Monday, January 04, 2010

Racking Up the Miles for Ramen

SAN JOSE, Calif.
Last week I was off for the holidays, and I also had access to a car thanks to my friend David. Remember the last time I had wheels? That’s right. I drove all the way to San Mateo for a bowl of ramen.

Yep, I did it again. But this time it was even farther as I headed to San Jose to check out the four-month-old Santouka Ramen.

Santouka’s ramen has been creating a lot of buzz, mostly because of its reputation in Southern California where this Japanese chain has a few locations. My food blogger friend Foodhoe made a visit recently, and included a few clandestine photos on her blog.

I enlisted my San Jose friend Denise and her two young daughters along with my other friend Sylvia, who was visiting from New York, to meet me up for a piping hot bowl of ramen. I got there first since I didn’t know how long it would take me to find the place, but it was fairly easy since it’s right off I-280. Santouka is actually inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace, which is mostly a large Japanese grocery store.

To the left as you walk in, Santouka looks like any ramen stand at a food court with its white laminated tables and black trimmed chairs. But looking at the mix of clientele, you know a few foodies are making the trek to try the ramen, including the famous “shio” ramen.

Side note: There’s another Japanese food stand next to Santouka that sells rice bowls and I was soooo tempted to try its curry because the smell was making me hungry as I waited.

When Denise and Sylvia arrived, we got in line. Because we were early (and probably because it was a weekday), there wasn’t much of a line so we got up close to the display of plastic ramen bowls to figure out what to order. I have to say, it was a bit overwhelming. Santouka offers three types of broth: shio (salt), miso and shoyu. The ramen comes in small, medium and large, and you can put a variety of toppings like the famous toroniku (or special fatty pork) or char shiu (BBQ pork). Plus, Santouka has “setto,” or sets made up of a bowl of ramen, hard-boiled egg and a smaller bowl of rice topped with a variety of things such as salmon roe, natto (the curiously stinky beans), char shiu or green onions.

As I got closer to the front of the line, I panicked because I couldn’t decide on whether to get a set or just the special pork ramen. I didn’t know if the ramen in the sets could also be specially designed for your tastes or whether it was just a standard ramen. So in the end I ordered a regular miso ramen (I love miso) topped with the toroniku (total for my ramen and topping was $10.95).

Turns out you can get the toroniku with the ramen in the sets, which is what Sylvia ended up ordering as she got her set of toroniku ramen with a bowl of rice topped with chopped green onions.

For me, I was glad I just ordered the ramen. Not only because it was a bigger bowl than Sylvia’s, but because I got more pieces of the toroniku. While Sylvia’s toroniku ramen in the special set included maybe two pieces of toroniku, I got a whole plate of the fatty pork. As you can see, the pork and other ingredients to dress up my ramen were served on a separate plate. So the ramen looks plain but pure in just the bowl of miso broth.

Here’s how my bowl looked after I added all the toppings. Kind of messy but you get the picture. As I ate my ramen, I savored the silky taste of the miso broth, but the star was definitely the pork. On the plate, they looked a bit dry. But that’s far from the truth because when I bit into them, they were soft and tender like slices of butter. It was just as good as the pork buns I had last summer at Momofuku Ssäm Bar.

Denise and her girls got a whole bunch of ramen and rice bowls, including the shio ramen with the cute umeboshi (pickled plum) garnish in the center.

Denise and I talked a bit about the ramen because she knows I love ramen growing up in Hawaii, where I can always find a good bowl of noodles. I have to say that in trying various ramen places in the Bay Area, they all seem to be similar to the ones in Hawaii. So I’m always wary when yelpers call a place “the best ramen in the whole Bay Area.”

I wouldn’t go as far as calling Santouka the best. I would say the toroniku definitely is the best, but the ramen itself is on par with Santa Ramen and other ramen shops. (In fact, on this day I felt our ramen was more on the soft side and not the springy ramen with some pull that I generally prefer.)

It was worth making the trip to share a bowl of ramen with Denise and her girls since I rarely see them. (And you too Sylvia!) But I don’t know if it’s worth making the drive from Oakland to San Jose just for Santouka’s ramen, despite the dreamy pork. I think eaters in the South Bay are lucky to have Santouka conveniently nearby. I guess the lesson for me is to stop driving so far for ramen and start looking for a good ramen spot near Oakland.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

Santouka, 675 Saratoga Ave. (inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace), San Jose. PH: 408.255.6699. Cash only, no reservations. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Web site


Nate @ House of Annie said...

At least, you're closer to SF Japantown where you have more choices. There aren't many choices for ramen in the South Bay, so that's why there's a lot of buzz when a new one opens up shop.

Ah, I miss Mitsuwa. Even more, I miss the Tokushima do-Henkotsu ramen place that was next door (replaced by Kahoo). Now *that* was some remarkable ramen.

dress up said...

all this food looks amazing, i love it!

Esther said...

I didn't realize that there is a Mitsuwa in California! I'm not sure if they have it there but whenever I go to the one in New Jersey, I go for the black sesame ice cream!

Jun said...

Nice Ramen entry, it made me want to eat Ramen right now! I haven't heard any good Ramen shops in SF, but Ramen Halu in San Jose seems the most popular place among the Japanese community. Although Halu doesn't have your favourite Miso flavour...

Hungry Dog said...

I remember when foodhoe wrote about this! I must go! I love ramen, and when you bring fatty pork into the mix...

have you been to Tanpopo in SF's Japantown? Love that place.

foodhoe said...

oh yum, you got to try the toriniku! Mr. K works a few blocks away from this place and went for lunch yesterday. Jealous of you guys! I'm just saying that I think the south bay has better ramen than SF these days...

fromAfricaWeCame said...

looks good, might try it out today. Tried this african soup and it was really good

James said...

Ben, you gotta try the spicy miso.
Ben, I gotta try to toriniku.

mags25 said...

Seriously! Oakland needs a good ramen place! Let me know when you find one!