Hang out with me enough and you’ll quickly learn that one of my biggest pet peeves in the world is lining up. Not just for the DMV or movies or Japadog but for pretty much anything. It seems like a huge waste of time, especially since the Internet has taught me it’s possible to get anything in the world overnighted to my doorstep so why on earth do I have to wait twenty whole minutes for noodles?!
The inevitable line is why I was initially hesitant when my friends suggested we visit Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. That twenty minutes in line could’ve been spent on already eating noodles at another establishment. However, I was convinced when they mentioned Santouka did one thing particularly well: tsukemen.
I don’t remember having tsukemen during my time in Japan since it was hot and I stuck mostly with cold soba or udon. Unlike regular ramen which is noodles served in a hot broth, here the noodles are served separately, meant to be dipped in the extra concentrated broth.
So since I’ve never had it before, I just had to give it a go. My friends (who you can find on Instagram…here, here and here) almost convinced me to take public transit down there but with the lineup and all, I was only prepared to hate one thing that day.
We got our tsukemen education from David Chang, Anthony Bourdain and Mind of a Chef, a show on PBS that I can’t seem to find on YouTube anymore but I’m sure you can dig up the episodes on the Internet somewhere. Chang claims tsukemen is his favorite way of eating noodles so we went to see if he’s onto something.
Unlike some of the other ramen shops around Vancouver, this is actually only one of many Hokkaido Ramen Santouka locations around the world, including around 30+ locations in Japan. However, while franchising reminds us of McDonald’s and food that maximizes profit rather than taste, they take their ramen very seriously in Japan and if there are that many Santouka locations, it’s probably because it’s very, very good.
Like most ramen shops, Santouka is not what you’d call roomy. There’s a large table at the front, some bar seating and about 5 more tables for a total of about 30 seats. That’s probably what causes the line outside but the line actually goes by rather quickly given the amount of traffic at Santouka. That could be people adopting the standard issue Japanese etiquette of ramen shops or indeed all small restaurants over there where you eat as quickly as you comfortably can and go away even quicker.
It’s to be kind to all the people starring at you through the window, waiting outside in the cold, as I demonstrate here. It’s a stark contrast to dim sum etiquette, or lackthereof, where people will sip their tea long after the table is cleared regardless of how many people are hovering over your seats like vultures.
Althought tsukemen is prominently featured on the signs at the front door, Santouka has quite a few other things on the menu, including the usual flavors of ramen. During the holidays, they had a featured lunch set ($19.99) with a bowl of ramen and an ikura don. Ikura, not to be confused with masago or tobiko (which are smaller), is salmon roe which has a great briny, salty, fishy flavor that goes well with a big bowl of sushi rice.
This holiday combo saves you a couple bucks over ordering these items separately and also comes with a melon ice cream soda. Separately, this is $4.50 (I know because I ordered one afterwards) and for that you get this electric green fizzy stuff with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’ve never come across melon soda anywhere other than Japan or Japanese grocery stores but it’s a fantastic soda flavor…and ice cream just makes it better.
The main event, the tsukemen ($11.95), comes in either regular or spicy and…well, just look at it. That just flat out looks like something I’m going to like and spoiler alert, I do. This is a new entry on my list of favorite things in Vancouver. It’s at least 12 different kinds of delicious.
Let’s start with these noodles, which are excellent. They’re just the right amount of chewy, cooked just right and they have a great flavor all their own. They’re not cold either, like zaru soba, since they’re intended for hot soup dunking. Oh, did I mention with tsukemen you get double the amount of noodles as you would with soupy ramen? And you can get even more for another $1.00?
The normal (double) amount was just enough for me. Having said that, however, I regret not getting the extra noodles for another buck because this stuff is just so &^*#ing awesome. If I doubled up on this portion for the extra dollar, I would’ve felt like dying after…like I wouldn’t be able to do anything but sit on a couch and watch Saved by the Bell but it would’ve been worth it.
Then you have the broth, which is also excellent. It’s hard not to be because it’s essentially concentrated liquid pig. If that doesn’t sound delicious to you already, then we can’t be friends.
It’s basically the same as ramen broth but cramming all the flavor and possibly more into much less liquid. This means it’s too salty to spoon up by itself but perfect for dipping those al dente ramen noodles. Slurping technique is key here. Remember that doing to loud not only informs the staff that you’re enjoying your food but you also suck in air at the same time. I don’t know why exactly but it does taste different…and it’s fun!
The soup has chunks of pork and green onion floating around in it along with a whole hard-boiled egg. The pork has a rich, slightly smoky flavor while the egg…well, the egg is the only slightly disappointing part about this meal. I prefer the runny yolks you get at some other places…but if that’s the worst part about tsukemen, I’ll take it.
Put together, this is an amazing bowl of noodles, worthy of many people’s top 10 lists. It’s hard to explain but I think it’s the flavor of the noodles that balances out the heavy, fatty broth. Totally amazing and probably now my preferred way to enjoy ramen. I’ll still get bowls of the regular stuff but if this is on the menu, I’m trying this everywhere.
The prices at Santouka are slightly higher than other ramen shops around Vancouver. I can’t attest to the soupy ramen since I haven’t tried it yet but the tsukemen at $12.00 is actually better value than expected since it’s a double portion of ramen and if you add the extra noodles for a dollar, it gets even better. If the tsukemen is any indication, it’s no surprise that Hokkaido Ramen Santouka received a silver in Vancouver Magazine’s restaurant awards.
Service just happens rapidly. The servers speak limited English but are cheerful and friendly enough that you don’t mind enunciating a little more. I’m inclined to cut them a little slack because they’re working a constantly busy, incredibly cramped restaurant which would turn normal people into Oscar the Grouch but these folks have big smiles on their faces like they’re genuinely happy that you’re there. I’ve never been asked so nicely to move out of the way…and I live in Canada.
Summary: Welcome to one of my new favorite restaurants in Vancouver. The tsukemen is not to be missed, especially if you enjoy ramen, pork or both because dipping those bouncy, chewy, bright yellow noodles into that steaming vat of pork essence is one of the most delicious things I’ve done all year. There are regular lineups outside this tiny ramen shop but they go quicker than they appear. Grab a melon soda while you’re there if you aren’t scared of neon green drinks but seriously, run…don’t walk to Santouka now for tsukemen. You can thank me later.