Toronto's Touhenboku brings its ramen game to Vancouver—and Shanghai

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      Another day, another ramen joint opens up in the West End.

      The intense concentration of ramen shops around the Robson and Denman intersection doesn't seem to have warded off any newcomers. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      And one of the latest additions is Touhenboku Ramen. What makes it any different from other shops, you might ask?

      Well for starters, it flips the script on the usual migration pattern of Asian restaurants first establishing a foothold in Vancouver and then progressing eastward across Canada. Think Guu, Hapa Izakaya, Kingyo, and Zakkushi.

      Zuimei Okuyama, who moved to Toronto with his husband, marched in the 2016 Toronto Pride parade with the Touhenboku mascot Tomo, who reflects the restaurant name (which means blockhead in Japanese).
      Touhenboku Ramen

      Touhenboku instead started in Toronto, when Zuimei Okuyama moved with his husband from Tokyo to Toronto. There, he established three Touhenboku locations in Toronto, in addition to a sushi spot and a café.

      Craig Takeuchi

      Our city became the next stop. Enter Jay Liu, a friend of Okuyama, who is running the Vancouver outpost at 854 Denman Street (the former location of Westender Korean Café).

      Although it's Liu's first restaurant, the 15-year Vancouverite visits Japan three or four times a year.

      In an interview with the Georgia Straight at the restaurant, Liu says they intentionally chose a roomy venue so that it's not cramped when packed with patrons. That's also why the 39 seats—with a combination of regular tables, high-top tables, and counters—are evenly spaced out over the 1,450 square-foot venue. He explains that they sought to create a place for people to hang out in, rather than running a fast 'n' furious, chow 'n' run shop.

      Yet there were auspicious lineups from the get-go.

      After their soft-opening on August 11, they served 800 bowls on their first weekend. Not too shabby at all. (They did have a 50-percent-off discount.)

      Touhenboku's white (original) ramen with chicken broth, sea salt, thin noodles, and pork belly and shoulder.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Touhenboku's Vancouver menu (only slightly tweaked in layout from the Toronto one) allows patrons can tailor their bowls to their preferences.

      Diners first choose their flavour: white (the nicely balanced original broth), red (the seductive spicy version, with chili oil), black (intensely garlic—more on this later), or light (chicken broth only). Then they select their soup (chicken, pork, vegetarian), seasonings (soy sauce, sea salt, miso), noodles (thin or thick), and meat (pork shoulder, pork belly, chicken).

      Accordingly, Liu says wait times for the average bowl (which costs $10.50, plus any special additions) takes about 15 minutes.  

      Liu's marketing consultant Graeme Boyd, who is also a director of the Gay and Lesbian Bussiness Association of B.C.'s LOUD Buiness, says that they're trying to educate diners that the preparation process can take time.

      "A lot of people are used to the instant noodles and the soup is just poured over and it's all very fast and quick," he says, seated next to Liu. "And our that people are saying 'Well, why am I waiting for my ramen?' And, of course…it's all been specially constructed depending on their choices. It's not just a conveyor belt of soup being poured over instant noodles. But that's the challenge because people are expecting the basic fast food product and what we are providing offering here is a bit more of a premium product."

      Touhenboku's red (spicy) ramen with pork broth, soy sauce, thick noodles, and pork belly.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Meanwhile, Liu calls their black garlic ramen an "acquired taste". It's densely flavoured, and would definitely be savoured by garlic addicts (or vampire slayers).

      "Our black ramen actually has different layers of flavours because the garlic has been fried twice so some people find it burnt but it's actually not burnt. It's just more of a concentrated flavour garlic flavour to it."

      Craig Takeuchi

      For those seeking something more, there's also donburi, and appetizers like takoyaki and korokke (the karaage and gyoza are made in-house).

      What's more, there's also a selection of cakes for dessert—something not offered at many other ramen spots.

      For those seeking a culinary coda to end on a sweet note after a belly-bursting bowl of savoury noodles, check out the delicate milles crêpes (sweetened crêpes layered with whipped cream) or the wonderfully light Japanese cheesecake. (There's also a decadent dense chocolate cake and tiramisu.)

      Clockwise from top: Touhenboku's Japanese cheesecake, milles crêpes, and dense chocolate cake.
      Craig Takeuchi

      While the restaurant is still gearing up for its official grand opening, Okuyama—taking his eastward expanion even further—is busy launching two new locations in Shanghai. Liu says they may even consider Richmond or Burnaby for future locations in Metro Vancouver.

      As for the fierce noodle competition in the neighbourhood, it's fine with it. He says he feels it makes him stronger, he's confident in his product, and that each place has its own followers.

      "The location here in the West End—it's really the key to be in right now for ramen," he adds.

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