a month, and Santouka is definitely on our list.

Posted by Barron on 05/20 at 09:16 AM

when i lived in VB i used to eat chasu ramen at tampopo in mitsuwa (was yaohan).
did this place take over the old tampopo spot?
now that i’m living in new mexico - well just forget about trying to get ramen here….
sigh…

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/06 at 12:14 AM

Dear Rameniac.  I’m very new to eating non-instant ramen.  I had my first bowl a couple weeks ago.  When you goto a new place, how do you know which broth to choose?!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/12 at 05:17 PM

holy cow - i visited this place twice during my trip to LA last week. Friggin awesome!
Answered my own question about the old Tampopo location…
I noticed that the whole mitsuwa marketplace had been revamped for the better since my last visit 2 years ago.
Can’t wait to go back….thanks for the review!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 06/19 at 05:40 PM

I can always count on Rameniac to turn my frown upside down.  I had to start to ration when I checked out your website, because I didn’t want to become dependent on you for daily chuckles.  So, like any other Normal healthy human being, I had to start to discipline myself to only one post per really, really, really bad/dull day.  Thank you. 

Rock on with your tongue out!

Posted by Christine on 07/04 at 12:20 AM

Are they changing things up at the WLA Santouka? The last 2x I’ve been here, they didn’t put the ume on top of the ramen. And this last time, they tossed a piece of dried seaweed on top instead of that dark kelpy/mushroomy stuff they usually put. It’s still tasty, but I miss those toppings. Is this a seasonal thing, perhaps?

On another note, I can’t comment on Rameniac from my iPhone as of yet. The spam blocking graphic that you have to copy into the box below either doesn’t display fully, or it just doesn’t like the iPhone’s text input.

Posted by dave on 07/11 at 07:09 PM

o weird. thanks for that, i’ll look into making this site Jobs-compliant lol.

as for the kelpy/mushroomy stuff - it’s called “kikurage”, japanese wood ear mushroom. i should go and find out what’s up if they’ve been doing the toppings differently. after a bit of time away, i think my arteries can now take the hit again.

Posted by rameniac on 07/13 at 05:14 PM

Just tried it today. Soup and chashu were really good, and I actually liked the pork topped rice they offer as a side dish. But I really can’t imagine you popping in for a small size shio *after* you’ve had lunch.

Posted by glyphic on 08/04 at 07:25 PM

prob the best ramen I’ve had in LA. broth is thick and flavorful. wife and i hit this place whenever we are on the west side. wasn’t impressed with the boiled eggs. ramen seems run of the mill but still good.

in the rosemead area, Shin Sen Gumi is pretty good. i like the option of being able to choose the intesity of the broth and hardness of the ramen. check it out and let me know what you guys think…

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/13 at 05:40 PM

I had just been to the one in Costa Mesa, and both my husband and I thought that the soup is very oily, but the pork was good, very flavorful.

I agree with ketmeister, Shin Sen Gumi is very good, you should try it someday, and there is another one in Huntington Beach.

Posted by Syb on 10/11 at 03:40 PM

I havn’t been to the WLA location, but between the other two, I prefer Torrance, simply because the CM one always seems to be crazy busy, and parking over there sucks.  Last time I was there, there was a long line and an over 30-minute wait after ordering.  The worst I’ve ever had it at Torrance was about 10-15 minutes.  Plus, if I can’t eat there, there are plenty of other choices for good ramen (Shin Sen Gumi, Asa Ramen, Gardena Ramen).  I don’t know what the other OC ramen shops are like other than SSG in Fountain Valley, which is a total dump compared to the Gardena one (though I suppose the food is just as good; I’ve seen the same guys working at both locations).

The only thing about SSG’s ramen I really love are the noodles, mostly because they’re the thinnest, firmest noodles I’ve ever come across (Asa’s taste better but are more cooked; same with Kyusyu Jangara’s, oddly enough).  Nearly everything else about SSG’s ramen is decent but not spectacular.  Still, I love that style of ramen enough that I still go to SSG pretty often.  But flavor-wise, I think Santouka’s shio broth and toppings are far superior to SSG’s.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/02 at 03:19 AM

Damn. Went the other night and they were closed at 7:30. Want to recheck their hours?

Posted by glyphic on 12/23 at 06:50 PM

Great site! There is a noodle soup dish in every country of the world just not called Ramen.

Ramen price should be on the scale by which you evaluate these restaurants otherwise you’re not comparing apples with apples! For fairness Please add,
Thanks,

David

Posted by David Kahn on 01/02 at 12:25 PM

went to the place in the market in torrance today, after reading up on the article posted on the la times…. i originally wanted to try the famed shio ramen but they ran out of the stuff( at 4 pm?!); it must be a really popular item. Instead i and my friend tried soy and miso ramen, and we both loved it. definitely the best japanese ramen i had in my lifetime. i’ll be back soon to try the shio ramen. thankx for the great website and your knowledge.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/03 at 10:26 PM

glyphic, the food court shops do close a little early sometimes, even though mitsuwa stays open til 8. it’s kind of unpredictable though… usually best to get there by 7, but i’ll check with them again to get something official.

thanks david! the reason i don’t post prices is because i try not to think about bang-for-buck ratio or things like that, but concentrate solely on the quality of the ramen in question. once you start talking about affordability or whether something is a deal or not, you run into all sorts of differing opinions, largely dependent on the size of a person’s wallet lol.

rj, you’re the second person to mention them running out. i’m still in disbelief! glad you like the shoyu and miso though, and thanks for the kind words!

Posted by rameniac on 01/03 at 11:02 PM

Wish I’d known about this blog earlier, found it through the LA Times article.

I’ve been on my own “Ramen Quest” through the Greater LA area for the past few years, and I’ve come to the same conclusion: Santouka is unbeatable.

I’ve been telling everybody how great it is for ages, and nobody seems to believe it, most of them going along with Daikokuya’s hype. Hopefully, the article will help change all that.

Just wish they’d do a Little Tokyo location… I’m in the Universal City area, and both Torrance and the Westside are a pretty awful fight through traffic…

Posted by Max Arher on 01/04 at 12:50 PM

Wednesday’s are best day of week - food sections - and this past was best of best - ramen review. been to all five listed - all good. now to go back for variety. been working on opening a japanese noodle shop in the greater Camarillo area/Ventura county. suggestions?

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/05 at 04:44 PM

Santouka is using pork fat oil to en-rich its flavor.
I do not care how tasty its ramen are, using animal lard is definitely a turn-off.  No body use animal lard anymore, but occasionally you will still see some shops using pig oil fat to cheat the flavor.Before you enjoy its rich flavor, start thinking about your heart and high blood pressure.
Most of the restaurants stop using animal fat because the health concern of the consumer 10 some years ago. I am amazed to see Santouka using it and get away with good review of their foods.
I really miss the old Tampopo ramen shop.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/08 at 09:09 PM

I have heard about Santouka Ramen a couple years ago in Japanese television show and ramen guide book.  I have personally tried Santouka Ramen both in Shinjiku and Costa Mesa.  I think Santouka ramen is pretty good.  The noodle is nicely done and the meat was nice, tender, and juicy.  The soup was strong and very flavorful, though I was slightly intimidated by how greasy it appeared and tasted.  Finally, I thought the portion was quite small for its price compared to other ramen in town.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/10 at 12:35 AM

No mandatory tipping at Santouka since it isn’t a full restaurant, so the price kinda balances out (although I usually tip anyway, and it can’t match Gardena Ramen pricewise).  I think Asa is the most expensive right now;  I spent around $20 for ramen and a beer.

Do they not use lard in Japan?  Eh.  Whatever.  As long as it tastes good.

I actually prefer their normal chashu to the one they give you with the toroniku ramen.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01/11 at 10:00 PM

Damn I’m going tonight… can’t wait!

Posted by Alex on 02/21 at 11:27 AM

i went there during the ramen festival last weekend. tried out other different ramens as well. i think this place is very close to being the number 1 ramen place in LA if they do something with the noodle. first off, thumb up to the pork and broth, especially the pork. i order the most expensive pork bone ramen with the meat on the side. i have never had meat this good for ramen in my life!! and the soup is quite tasty, and not so salty. but the noodle are too soft and in my opinion SSG has the best noodle in town. santoka is quite far from that. i ordered the extra large one and could barely finished up the softened noodle.
but other than that, it is quite an experience for me as i never expected this place to be good like this. to me, this place got two of the three components right for a bowl of ramen, which is quite rare in any place that serves ramen in LA.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/25 at 02:09 AM
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