With translation by Yuko Kojima.
When Menya Ramen closed down in May, it was sad day for ramen lovers who enjoyed one of the most reasonably priced casual ramen shops in the city.
However, when the Zakkushi Group (which operates Zakkushi and Ramen Raijin in Vancouver and Toronto) launched a new establishment in its place, Menya Raizo (which had its grand opening on August 30), they decided to take an approach that honours the location's history in numerous ways.
On a visit to Vancouver from Toronto, Ramen Raijin co-owner and director Hiroshi Yoshida, of the Zakkushi Group, chatted with the Georgia Straight at the new spot at 401 West Broadway (at Yukon Street).
Yoshida, a former manager of the West End's respected Kintaro Ramen, explained (with the assistance of a translator) that they wanted to show respect for Menya Ramen and their customers, due to the length of their run for over a decade.
The new incarnation incorporates numerous elements from the previous version.
Upon setting foot in the renovated location, previous regulars will immediately recognize the tree stump stools from the former operators, which are still being used in the 32-seater room.
They've been integrated into an outdoor, street-style theme. The room's décor is an attempt to evoke a feeling of natsukashii, or a fondness for the past, in a style that Yoshida has coined as "neo-retro". Yoshida said they were inspired by yatai, or mobile food carts which often sell ramen in Japan.
Accordingly, corrugated metal roofs hang above the tables and counters, which Yoshida explains that they built to recreate the atmosphere of being outside or on a patio.
But it's not just Japanese nostalgia that they hope to tap into.
That's why the walls are lined with archival black-and-white pictures of Vancouver and the neighbourhood, including maps, the area around City Hall, and a photo series that reveals how Vancouver has developed over the years.
Yoshida, who was in charge of making the menu for Ramen Raijin (which opened a Burnaby location in February), says he focused on offering flavours compatible with a Canadian palate. However with Menya Raizo, he said he was inspired more by what he likes to eat. Consequently, Menya Raizo's menu is more nuanced.
Yoshida explains that while Ramen Raijin's shoyu ramen brother is somewhat akin to teriyaki, at Menya Raizo, the shoyu broth is made from a blend of three types of shoyu. It's a subtle difference but he says he wanted to create depth of taste and flavour, including umami.
Former Menya Ramen patrons will also be glad to see that a seafood champon is still on offer. Menya Ramen was one of the few ramen shops in Vancouver to offer the Nagasaki-based bowl, and Yoshida said it was the most requested ramen to include on the new menu.
There are a number of ways which sets the ramen (which range from $11.50 to $14) here apart from other places, and Yoshida explains that they wanted to do what others aren't doing yet. A wise move, considering the number of ramen shops that have sprouted up within a short time frame.
Although Yoshida chose their bowls, which are high and more conical, more for style, the shape brings the broth and noodles closer to the mouths of diners.
Unlike most ramen shops in Vancouver, nori (dried seaweed) isn't an automatically included topping (it is one of many possible add-ons). In its place are radish sprouts, which are often served in Japan and Yoshida says he decided to use them to add the colour green to the bowl, and because of their rarity in Vancouver ramen.
Also unlike most Vancouver places, some of their ramen bowls come with slices of both chashu pork and chicken, and they offer both tonkotsu (pork broth), their most popular, and a signature chicken broth.
Their miso ramen is served Hokkaido-style, with butter and corn. Other bowls available include gyokai tonkotsu shoyu ramen (a blend of fish and pork broth), umami shio ramen, and tan-tan-men.
Their noodles also aren't frozen or imported but made in Vancouver with whole grains.
To allow customers to enjoy beer, sake, and other alcoholic drinks, they also offer a number of small dishes to accompany them, such as tebasaki chicken wings, aburi chashu, yuzu-flavoured pickled cabbage, takoyaki, gyoza, and more.
Of course, the most obvious throwback to their predecessor is in the name itself.
As for why Raizo was added to the former name, Yoshida offered a thoroughly considered explanation.
The charcter for rai in kanji is thunder, which is a motif that is apparent throughout the restaurant and menu.
Moreover, it also refers to name of the Showa era movie star and kabuki star Ichikawa Raizo (Yoshida said he studied film in university).
He added that he liked that the name sounded like the English word rhizome, meaning a root that grows laterally, to reflect the idea of the hidden link between Menya Raizo and Ramen Raijin. (The bonus in that, unbeknownst to Yoshida, is that the word also references the now-defunct social-gathering spot Rhizome Café at 317 East Broadway at Kingsway, which existed from 2006 to 2013.)
For all of these reasons, the attempts of new noodle spot to make all the right moves in treating the past with respect—both in Japan and Vancouver—should help to secure a successful future.