Wow, Vegan Ramen? You Betcha!


OG Ramen (image from ramenhoodla.com)

Any pretensions I had that a good vegetarian ramen could never be made was dashed recently. The revelation happened when my sister-in-law had me sample her OG Ramen from Ramen Hood, a completely vegan stall in Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. Visually, it looks like a ‘typical’ ramen, broth like milky tonkotsu, slices of chashu floating on top, a square of nori poking up along bowl’s edge, a pinch of chile threads sprinkled on top. It lacked for nothing in presentation. Yet, as I was ready to taste the broth, I had serious doubts that it would be remotely interesting. So imagine how stunned I was, not that it was anything like meat-based ramen broth but that it was in and of itself so savory, complex and substantial.

How in the world did the chefs pull this off? This from their website:

Our broth is made by simmering kelp and shiitake mushrooms to extract their maximum umami. Then we roast sunflower seeds with white miso and combine that mixture with the kelp/mushroom stock. Then it is all pressure cooked to release the natural oils and starches from the seeds. What’s left is a rich, creamy, broth that rivals it’s non-vegan counterparts flavor and texture.

Never underestimate the genius of creative chefs. The ramen tastes genuine. Recent converts to vegetarianism might be moved to tears, genuflect at the feet of its creators. I still prefer tonkotsu or miso ramen, more because slices of king oyster mushrooms would never replace slices of tender chashu, and vegan ‘eggs,’ though they’re ingeniously made at Ramen Hood (including yolk that oozes), can’t substitute for perfectly made ajitsuke tamago. But, as a change of pace or to take a break from animal products, I wouldn’t hesitate to devour a bowl of OG ramen. A wondrous achievement.

Ramen Hood
(Grand Central Market, Stall C2)
317 S. Broadway Street
Los Angeles, CA 90013

Spicy Umami Miso Ramen at Jinya Ramen Bar


For me, few things are an antidote to cold weather than hot ramen. Over a week ago, the Seattle area experienced temperatures in the low 40s, a good excuse to hop into Jinya Ramen Bar for a hot lunch while my wife and I were running errands in the Crossroads area of Bellevue.

Though my favorite bowl there is the Jinya Tonkotsu Black, what caught my eye was Spicy Umami Miso Ramen. The description reveals Chinese influence of ground pork and chile oil (rayu/layu). It’s also the only ramen on the menu to include bok choy. Kudos to the kitchen for eliminating the pebbliness that often typifies ground pork. The mince is very fine. Instead, the pork plays second fiddle to the noodles that are thick and curly, good foils for the spicy pork broth. Jinya isn’t kidding about umami, which the broth has in spades. The noodles were perfect. The only complaint I had was the saltiness, not surprising for a sturdy, thick miso broth. Otherwise, this is a terrific choice for those who love robust ramen. (☆☆☆½)

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Jinya Ramen Bar
15600 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008
425.590.9548

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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Curry Ramen at Samurai Bowl (Christchurch, NZ)


My daughter and her family dine at Samurai Bowl often. It used to be once a week. I suspect that it’s not the parents’ decision necessarily but my five-year old grandson’s, who seems never to tire of their miso ramen. Today, just my daughter and I had lunch here, while the kids were in school. When served our meals, waitress asked daughter, “Where’s your son?” I myself have eaten here several times, enjoying their solid bowls of ramen more than their other items.

Looking over the menu, I decided to have curry ramen, despite the lackluster experience I had with their karaage curry-don almost a year ago. This choice turned out to be a good one. I’ve only had a very few curry ramens before, but none this good. The broth, slightly thick, mild and mildly sweet, is an excellent example of the flavor of Japanese-style curry. Unlike Samurai Bowl’s curry-don, there was no grittiness or pronounced coriander seed flavor. Maintaining their firmness throughout the meal were the medium-sized, curly egg noodles. And what wonderfully succulent, flavorful and fatty slices of roasted pork belly that melted in my mouth. The menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) were a tad salty and the extra-cost ajitsuke tamago (half-boiled egg) was plonked into the hot broth, straight from the fridge, the yolk half-congealed and still cold.

I can say that I’d now order curry ramen (☆☆☆½) over their signature samurai ramen in the future—without the egg.

Samural Bowl
Shop 5/574 Colombo Street
Christchurch, NZ 8011
03-379 6752

Dinner at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant


The intriguing black ramen that I enjoyed a year ago at Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar got me to wonder whether there was a hidden gem of a ramenya in the Northgate area. Opportunity knocked when we went with friends for dinner there.

Setsuna’s ramen menu offers four kinds: white, sakura, black and red, roughly descriptive of their colors. White ramen is shio-flavored (salt). Normally, shio ramen is associated with assari (clear, light) broths. Setsuna’s is one exception that leans more toward the heavier bone broths (kotteri), though sea salt is the only seasoning used. (Santouka also has a shio ramen that is a variation of tonkotsu.) It was milky enough in appearance and feel that it could be mistaken for miso. The broth was rich and, in accordance with Japanese preference, fatty. Bean sprouts and slivers of yu choy were the extent of the vegetables. Condiments included so-so menma (seasoned bamboo shoots), chile threads and a cold ajitsuke tamago (extra cost) with a nearly totally congealed yolk. At least, the cubes of roast pork were flavorful and tender. What about the ramen noodles themselves? Sad to say, they were a tad pasty, which got worse as they sat in the hot broth. This bowl was not top-notch by any means, just good enough (☆☆½).

White Ramen

White Ramen

So, the answer to my year-long question is that Setsuna does not produce consistently good ramen to make it a destination for rameniacs.

My wife ordered the gyoza-tempura combination dinner (☆☆½). Here again, there were some miscues. The gyoza skins were fried to a distractingly super crunchiness like crackers, though the pork filling was very tasty. The tempura batter was a little too greasy and tasted of old oil. Quantities of tempura and gyoza dipping sauces were so skimpy that more had to be requested.

Combination Dinner with Gyoza and Tempura

Combination Dinner with Gyoza and Tempura

Our friends had the hamachi dinner from the specials menu. The comment was that the yellowtail steak was dry, mirroring the evaluation that my wife made of her salmon on our last visit.

The opening of Kukai Ramen in Thornton Place for me may be a glimmer of hope in the culinary wasteland that is Northgate.

Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar
11204 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98125
206.417.3175

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
425.462.0141

Tonkotsu Ramen at Yoe’s Noodles (Bellevue, WA)


The Taiwanese presence in the Bellevue Chinese restaurant scene is unmistakeable. And why not? The Eastside city has a large demographic of Americans of Taiwanese descent. It was no surprise that Din Tai Fung established its first Northwest location in Bellevue’s Lincoln Square complex. Many Chinese restaurants in the city, some explicitly serving Taiwanese cuisine and others not, are owned by Taiwanese. Yoe’s Noodles is a different animal. One might be curious about why a Taiwanese-owned restaurant serves a Japanese menu with descriptions in both English and Chinese. Not so strange when one finds out that Japanese food is popular in Taiwan, no doubt a byproduct of the 50-year Japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. Besides ramen, also on the menu are udon, soba, donburi and bento box.

I contemplated getting the Nagasaki chanpon (champon), which originated in that city at the turn of the twentieth century and was concocted as a way to satisfy Chinese students’ preferences.

But, in the end, I decided to try the ramen at the top of the menu, Yoe’s Ramen with Signature Tonkatsu, the broth’s name no less begging for the kitchen’s prowess to be judged. It was disconcerting though that the menu used the incorrect word—tonkatsu instead of tonkotsu. My first taste of the broth was not bad. It did have the requisite milky quality, but lacked complexity. The noodles, thin and curly, relied on eggs rather than kansui for springiness. There were too many bean sprouts for my taste, pork slices that were a bit dry and a half egg whose white part was made overly salty by soy sauce and yolk hard-cooked. In short, even allowing for the restaurant’s promotion of fusion cuisine and its reasonable price ($8.95), Yoe’s tonkotsu ramen fundamentally does not compare favorably (☆☆) with that of Bellevue’s three new Japanese ramenya (Jinya, Santouka and Kukai).

Yoe’s Noodles
1411-C 156th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98007
(425) 643-8528

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka: Is the Experience Worth It?


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).

Tonkotsu shio ramen

Tonkotsu shio ramen

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.

Tonkotsu miso ramen

Tonkotsu miso ramen

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
425.462.0141

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Tonkotsu White at Jinya Ramen Bar (Bellevue, WA)


I was seriously thinking of not going in. I stood outside for a minute or two, but decided to give Jinya Ramen Bar a shot anyway.

A little background. Our good friends ate there after it soon opened in Bellevue in March, along with so many other eager rameniacs that the two of them had to sit at the bar. They ordered Tokyo Yatai Ramen, which had several problems, among them being a soft-boiled egg (tamago ajitsuke) that was too salty, chicken chashu (which my friend called an “abomination”) that had a chemical taste and subpar marinated bamboo shoots (menma). Furthermore, another friend went twice, the first visit not being particularly impressed with the noodle quality, the second visit worse than the first. With reviews like these from people whose opinions I value, it was all I could do to forgo my reluctance. But, in the interest of evaluating a highly regarded ramenya, I walked in.

I was seated immediately. There was only one other couple toward the back and a lone diner at the counter. Jinya has a minimalist interior, like most Japanese restaurants. Along the back wall is the open kitchen, the counter artfully decorated with alternating red and black ramen bowls. Each table has a quartet of condiments: ichimi togarashi, red pepper paste, gyoza sauce and something called seasoning sauce, which was quite salty and garlicky.

I ordered the Jinya Tonkotsu White, the restaurant’s signature ramen. Besides, I love tonkotsu. It arrived ten minutes later, nicely presented in a black bowl. Two squares of toasted seaweed (nori) were nestled along one arc, an egg half-peaking out of the broth along with two slices of roasted pork belly, spinach, green onions, fried onions and slivers of cloud ears (kikurage). The tonkotsu broth was practically perfect, milky, thick and seasoned properly. It also coated the mouth with gelatin, which feels sticky on the lips, indicating the hours of extracting it from pork bones. The thin noodles were likewise perfect, exhibiting the best kansui property of being springy without the use of eggs. The egg had no excessive saltiness, which my friends noted from their visit. The yolk was ever so slightly congealed yet managed to ooze its bright yellow yolk out into the broth. Finally, the pork belly chashu could not have been better roasted, supremely tender and unctuous. In short, this was a ramen that can take its place among the best (☆☆☆½).

Jinya Tonkotsu White

Jinya Tonkotsu White

Could the same be said for the other ramen that are not pork-broth-based? I doubt whether my friends who tried them will ever come back after their terrible experiences.

You may have caught the fact that I was immediately seated with only a handful of customers inside. This does not typically happen at a highly regarded ramen restaurant. Kukai Ramen still has enough customers throughout the day that waiting to get seated is still pretty common. My only explanation for Jinya is that the rocky start took its toll. It’s possible that problems did not get fixed fast enough that the damage became almost irreparable.

“Did you like the ramen?” the waitress asked when I was done.

“Yes, I did.”

“Would you come back?” she followed.

“Yes, I would.”

“Please bring your friends and family.”

Did I detect some concern? There absolutely is no excuse for a restaurant of Jinya’s caliber, having garnered many awards and citations for its excellent ramen at other venues, including a glowing review from Los Angeles food critic-extraordinaire Jonathan Gold, to have had quality-control issues from the start. None, whatsoever. Management clearly dropped the ball. It will take time to repair its reputation. Jinya can only hope it’s not too late because other ramenya are moving in.

Update (6-24-14):

At dinnertime, the patronage was way up from what I experienced above. There was a slight wait of ten minutes before my wife and I got seated.

I had expected Jinya Tonkotsu Black to be almost ebony like the Black Garlic Oil Ramen at Setsuna, but there was hardly a resemblance. The tonkotsu broth was as light-colored as the Tonkotsu White (see above). The difference was in the broth, which is entirely pork-based for the Black, while the White is derived from pork and chicken. Not surprisingly, it had a noticeably porkier flavor with a touch of gelatinous stickiness and more flavor from garlic chips. The broth was quite good, milky and lower in sodium than, say, Kukai’s. The thin, straight noodles were perfectly textured, firm and springy, qualities that lasted a surprisingly long time. The roasted pork belly slices were the tenderest in recent memory with an equally impressive pork flavor. Fried onions, nori squares, kikurage and green onions rounded out the condiments. The notable shortcoming in the ramen was a half-congealed soft-boiled egg that was very salty, which my friend KirkJ also criticized when he ate here. This makes me wonder if there is any quality control on making ajitsuke tamago, which was perfect during my last visit. Nevertheless, the tonkotsu black was an impressive ramen (☆☆☆½).

Tonkotsu Black

Tonkotsu Black

The egg in my wife’s Hiyashi (cold ramen) wasn’t salty at all, but had a milder flavor more suited to the tare sauce. Cut in half, her egg too was partially set. The noodles were thicker and curly with substantial chew. The remaining ingredients included pork chashu, cooked spinach, cucumber, bean sprouts and ginger. The hayashi ramen is on special for the months of June and July, along with a non-traditional cold ramen soup with diced tomatoes, cilantro and lime. Like my pork belly slices, the chashu was equally tender, cut into cubes. Made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sugar, the tare sauce was sweeter than it needed to be. Otherwise, my wife said she’d order this dish again (☆☆☆).

Hiyashi (cold ramen)

Hiyashi (cold ramen)

Jinya Ramen Bar
15600 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008
425.590.9548

Dining on the Cheap in Christchurch: Samurai Bowl


My four-year-old grandson loves ramen.

His first exposures to it were the dried, packaged quick-cooking kinds that come from Japan by way of the U.S., specifically, Sapporo Ichiban (original flavor) and Myojo Chukazanmai (miso flavor). Our care packages to Christchurch usually include these, and we were sure to bring a good supply with us on our current visit to New Zealand.

So, there was little surprise that he wanted to go straight to Samurai Bowl to have fresh ramen after he and my daughter picked us up and, a week later, his dad at Christchurch Airport. Two visits in eight days. The restaurant is quite popular among locals for offering Japanese food at affordable prices.

There are lots of things on the menu, including gyozadonburi, sushi, salads, curries. Ramen is the most popular meal. The menu is overwhelming at first from the sheer number of things that can be ordered. Lots of pictures on the wall with descriptions added to the full frontal assault of possibilities vying for your attention. Add to this the monthly specials that are also posted at the counter and on the walls, and a cooler full of beverages, including beer.

Samurai Bowl also markets three kinds of packaged ramen, which it sells at the restaurant and various food outlets in Christchurch and other major cities throughout New Zealand.

All the ramen were good (☆☆☆), which is rather surprising for a restaurant with a big menu. The broths were full and tasty. The noodles were eggy and slightly thicker than usual, with good chew and generously portioned. All came with two slices of roasted pork belly, bean sprouts, seasoned bamboo shoots (menma), a square of nori and green onions. A soft-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) can be added for additional cost.

The original ramen is a pork and soy sauce flavored broth, which (judging from the menu) is not simply tonkotsu with soy sauce splashed in, but a less milky broth, but good enough to rate pretty well.

Oiriginal reipe ramen (pork and shoyu)

Oiriginal reipe ramen (pork and shoyu)

The miso ramen is my grandson’s favorite, which he shares with his mom.

Miso ramen

Miso ramen

The spicy ramen, Samurai’s most popular, is based on its pork broth, which was spicy though not unbearably. The broth’s distinct reddishness couldn’t possibly come from hot chiles alone, so it’s possible that it derives from kochujang, the relatively mild Korean chile paste. My sample’s egg was cold on the inside and the yolk congealed, a misstep straight from the refrigerator.

Spicy ramen

Spicy ramen

The non-ramen items don’t fare as well.

The spicy miso galbi-don that I had last year was less than impressive. Kara-age curry-don (☆☆) had a couple of problems. The most important was a curry sauce that was a tad sweet and had an overly ground coriander taste. The kara-age pieces were dry from over-frying, but they sure were crispy.

Kara-age curry-don

Kara-age curry-don

One would be tempted to conclude that donburi is not one of Samurai Bowl’s strong suits.

Maybe it might not matter so much when a customer can have a pretty good ramen experience.

Samural Bowl
Shop 5/574 Colombo Street
Christchurch, NZ 8011
03-379 6752

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