Remember when ramen was a simple choice between shio, shoyu and miso?
The Japanese noodle soup has become dizzyingly complex, especially in Vancouver, where new ramen-yas are popping up faster than spring mushrooms after the rain.
Today, there are numerous regional styles to choose from. Noodles can be thin, thick, fresh or cold. Broths are made from pork, chicken or seafood – and sometimes all three. There are endless varieties of seasonings and combinations of toppings. Some are garlicky enough to ward off vampires.
To help you get to know your noodles, we test-slurped a few of the most notable new arrivals. Warning: They were not all great.
The Ramen Butcher
223 E. Georgia St., Vancouver; 604-806-4646; theramenbutcher.comVancouver secured its pole position in the Western battleground for ramen supremacy when one of Japan's largest chains, the Menya Kouji Group, opened its first North American franchise in Chinatown last year. With its lofty cement ceilings and logo signage emblazoned in nails, Ramen Butcher is so hip they give out free food to any customer wearing ripped jeans or certain brands of sneakers.
Tonkotsu – a pearl-coloured pork soup enriched with dried seaweed and vegetables, made from bones that are boiled for 12 to 15 hours until the collagen dissolves into gelatin – is the specialty here. Although technically a broth base, tonkotsu has become so popular in Japan it is now regarded as one of the four main flavours, along with shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and miso (fermented bean paste). Ramen Butcher's tonkotsu is as thick and creamy as that found at Santouka, the local gold-standard-bearer, yet brighter and better balanced.
Seasonings come in a variety of fusiony colours: red (spicy garlic), black (roasted garlic oil) and green (basil pesto and Parmesan cheese). Purists will want to stick to the classic or slightly sweet red. The toppings – pickled ginger, wakame (rehydrated seaweed) and negi (green onions) are generous. Ajitama, medium-boiled, soy-marinated eggs, have nicely fudgy yolks. Tender chashu (pressed pork-belly slices) is served lean or fatty, an option that isn't always offered these days. The house-made noodles are skinny and straight. Overall, this is very good ramen. And the charred gyoza, plump with garlicky pork and slightly chewy in the pleats, is excellent.
The tsukemen? Well, let's say this other specialty is an acquired taste. These cold, thick noodles come with a fish-and-pork broth on the side for dipping. It's not really a soup. The mealy broth is kind of bland. And the noodles are sticky. But cold dipping noodles are currently all the rage in Japan, so what do we know?
501 Dunsmuir St., Vancouver, 604-673-0918; ramengojiro.com
The Menya Kouji Group's second Vancouver franchise opened just last week. It's too new to be fully and fairly reviewed, but it's so different we wanted to tell you about it. This "Jiro"-style ramen comes with thick round noodles, which are better for soaking up its fatty chicken-pork broth flecked with hunks of lard.
For meat toppings, you are given the choice of chashu or karaage (thickly battered fried chicken). And the moist thigh meat, marinated in what tastes like mirin, is terrifically sweet and floral scented. But you might want to ask for your karaage on the side because the crunchy coating gets awfully soggy after floating in the soup.
And beware: Gojiro (otherwise known as Godzilla) earns its name honestly. The monstrously garlicky shoyu-paste topping will leave you with killer breath.
1487 Robson St., Vancouver, 604-689-4272; hapaizakaya.com
Oh, Hapa Izakaya. You were such a cool influencer in your day. Why do you now have to go jumping on every bandwagon? It looks like a middle-aged soccer dad riding around in a Ferrari. And it tastes really boring.
Sure, Hapa Ramen's 45-seat room is probably the most spacious noodle house on Robson Street's Ramen Row. But could you please dim the lights? They're blinding. And what's with the blaring gangsta rap?
Hapa Ramen specializes in tori paitan, a chicken-bone broth. Nearby Marutama and the Ramenman make it much better, with more depth and flavour. Thin noodles are springy and served with a good al dente chewiness. Of the three signature flavours, we tried two. Shio was really, really salty, while kimchi was scorching hot and bluntly one-dimensional. There aren't many toppings offered in the basic orders, only a small mound of pale scallion, limp memna (preserved bamboo shoots) and a sheet of nori. Our ontama (63-degree egg) was broken and leaky.
There may be room in Vancouver for upscale ramen-yas, but in order to succeed, Hapa Ramen will need to substantially elevate its soup.
841 Bidwell St., Vancouver, 604-620-8806
This cute, hipster ramen-ya is the most interesting of the new crop. Although we liked the long communal table, the rustic woven baskets and brushed-steel antiques, we really loved the soup.
Chef Jun Okamura starts with a chicken broth that is light, yet rich in flavour. We tried the chicken-clam soup, which is distinctly fishy, but not overwhelmingly so. A dash of truffle oil gives the broth an earthy (but not obnoxious) grounding. Red and green scallions lift it all up with bright zest. The clam ramen comes with half-a-dozen steamed clams, plus chicken and pork chashu that have been cooked sous-vide. The pork, which is thin and pink and almost looks like processed lunch meat, will likely offend purists.
We wanted to go back for the vegetarian ramen, but the shop was closed for renovation. We'll be first in line when it reopens on March 18.