To make our signature tonkotsu broth, we simmer pork bones for about 20 hours until it is pearly white. Finally, after such a long, low-temperature cook, we add vegetables, dried fish, kelp, and other savory ingredients.
So explains Santouka’s website on its approach to making ramen broth. It surely qualifies as the legendary dedication (some say a fanaticism) that ramen chefs expend to realize their vision. The international chain has recently opened a Bellevue location, called Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, yet another Japan-based company that decided to open its restaurant on the Eastside instead of Seattle.
The founder, Hitoshi Hatanaka, who started the business in 1988 in Hokkaido, was inspired by the cult classic movie, Tampopo, which similarly galvanized rameniacs, in and outside Japan, to seek out the best of Japan’s favorite noodle soup. Santouka’s shio (salt-flavored) ramen became so admired that the restaurant spread to other parts of Japan and to international locations throughout Asia and (for now) the Pacific U.S. states (Hawaii, California and Washington).
A misconception that many diners have was cleared up when our waitress explained that the ramen is not made in any particular “Hokkaido-style,” despite the implication in the restaurant’s name. It only refers to the founder’s origin from that part of northern Japan. And despite the menu’s offering of the troika of ramen kinds (shio, shouyu and miso), they are all variations of, or rather additions to tonkotsu, again a source of confusion for anyone expecting otherwise. This is borne out when the shio and shouyu arrive not as the usual light broths but instead creamy ones in the style of tonkotsu.
Prices are displayed for the medium-sized ramen. Small bowls are $1 less and large, $1 more. Shio, shouyu and miso cost $10.96; the spicy miso, 50¢ more. Every ramen comes with certain shared accompaniments, which include menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), a single slice of narutomaki (fish cake with a red swirl pattern), sliced green onions and roasted pork belly. Mushrooms (kikurage, or tree ears) appear only in the shio and miso variations. Only the shouyu comes with nori squares. Only the shio has umeboshi (pickled, salted plum). The special toroniku ramen replaces pork belly with pork cheeks and is priced accordingly ($15.96).
The tonkotsu shio ramen was exceptional. The broth was refined, complex, quite milky and fatty, with admirable restraint on saltiness. There was no doubt that it took a long time to make. The noodles were straight-cut and served al dente. As is typical of any thin noodle soup dish, the pasta quickly started to soften in the hot broth, one reason that the Japanese slurp up their ramen at breathtaking speed to avoid the inevitable doughiness that follows. The pork slices were somewhat chewy but tasty. Though the kikurage in Japan are sliced into 3mm slivers, here they are left whole (because people don’t know the metric system here?). Menma is sliced into slivers and cooked only with salt. A soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) costs extra ($2) and is served whole, unless you want it cut in half. The yolk was congealed, though I prefer mine to be runny, which raises an interesting tactical question (raised below). The lone tiny umeboshi worked quite nicely, salty and crunchy. Overall, this was a first-rate ramen (☆☆☆½).
It’s really admirable that Santouka manages to keep sodium levels respectable. It was even more of an achievement for tonkotsu miso ramen (☆☆☆½), despite miso’s inherent saltiness. The broth exhibited similar milkiness as the shio’s but was heartier from the fermented soybean paste and had slight gingery undertones. The same comments above regarding the accompaniments apply here.
Judged on the ramen itself, Santouka does an excellent job. I can honestly say that the bowls I’ve had here and at Kukai and Jinya have been exemplary and catapult Bellevue well ahead of Seattle in establishing a very good local ramen scene.
Having said that, I do have complaints about Santouka.
The Bellevue location is the first stand-alone U.S. restaurant in the chain. The others are found in the Mitsuwa market food courts or in a mall (Honolulu). Downtown Bellevue is a high-rent district, which may explain, partially or entirely, why prices are relatively high. While ramen at Kukai might command a comparable price, the perception is that the serving size is smaller, possibly heightened by the smallish bowl in which the soup is served.
While visually arresting and minimalist, the restaurant interior gives off a poshness that you don’t get at other ramenya. Eating ramen in Japan has never been about upscale surroundings. Ironically, Tampopo had nothing to do with a swanky experience. To some extent, Kukai and Jinya have the same ambience, but not nearly so pronounced. The inside waiting area is minuscule, which means that when lines get long, you will be waiting outside, not so pleasant when the weather turns for the worse.
The dining experience itself has some shortcomings. Santouka no longer serves hot tea, which we think our waitress explained applies to the entire worldwide chain. Really? A Japanese restaurant without tea? If true, I want to be the fly on the wall when this apparently new policy is explained to patrons throughout Asia. If you don’t want beer, soda, juice or bottled water, they will give you hot or ice water. But no tea. There also is a no-takeout policy, which might be understandable from the standpoint of enjoying ramen at its peak, but otherwise there is no reason. But the kicker is, apparently this policy applies to taking leftovers home, according to one Yelper. Eh, what???
And the quandary about the egg. As I mentioned, you’re given the choice of getting it served whole or cut in half. If the egg were properly runny, halving it presents aesthetic problems, particularly as it’s served on the side in a little dish. Is this the reason why it was cold and the yolk partially congealed? If I had opted for a whole egg, would it have been served hot in the bowl and my wish for a liquid yolk fulfilled?
In summary, even Santouka’s excellent bowls of ramen might not be your cup of tea if you’re seeking better value or don’t care for its arbitrary policies.
Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004
Its a shame that the ramen “experience” available to us represented by Santouka, Jinya and Kukai is no more accurate than “upscale” hamburger places charging upwards of $15. Ramen, like the hamburger, is a staple of the masses served very well at many places priced for mass consumption These three places are selling to a market that can afford to overpay, and the lack of a market with real competition allows them to succeed. The relative unfamiliarity of the product by the consumers are allowing misleading practices. Hokkaido as your first name would seem to mean that your product represents that region. Hokkaido (Sapporo) ramen, in Japan, is usually associated with miso based broth, which has various other bases like chicken, fish, and even tonkotsu mixed with it. At least Kukai’s broths are more representative of those available in Japan. Santouka’s pricing strategy is clear when you compare the Bellevue to Honolulu stores. Honolulu is a much, much more competitive ramen market with lots of Japanese tourists and a local clientele that is ramen-knowledgeable. For the price of a bowl of ramen at Bellevue, you can get a combo that includes ramen and things like salad, poke, and mokoloco. I wish them all success so that the market grows.
I see the trend in Seattle toward attracting more of the same unfortunately. I hope I’m wrong. The new ramen restaurants in LA are commanding the same prices. I’ll have to pay attention to the prices in Honolulu the next time I’m there.
American consumers seem to be the main problem. They enable the transformation of of a common everyday product into an “experience”. Compare the difference in price of a Banh Mi for Viets with those for non-Viet Americans.
Population density (ugh) seems to be a requirement of a vital, energetic food culture. I’m afraid we are out of luck on that score, but we chose to live here for other reasons.
And there are plenty of restauranteurs willing to oblige. I believe that Shibumi is aimed at this kind of clientele, which is why it chose Capitol Hill. Shibumi did have very good ramen in Santa Fe though.