Where to find Vancouver’s best Japanese ramen
A man and a woman plonk themselves down at the communal table at Kintaro (788 Denman Street) beside diners hunched over bowls of steaming noodle soup. “Ramen!” they declare. “Our first time!” Everyone is eating too intently to respond. Little do the couple know that after their first bowl, there’s no turning back, especially with so many great ramen options in the city.
Kintaro is the grandfather ramen shop, faithfully serving bowl after bowl since 1999. The room is basic, but regulars aren’t bothered. They come for the fresh, firm-textured noodles and the star component: the soup. “We have a thick broth. It’s one of the best broths,” declares Yuji Sato, assistant manager. Sato points to massive stock pots and explains that the pork and chicken broth is simmered for a whopping 22 hours to get maximum flavour from the bones.
The base broth is used for various soup options: shoyu, a soy sauce version; shio, with sea salt; miso, flavoured with multiple soybean pastes; and a spicy garlic-miso soup. And what makes their soup so good is the pork fat that’s added in varying amounts, depending on whether diners opt for light, medium, or rich broth. They also get a choice of fatty or lean barbecued pork. One other unique crowd pleaser: the miso ramen with grated swiss and a slice of mozzarella cheese sprinkled on top—far better than Kraft Dinner.
A few doors over is Kintaro’s more upscale sister restaurant, Motomachi Shokudo (740 Denman Street). A large communal table dominates the compact room, styled with the wood accents characteristic of a classic ramen joint. Here, there’s an emphasis on organic ingredients and a lighter, lower fat chicken-based broth. The same soup variations can be found here, in addition to a bamboo-charcoal-powder miso ramen. The charcoal powder is said to clean toxins from the body, but all health claims aside, it lends a lovely smokiness to the umami flavour of the miso.
The West End ramen route continues at Hokkaido Ramen Santouka (1690 Robson Street), a Canadian outpost of a chain hailing from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost major island. Where Kintaro has boiled down (pun intended) its menu to a single page, Santouka has a binder of options, including tan-tan men, with soy sauce, sesame paste, and chili oil; its signature tokusen toroniku ramen, with sliced simmered pork cheek and other toppings on the side; and tsukemen, with a double portion of cold noodles for dipping into the hot soup. The pork-based broth has a delicate, almost creamy consistency that warms the belly instantly.
A dependable standby is Benkei Noodle Shop (1741 Robson Street and 545 West Broadway), where the ramen is consistently satisfying. The noodles, which are on the thicker side, have a springy toothiness to them. Popular are a curry ramen with grilled spinach, corn, and carrots, as well as the aka oni, which consists of spicy miso broth with pan-fried minced pork, green onion, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, roasted sesame seeds, and toasted garlic oil.
Garlic lovers may also want to try Ramen Jinya (270 Robson Street), known for its black ramen, named after the charred garlic oil that gives the broth its black hue and an intensely garlicky flavour. “It does have a strong taste. Some people don’t like the strong taste, so we can make it milder for them,” says supervisor Ayaka Kikuchi by phone. She explains that because Ramen Jinya originated in Los Angeles, it offers more nontraditional ramen selections, like chicken- and veggie-based broths, in addition to pork.
Chef Andrea Carlson was aware of the multitude of ramen options around town when she came up with her version for the grocery store/eatery Harvest Community Foods (243 Union Street), that is committed to sourcing from local farmers. “The idea was to draw from the classic approach but using seasonal produce and ethical meats,” she says during a phone chat. The broth for Harvest’s pork ramen, for instance, is made from free-run meat and bones from Gelderman Farms in Abbotsford. Carlson explains that, rich from long-simmered pork trotters and skin, “the stock’s got a really unctuous, sticky-mouth feel.”
The bowl is full of carefully crafted and sourced ingredients, like locally produced fresh noodles, watercress, scallions, radish, slices of pork shoulder, house-made mirin-candied bacon, and a poached egg marinated in soy sauce, mirin, garlic, and ginger.
Also at Harvest Community Foods, vegetarians can enjoy a broth made from Klippers Organics’ butternut or red kuri squash, kombu, onion, garlic, ginger, mirin, soy sauce, and miso. Along with noodles, of course, the veggie option comes with nori, scallions, watercress, radish, and sesame. One slurp—with its bracing flavour hit—will remind you why there’s a demand for so many standout ramen shops, and versions, in town.