These two Japanese noodle joints are popular fixtures in Vancouver's West End ramen alley. Although within steps of each other, and both part of large international chains, they are as different as, well, chickens and pigs.
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
Location: 1690 Robson St.
Prices: Ramen, $8.95 to $13.45
Additional Info: Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. No reservations.
You've probably noticed this bustling ramen mecca, open since 2009. It's the place with plasticized versions of its various noodle soups in the front window and long lineups outside.
Are the soups worth the wait?
Narrow, appointed with concrete and typically hot as a steam bath, the restaurant isn't the least bit comfortable. But not many ramen shops are. When finally squeezed into a tight booth with a sticky tabletop, you'll be presented with a huge binder of a menu. Although Santouka offers many options, the house specialty is tonkotsu toroniku ramen.
Tonkotsu is a pearl-coloured broth that achieves its collagen-rich creaminess by simmering it with pork bones for 20 hours before the other secret ingredients are added. All of Santouka's soups are made with a tonkotsu base, but there are various flavours to choose from – shio (salt), miso (soybean paste), shoyu (soy), kara miso (spicy soybean) and seasonal specials.
Go for the signature shio, which isn't overwhelming salty. The miso is made with a different pork broth and doesn't have the same depth. A little spice goes a long way to cutting the fat. Add a few dashes of chili powder or ask for the condiment carousel (including chili oil and vinegar) served with gyoza.
The menu states that the soups are intentionally served tepid, never boiled, to maintain the broth's integrity. Scratch that. The soups are extremely hot – hotter than most.
Regular pork char sui is fine. The thick slices of pork back have a nice balance of meat and fat (although you can always ask for leaner or fattier portions).
But why bother when you could be eating toroniku for a few extra dollars? This succulent slow-simmered pork cheek is the reason people line up. Served warm on a side plate with caramelized edges, this tender meat is so soft and buttery it melts in the mouth.
Dry, medium-sized noodles are springy and curly. The toppings are classic – green onion, bamboo shoots, jelly-ear fungus, toasted sesame seeds and pickled plum with the shio.
Toroniku pork cheek is the only reason to wait in line. These are silky slices of heaven that everyone should try at least once before they die.
Location: 780 Bidwell St.
Prices: Ramen, $9.25 to $18
Additional Info: Open daily, 11:30 a.m. (11 am on weekends) to 10 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on Fri. and Sat.) No reservations.
This casually elegant wooden-panelled ramen joint rarely has a lineup, and I don't understand why. Compared to Santouka, it's the superior choice.
Maybe it's too new, having opened last year. Perhaps people are suspicious of a noodle shop this clean and spacious.
But I suspect chicken feet are the real reason. Marutama offers only chicken broth instead of the standard pork. Mind you, this is no ordinary chicken broth.
Extracted from bones, gizzards and cartilage-rich feet, this special stock is almost as thick and fully flavoured as creamy tonkotsu, yet clean and brightly balanced with no heavy aftertaste. It's just pure, delicious, chicken-umami goodness.
The toppings are simple – sharply pungent green onion and dried aosa (sea lettuce), which adds a splash of ocean brininess, but is more vibrant than nori. It's a beautiful blend that doesn't require any miso or soy sauce (typical flavours not offered here).
You can order your ramen spicy. The kitchen adds mustard and chopped chili oil. But I don't recommend it. The spice mutes the freshness of the original broth.
The pork char sui is more tender than at Santouka. Alas, they don't offer toroniku. Shame. Braised pork belly is an optional topping. It comes in soft, fatty cubes with a strong whiff of star anise, which also obliterates the chicken. Don't bother. Do, however, order a soft-boiled soy-seasoned egg. The orange yolk adds nice, creamy texture.
Marutama is one of the few Vancouver ramen joints offering fresh flour noodles, which are made in-house. They're not as springy as the regular, dried variety and that's a good thing. You can order soft, regular or firm (I suggest the latter).
Some people say Marutama is too expensive – up to $18 for the works. But if you order an extra serving at meat at Santouka, it is the same price.
I hardly ever finish a full serving of tonkatsu ramen, but here I wanted to lick the bowl. Marutama is well worth trying. And you don't have to wait.