Review: Vancouver’s ramen offering keeps getting better

Ramen, like sushi, slipped into Vancouver culture and now it’s a near necessity on chilly, rain-soaked days.

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Ramen, like sushi, slipped into Vancouver culture and now it’s a near necessity on chilly, rain-soaked days. There are so many more ramen places from those early days of lineups into the steamy-windowed Kintaro ramen-ya on Denman Street.

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I’d recommend Marutama Ra-men, with three locations in Vancouver, two in Burnaby, one in Richmond and Coquitlam), Ramen Danbo, Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Gyoza Bar, Jinya Ramen, Motomachi Shokudo, Menya Raizo, Ramen Butcher, Zubu Ramen in Vancouver, Burnaby and West Van, Food Hall by Zubu, Harvest Community Foods, Franklin Food Lab, Hachiro in North Vancouver, Fat Mao Noodles, Ramen Gojiro, and Taishoken Ramen.

And here we have a couple that recently migrated here from Tokyo and Toronto.

Menya Itto

Where: 1479 Robson Street, Vancouver

When: lunch and dinner, daily

Info: 604-568-6898. 

Menya Itto, which opened last month, had a stellar rep for its tsukemen in Tokyo — a deconstructed ramen where broth and noodles are separated and noodles are dipped into the hot broth.

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Chef Yukihiko Sakamoto boasts two degrees of separation from Tokyo’s ‘Ramen God,’ whose earth-born name is Yamagishi Kazuo. Sakamoto trained under this god’s close disciple, a.k.a. the ‘son of Ramen God’ and then went on to open the first Menya Itto in Tokyo. He now heads 10 franchises internationally. This is the first in North America and Sakamoto is here for two months training staff with plans to check back two or three times a year.

Serendipity, or happy accidents, create many a popular dish. Potato chips? Created when a pain-in-the-butt customer kept sending back fried potatoes complaining they weren’t thin enough. Coca-Cola? Originally an alcoholic health tonic when Prohibition prompted owners to replace the alcohol with carbonation.

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Tsukemen ramen? A waste-saving move. When Ramen God’s staff noticed their boss dip leftover ramen noodles into a hot broth they wanted it for a staff meal. Boom. A dish was born.

So what’s that got to do with anything? In Vancouver, we now have tsukemen from a disciple of the ‘son of Ramen God’ and yes, it’s very good. So rich and complex.

At Menya Itto, tsukemen and regular styles of ramen are available with three broths: yuzu shoyu (clear chicken), noko gyokai (creamy chicken) and tsukemen.

“They have three times more chicken and other ingredients than others to make it rich and strong,” Sakamoto said through a translator.

The clear and creamy chicken broths simmer for eight and nine hours while the tsukemen broth takes 15 hours to reduce and amp up flavours.

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The recipes weren’t inherited from the ‘god’ or ‘son of.’ The most important thing he took from them, Sakamoto says, is to “have a good personality” and to hire staff for personality before experience. It’s true that flavour is influenced by happy, content feelings. The broths, he says, are his own recipes using alkaline water.

He wouldn’t divulge too much about how he makes the toothsome noodles other than that he uses seven different flours.

“For the tsukemen, I tried so many times to get the best texture,” he said.

The pork belly, pork shoulder and free-range chicken chasu toppings are cooked via sous vide, a holdover from earlier days cooking French food.

As Menya Itto settles in, they’ll incorporate new ideas. When I visited, a server added risotto to the leftover tsukemen sauce, sprinkled Parmesan cheese over it, then torched it. Adding rice to leftover sauce is a thing in Japan. There was also the option of adding a lighter wadashi broth with lobster to the leftover tsukemen sauce, transforming it into a delicious umami-laden soup.

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Pork chasu ramen at Kinton Ramen. Photo: Tim McCoy.
Pork chasu ramen at Kinton Ramen. Photo: Tim McCoy. Photo by Tim McCoy /PNG

Kinton Ramen

Where: 6111 University Boulevard, Vancouver

When: Open daily, 11:30 to 8:30

Info: 604-423-5452.

This chain, with 20 ramen shops in Canada and three in the U.S., landed in B.C. last summer on the UBC campus. Another will follow in North Vancouver later this year and moving forward, they’re looking to franchise more outlets.

Since my husband teaches at this far-flung campus, we’ve had some quick and casual meals here where most diners are students. Although there are a number of sides like chicken karaage, gyoza, takoyaki and some desserts, stick to ramen.

The last time, I went straight for what’s good for me during a pandemic — the Immune Booster, a seasonal special in a ginger-infused chicken broth, with a sizable immunity army of raw chopped garlic, onsen egg, chicken breast, cilantro and an umami hit of miso.

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The chicken, cooked sous vide, is very moist and tender. The broth involves a 20-hour simmer of pork and chicken bones, then vegetables and bonito come aboard.

You choose from options of pork, chicken or vegetable toppings and decide on thin, thick or healthy shirataki noodles.

The latter is made from konjac, an Asian root vegetable. And for flavourings, choose from ‘original’, or miso, spicy garlic, or spicy jalapeno additions to the broth. Watch for specials like the Immunity Ramen.

Last month, an all-day breakfast ramen with miso broth, pork belly, onsen egg, sweet corn, scallions, nori, chili pepper, hash browns, chili oil, butter and blow-torched tomato and melted cheese.

You can pile on up to extra 16 toppings for $1 to $3.50 each. 

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It’s been a while — more than two years — since I’ve set foot outside this country. But one way I’ve ‘travelled’ is to imagine I’m abroad while perusing a cookbook and then cooking and eating something from that destination.

Or making plans. Like for a trip to Cuba.

Our expected trip there was thwarted three years ago. We’d planned to hop over there after visiting friends in Florida but didn’t realize President Trump had reinstituted the ban on tourists flying from the U.S. to Cuba so — eye roll — we detoured to the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.

So I was happy when Apollo Publishers sent me a copy of A Taste of Cuba: A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine. Through it, I’ve had glimpses into the kitchens of Cuba’s top chefs and their recipes, tours through Havana neighbourhoods and various cities and regions as well restaurants and paladares, the family restaurants in homes.

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And now I have the names of two of Cuba’s best paladares located in Central Havana: La Guarida, the home where multi-award-winning movie Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed, and San Cristobal where President Obama had Cuban creole food during his historic visit to Havana in 2016.

Apollo Publishers sent another armchair travel cookbook for a place I have yet to visit, Indonesia. The country of 17,000 islands and rich volcanic soil is perfect for growing beautiful ingredients.

Fire Islands: Recipes from Indonesia isn’t just a cookbook, it’s a cultural immersion with lessons on how to capture and balance the bold, complex flavours of Indonesian cuisine. Since I have all the ingredients, I’ll be making ayam taliwang, a grilled chicken dish where “the skin is burnished and glazed, contrasting with the succulent meat inside. There is a fiery smack of charred chili and deeply smoky savouriness from the garlic,” as author Eleanor Ford describes.

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