If you work or travel near downtown, you've seen the lines at lunchtime. The queues outside the ramen shop on Baldwin Street form before noon most days, and farther east, near Ryerson, two new ramen spots – one from Hokkaido, another from Vancouver – regularly draw lineups down the block.
Even frigid weather can't stop them. On a sub-freezing Friday late last month, the queue outside upstart Sansotei Ramen, on Dundas Street West, devolved by 1 p.m. into a desperate huddle; its 20-odd shivering, stamping, goosedown and Gore-Tex clad supplicants (I was one of them) all but cheered each time the tiny restaurant's door opened, releasing a cloud of steam and another set of rosy-faced, satisfied-looking noodle freaks outside. Toronto, like much of the continent, is having a Japanese noodle soup moment. Just a year ago, there was exactly one good ramen company in the city, Kenzo, the multilocation standard-bearer. (To my mind, the next best choice was the 67-cent packaged stuff. Don't act like you've never gone there).
Today, the options are almost limitless. There are outposts of two superb Japan-based ramen empires (as well as Ajisen, on Spadina, a depressingly mediocre one), two made-in-Vancouver heavy hitters, a handful of stellar locals, and a noodle bar run by Momofuku, the New York company whose East Village shop almost single-handedly brought the craze to North America.
I spent much of the last few weeks braving those lineups, tasting a dozen bowls some days, ingesting God only knows how many hectolitres of creamy, fatty, sublimely sodium-laced pork, chicken and seafood broth. I slurped enough springy, chewy noodles that I swear my lips are developing smoker's lines. It wasn't all bad, though – far from it. I didn't meet a lot of bowls I didn't love.
Here are the best.
No. 5: A-OK Foods
A-OK is a snack and ramen-focused spinoff of Yours Truly, the popular Ossington Avenue tasting menu spot. The ramen noodles, made in-house, are a standout. They're firm and nicely chewy, more tan than yellow, and flavourful – they taste wholesome, like dark wheat. They're great in A-OK's mellow, meaty, chicken-based shoyu broth, topped with tender pork neck slices and goji berries. But the best way to try them is as tsukemen: served straight up on a plate alongside a half soft-boiled egg and pork slices, with a small bowl of super-concentrated Szechuan peppercorn and chile dipping broth on the side. You dip, you slurp, you sigh, your forehead beads from the chiles, your mouth goes numb from the peppercorns, you repeat. It's a rush. Extra noodle portions, which you'll probably want, cost $2.
930 Queen St. W. (at Shaw Street), 647-352-2243; aokfoods.ca.
No. 4: Ramen Raijin
A first Toronto outpost of Vancouver's pioneering Kintaro and Motomachi shops, Raijin does two main broths: a rich, round pork bone and pig's head tonkotsu that's made white and creamy from extended simmering, and a light and clear but savoury chicken broth. The pork soup is lounge-singer smooth, an unassuming base for superbly springy noodles and the dark-light seesaw of earthy wood-ear mushrooms or silky braised pork against high-toned green cabbage, corn or bean sprouts. The chicken broth, meantime, is a lot like a supercharged take on Vietnamese pho soup; it's clean-tasting, particularly with its crunchy-juicy canola greens. This is ramen you don't have to think about, comforting and good.
3 Gerrard St. E. (at Yonge Street), 647-748-1500; no web
No. 3: Kinton Ramen
Kinton, like Raijin, is the offshoot of Vancouver food royalty, in this case the mind-bogglingly successful Guu chain. (Guu also has two izakayas in Toronto, plus a new sushi spot called JaBistro, on Richmond Street West.) The narrow, lively room on Baldwin Street was one of the first ramen imports out of the gate when it opened last May; I don't think it's spent more than five minutes at less than 95-per-cent occupancy since. Kinton's noodles are good enough – past a certain point of quality, a noodle is a noodle, I say – but the restaurant's ace card is its massively flavourful broth made from pork, fish and vegetables. Like so much that the Guu empire does, that broth – particularly the miso and shoyu versions – is made to be noticed.
The seasoning and concentration get right up in your face. And man, it's delicious! It's available in light, regular or extra fatty. Toppings range from standard to whack – witness the soups with grated raw garlic, or better, the basil and the mountain of grated Swiss cheese, which, remarkably, isn't halfway bad.
1 Baldwin St. (at Beverley Street), 647-748-8900, kintonramen.com
No. 2: Sansotei
For months after Sansotei opened last fall, local noodle hounds sounded almost anguished about the place. The broth was killer, they said; the floury, flavourless house-made noodles, not so much. Owner Michael Zhang has fixed that – he now offers a choice of superb thick or thin noodles, in addition to the original ones.
The broth is pork-bone based, milky-creamy (but not too much) with emulsified fat, smartly balanced from its low, anchoring deep-savoury notes through to its upper-register scallion heat. It's supremely tasty stuff. The perfect order? That pork-bone broth with shoyu tare, thick, chewy, springy noodles, a runny soft-boiled egg and wood-ear mushrooms (the menu calls them "black fungus"). This is winter-weather heaven in a bowl.
179 Dundas St. W.(at Chestnut Street), 647-476-3833, sansotei.com
No. 1: Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
Santouka got its start in the late 1980s on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, after founder Hitoshi Hatanaka saw the cult ramen comedy Tampopo with his family and decided to open his own tiny shop. It is now a 55-location chain.
Santouka's ramen, built up from a pork bone broth that's enriched with dried seafood and vegetables (I'm guessing, anyway; the recipe is closely guarded), is a masterpiece of balance and flavour. The soup is rich and crazy-savoury, but also clean-tasting – it's refreshing, somehow, so that your mouth waters between slurps. There's a toasty, nutty layer from sesame seeds, sharpness from chopped scallions, magma-level depth from tare. The noodles are great. The pork is luxuriously silky and fatty, exponentially so if you spring for the braised pork cheek, which to my mind is one of the best things that's ever happened to meat. (See the annotated bowl, above.)
Go with friends if you have to, but I wouldn't. Idle chatter is distracting in face of brilliance. My second time there, I went alone and ordered whole hog: miso ramen with the cheek meat – or as the menu calls it, "No. 14" – and a soft-boiled egg for good measure. Before long, I was lost in pleasure. For the 10-odd minutes it took me to slurp that ramen, my brain was a zen master's envy: sharp, clear, focused only on the bowl below me. (Must-have for future visits: a bib.) It was the best $20 I've spent in months.
91 Dundas St. E. (at Church Street), 647-748-1717, santouka.co.jp/en/