Do Kukai, Jinya and Santouka Have the Best Ramen in Seattle?

A Hawaiian food blogger once asked me about Seattle’s ramen culture. Knowing how robust it was in Honolulu where the blogger lives, I was apprehensive about answering him. Here was the Seattle area, having as much claim as any big West Coast city to strong economic and cultural ties to Japan, a history of Japanese immigration and community, a good-sized population of Japanese nationals, a respectable ensemble of Japanese restaurants—but, no thriving ramen scene. He asked me at the same time what my favorite ramen restaurant in Seattle was. Well…uh…let me see…hmmm. The email exchange had that flavor. That was three years ago.

Mine wasn’t the only lament. Between the Bay Area and Vancouver, B.C., there really hadn’t been much to get excited about.

Then, serendipity struck. Three high-profile ramen restaurants opened almost immediately since that email conversation. Two of them had Japan connections, the other came up from Southern California.

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Tonkotsu Kara Miso Ramen at Santouka

Major construction on the northwest corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way prevented a friend and me from having lunch at La Cocina del Puerco because of the lack of parking spaces. So as I drove up to Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, I noticed no one standing outside waiting to be seated. Friend was agreeable to stopping there for a bowl of ramen.

We got immediately seated at a tiny two-person table at the entrance along a partition. Feeling cramped like that is not a pleasant dining experience, made worse by so narrow a space to the next table that a customer has to move sideways carefully to get through. Once we sat down, we forgot the unpleasantness and decided what we wanted. Both of us had tonkotsu kara miso ramen, a variation of regular tonkotsu miso with a spicier broth and garnished with threads of dried red chiles (silgochu).

Service was so fast that I began to wonder how the noodles got done so quickly. I admit though that boiling fresh noodles takes only minutes, but it just seemed fast. Regardless, the noodles had nice bite, firm and springy, was a little weightier than thin noodles and curly rather than straight. Halfway into the bowl, they became noticeably softer but still nicely textured. Condiments included kikurage (wood ear fungus), menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and scallions.

The chashu was chewier than it should have been, duplicating the experience I had on my last visit, certainly not the buttery, meltingly tender legends I read about of other Santouka outlets.

The broth was exceedingly salty. The menu describes the broth as having salt added, but you have to wonder if that’s necessary when miso already has enough sodium. The combination of miso and chile paste (the agent I’m assuming is responsible for spiciness) does mask any subtleties the pork and seafood tonkotsu broth is trying to reveal. Even if this is a well-made ramen (☆☆☆), I should stick with the tonkotsu shio.

Hokkaiko Ramen Santouka
103 Bellevue Way NE, Suite 3
Bellevue, WA 98004