Battle ramen rages as new shops open in Vancouver

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      Kintaro. Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. Motomachi Sho-kudo. Marutama. Menya. Benkei. Vancouver enjoys an abundance of noodle shops like these that serve great ramen. But in the last year, a handful of new establishments have opened, all vying for ramen supremacy. Is the market becoming oversaturated? And what makes each of these newcomers unique?

      A big shift in the landscape occurred with the September 2014 opening of the upscale Gyoza Bar + Ramen (622 West Pender Street) by Aburi Restaurants Canada, which is behind Miku and Minami restaurants. In a phone interview, owner Seigo Nakamura explains that he chose a location near Seymour Street outside of the ramen hub centred at Robson and Denman streets in order to differentiate the restaurant from its competitors.

      “We wanted to provide a space where people could go after work and have a drink with ramen. We wanted to open up opportunities for people who haven’t tried ramen but might not go to the smaller places on Denman Street,” he says. Instead of the usual ramen joint’s simple, rustic surroundings, Gyoza Bar melds its heritage brick interiors with elegant, modern design.

      The restaurant has taken some flak from critics and people on social media who claim that its menu—with small plates like hummus, and ramen featuring a tomato-saffron broth—isn’t authentic. “When you try to break the general ramen mould, you have to take some risks,” Nakamura says. “That’s what we’re doing right now. I want to break the general ramen flavour and innovate to the next level.”

      Some have balked at Gyoza Bar’s comparatively high prices ($12 to $17 per bowl). Nakamura insists that the price reflects a greater attention to local and sustainable sourcing, and a commitment to not using MSG in the broth.

      In Chinatown, the highly anticipated shop the Ramen Butcher (223 East Georgia Street) opened its doors in February and has been drawing crowds ever since. The restaurant represents the first foray into the North American market for Menya Kouji, a famed Japanese ramen group that has over 150 locations in Asia.

      Vancouver managing director Kaito Kaneyoshi argues that the longevity of the company (30-plus years) gives the Ramen Butcher an advantage. “The ramen industry has evolved, and we’ve been through the evolution. It makes us more knowledgeable,” he says during a phone chat from the restaurant. He says ramen flavours have expanded beyond the traditional broths. For example, the Ramen Butcher offers a fusion “green” broth made with pesto.

      The restaurant’s décor has a hip edge to it that suits its neighbourhood; one wall features the word RAMEN emblazoned in nails. Kaneyoshi describes the room as a café in the sense that it’s meant to draw in a wider crowd than the usual eat-and-run ramen customers. He envisions ramen becoming even more pervasive in the city since it offers high-quality sustenance at an affordable price.

      Namgil Lee, owner of Taishoken Ramen (515 Abbott Street), which opened last June, also thinks there’s plenty of room in the market for additional ramen shops. Lee asserts that ramen will eventually eclipse sushi’s popularity in the city because of rising fish prices and concerns over sustainability and contamination. (He also owns Tsuki Sushi Bar next door.)

      Interestingly, Lee says Taishoken Ramen was set to be a Menya Kouji initiative until a falling-out caused him and the restaurant group to part ways. By phone, Lee says that Taishoken specializes in tsukemen, a type of ramen in which the brothless noodles are dipped into a separate bowl of soup. He also says that Taishoken’s kimchi chashu ramen is particularly noteworthy.

      The competition is indeed getting more fierce, with each new ramen shop claiming to be more creative than the rest. Cove Kim, manager at Ramen Koika (1231 Davie Street), which launched in July, says his restaurant’s menu is special because it has many items for vegetarians, and ingredients in the ramen are stir-fried in a wok first to give them a distinctive, smoky flavour.

      The ramen battle shows no sign of letting up, with new places constantly emerging to claim a niche. In May, the folks behind Le Tigre food truck are planning to launch Torafuku at 958 Main Street. The modern Asian eatery will serve ramen featuring West Coast flavours and local ingredients. Other new ramen shops hope to find hungry patrons outside the downtown core. For example, Jinya Ramen Bar, which hails from California, will open a second location in Kerrisdale (at 2129 West 41st Avenue) shortly.

      Gyoza Bar’s Nakamura welcomes the competition. In fact, he hopes that his Gyoza Bar’s cooks learn from his restaurant and go on to open their own eateries. “I’m excited to see what they create,” he says. Ultimately, though, it’s up to diners to decide the fate of ramen in the city.