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

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

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Porky Pig: Return to Ramen Fujisan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

At the spur of the moment, my daughter asked if we wanted to go out and have ramen for lunch. Sounded like a good idea. Since she’d never been to Ramen Fujisan, that’s where five of us headed. Located along Valley Blvd in San Gabriel where there are more strip malls than you can shake a stick at (and therefore lots of places to eat), Fujisan is the rare ramen restaurant. I’d been there once before and liked their tonkotsu ramen.

This time around, I decided to have the “strong” broth (I chose the “medium” before). Ever on the lookout for truly porky tonkotsu broth—and being frequently disappointed—I was truly pleasantly surprised. The first few sips is like tasting the essence of porky pig, almost gamey in its funkiness. But as my taste buds adjusted, i realized how much I was enjoying it. I also realized that other versions I’ve had were pretenders, either watered down for American tastes or not done properly. Combined with perfectly cooked firm noodles (and here you can order them “hard,” “regular” or “soft”), this may be the best tonkotsu ramen I’ve had the pleasure of eating. The pork belly (you can also ask for pork loin) slice, shredded tree ears, green onions and a single toasted nori square were fine enough, but secondary to the two main stars. An egg, which can only be ordered at extra cost, was the lone underachiever, having been sliced in half and therefore the yolk congealed from the hot broth. A wonderful ramen otherwise (☆☆☆½).

Tonkotsu ramen

Tonkotsu ramen

The option to specify the spiciness level has gone by the wayside, replaced by a single add-on choice called “spicy miso.” You used to be able to pick on a scale between “none” to “extra spicy.” Also gone is the macho challenge called Eruption of Mt Fuji in which the goal is to finish a ramen bowl at the spiciest level in 20 minutes, either costing you $30 if you failed or getting your tab picked up the restaurant plus a $10 restaurant certificate if you won. Winners had their photographs posted on the bulletin board. But this game has been replaced by another. If you finish a large bowl of Mt Fuji Ramen, equivalent in volume to 4-5 regular bowls, within 20 minutes, you get the same reward or penalty as before. Once you win, you can’t challenge again. Of course, you can lose $30 a pop as many times as you want.

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Ramen Fujisan (**CLOSED**)
529 E Valley Blvd, Ste 138-B
San Gabriel, CA 91776

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Ramen Fujisan (San Gabriel, CA)

Tonkotsu ramen (image posted by Charlie C on Yelp)

“Thick noodles or thin?”

“Heavy, medium or thin broth?”

“Lean pork or pork belly?”

“Firm, medium or soft noodles?”

“How much oil do you want?” (more on this below)

These are the battery of questions you get asked by the wait staff when you order ramen at Ramen Fujisan in San Gabriel. On top of that, you have the option of adding extras for an additional cost: green onions, nori, sliced tree ears, chashu, bamboo shoots, corn, bean sprouts and egg, the first four simply more of what already comes standard. As a reviewer on Yelp carped, “I came for ramen I didn’t come to play 20 questions.” To me personally, they represent a great, if verbose way to customize your order for no extra cost. The trend of tailoring ramen (like udon) to your preferences seems to be popular nowadays.

My father-in-law was in search of another ramen restaurant since the demise of Ton-Chan, also in San Gabriel and soon to be replaced by another ramenya, when he read about Fujisan.

The ramen (☆☆☆) was pretty good served with a rich, milky tonkotsu broth that wasn’t heavy on sodium. Having gone once before, my wife and her sister remarked that the “heavy” broth was practically indistinguishable from “medium” strength. The difference between “firm” (or al dente) and “soft” noodles is more obvious. I ordered mine firm. “Thick” noodles, which we all ordered, have more girth than standard (thin) ramen noodles that can withstand softening in hot broth longer.

And now, about the oil that you get asked about when ordering. An obvious euphemism, it’s really pork fat that to many rameniacs (to borrow a word coined by a popular but now inactive blogger) is part of the ramen-eating experience. Many a ramen where one doesn’t have a choice come with a layer of it on top, unnoticed by many but definitely there. It adds flavor and also keeps the ramen hotter for a longer period of time. The process of making genuine tonkotsu broth naturally results in a fair amount of rendered fat. So, in order to cater to customer concerns, the grease must be skimmed off afterward and left up to the diner to add back in.

The difference between the “lean” pork and “pork belly” option is a matter of degree. The label of lean in my book is a misnomer because of the generous amount of fat still attached. Regardless, both cuts are flavorful and tender.

Yet another choice is the degree of spiciness you want, anywhere from none, normal, spicy and extra spicy. The capper is an even hotter level, wryly called Eruption of Mt Fuji. Why would anyone risk forever blistering one’s taste buds? For one thing, you don’t get charged for the ramen ($7.50 with no extras) if you finish it in 20 minutes. Secondly, you’ll receive a $10 restaurant gift card. There is a downside though: if you lose, you get charged $30 for the ramen, which means you don’t enter the challenge lightly. For the victor, your name and photo gets added to the winner’s list on the wall. Once you win, you can’t throw down the gauntlet again. I can’t imagine a serious ramenya sponsoring such a challenge, apparently a relatively recent phenomenon to satiate a growing interest in ever spicier foods. It seems more suited to theater even if it adds an element of fun and suspense to an otherwise straightforward eating experience.

Ramen Fujisan
529 E Valley Blvd, Ste 138-B
San Gabriel, CA 91776

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya

The biggest Asian restaurant opening to hit the Eastside since Din Tai Fung has been that of Kukai Ramen & Izakaya. Kukai is a highly successful ramen chain in Japan. The Bellevue branch is the first in the States. No sooner had Kukai opened its doors than the lines started forming. For weeks, you could never get immediately seated, exacerbated by its limited weekday hours when their doors close for 2½ hours in the afternoon. And forget about weekends. You need to have the patience of Job to get a seat. About a month and a half ago, we attempted to go but were confronted by a line outside. We skipped it and went elsewhere.

Today, we were in the area and decided to give Kukai another go. This time, we got seated immediately.

The first thing that we noticed upon entry was the noise level. I’ve ranted before about restaurant cacophony; Kukai is right up there with the worst. We got seated at a two-person table, barely inches away from diners on either side of us. Our waiter informed us that the most popular ramen in Japan is the tonkotsu and the most popular izakaya item, the takoyaki.

For me, the choice was obvious—the tonkotsu. My wife wanted cold noodles to temper the hot weather we’ve been having lately. Her choice was the tsukemen, cold noodles and accompaniments that are dipped in a broth served on the side. Her choice of the broth was tonkotsu, the others being shoyu (soy sauce) and chicken. You would think that the tonkotsu of both our dishes would be the same, but you’d be wrong. I’ll comment on this later.

The tonkotsu ramen (☆☆☆½) broth was delicious, salty, not as porky nor milky as the most genuine versions, but tasty nonetheless. The ramen noodles were perfectly cooked, al dente, and kept their toothsome texture almost to the end. Virtually a hallmark of a great ramen accompaniment is a seasoned half-cooked egg (ajitsuke tamago) with a firm white and creamy yolk, the way the Japanese prefer it. Served whole, Kukai’s was almost perfect with a yolk that was a half congealed. Also included were bean sprouts, pork chashu, shredded green onions and rings of dried red chile. At $11, tonkotsu ramen is not an inexpensive noodle soup.

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen

Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen (Note: egg cut in half with chopsticks by me)

Diners have the option of choosing a “traditional” or low-sodium broth. Even though I like to watch my sodium intake, the issue of ramen’s saltiness (both fresh and packaged) really comes down to the broth where almost all of it is concentrated. The obvious strategy is not to finish the broth once everything else is eaten, though the temptation might be great to polish it off.

The noodles of the tsukemen (☆☆☆) were flat, cut like a thin fettucine, an interesting variation that worked quite well. They were accompanied by menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and yu choy, all topped with finely shredded dried seaweed. They also came with slices of pork chashu, like my tonkotsu ramen. The meat was from a larger cut than usual, tasty but the texture somewhat dry. A surprising twist in the dipping broth was a citrusy zing that turned out to be really appealing with this style of ramen.

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Tonkotsu tsukemen

Additional toppings are available for $1.50 each, which in some instances is excessive. Seriously, additional bean sprouts or scallions for $1.50? An egg is not included in many ramens.

Both these ramens were quite good, among the best in the entire region. Based on Kukai’s success here, there’s little doubt that the chain will open more restaurants elsewhere. For next time, an intriguing option to try is the Yuzu Shio Ramen. For small plate snacking or a lighter meal, there is the izakaya menu.

8-23-13: On a return visit, I ordered the shoyu ramen (☆☆☆½). Again, the noodles were perfectly cooked. The broth, again salty, was nonetheless delicious with a slight sweetness. I will have to try the low-sodium broth next time. Gyoza (☆☆☆), clad in a thin skin, was nicely browned and flavorful.

Shoyu ramen

Shoyu ramen

Kukai Ramen & Izakaya
14845 Main St
Bellevue, WA 98007

Ramen at Fu Lin (Seattle, WA)

This was interesting. A Chinese restaurant that serves ramen and large signs in Japanese clearly in view behind the expansive storefront windows. A good friend of ours recommended this place for ramen.

Located in the International District, Fu Lin has a special ramen menu, among which are included variations of shoyu, miso and tonkotsu ramen. Marketing ploy? An attempt to lure Japanese customers? It turns out that the owner/chef, born and raised in China, lived and cooked in Japan for ten years before crossing the ocean to settle here.

Though my wife and I were eyeing the same miso chashu ramen, I changed my order to tonkotsu chashu ramen so we could sample both kinds. The noodle soups were served in large bowls with the broth a good inch and a half below the rim. An important component of a good ramen is the noodle itself, in this case perfectly cooked and having great texture. In Asia, serious eaters will finish the entire bowl very quickly in order to enjoy the pasta texture throughout the meal. Eaters here don’t eat as furiously, so inevitably the noodles will soften.

The charsiu, five large slices in all, were lean, very tender and slightly sweet, wonderfully flavorful. Not pork belly slices that rameniacs like, these will appeal to diners who eschew too much fat. Five spice flavors infused the menma (seasoned bamboo shoot slices), leaning more toward Chinese flavors than Japanese. Bean sprouts, wakame (seaweed) and a good dose of sliced green onions rounded out the toppings of both ramen.

Miso charsiu ramen

Miso charsiu ramen

Tonkotsu charsiu ramen

Tonkotsu charsiu ramen

The miso broth was rich and thankfully not too salty, admittedly impossible to make a good, low-sodium miso broth, and having slight ginger overtones. Always in the hunt for a good tonkotsu broth, I found Fu Lin’s to be milky and flavorful, though middling on the pork-flavor intensity scale. The same friend who recommended the ramen here is of the opinion that, in the Seattle area, Fu Lin serves the best version. So far, I have no argument with that. Ramen addicts would do well to walk just a block up the street from the inconsistent Samurai Noodle and have their fix here instead.

Fu Lin
512 S King St
Seattle, WA 98104

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Tonkotsu Ramen at Ai Sushi (Bellevue, WA)

While I was getting my Hawaiian meal at Island Grill (see below), my wife was ordering tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi, also located in the Crossroads Mall food court. Let me first start off by saying that I’m always wary when a restaurant that does not specialize in it offers tonkotsu, a ramen that requires time and effort to make.  As an aside, I admit to having more doubts when the cook is not even Japanese (although this obviously wasn’t an issue at a ramenya in Santa Fe nor is it at Fu Lin). Some chefs proclaim an enthusiasm for making tonkotsu, with very disappointing results, as was the case at Bo Ramen, a pop-up that sprang up last year. It was a disaster (☆½) here at Ai Sushi.

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

Tonkotsu ramen from Ai Sushi

The pork slices seemed more like teriyaki-glazed chashu (as char siu is called in Japanese), uncharacteristically lean and disconcertingly sweet. Health considerations aside, pork in ramen typically are slices of the belly, unctuous and tender, the best of which should almost melt in the mouth. The half egg was fully cooked, normally an odd thing to complain about, except that the ideal that Japanese ramen chefs aim for is a hard white tinged with soy sauce and barely set, runny yolk, clearly not the case here. For sure, this is not a deal-breaker but not authentic either. The noodles themselves were good, with fine texture.

The broth is tonkotsu’s raison d’être. The best versions are very porky in flavor, fatty, gelatinous and milky in consistency, with a hint of ginger and other aromatics. It takes almost an eternity to make, genuinely requiring at least two days over a burner, which if you think about it is impossible at a restaurant nestled in a food court inside a mall that closes up every night. Special exemptions for restaurants? Maybe, but I doubt it.

Ai Sushi‘s broth is a total, unmitigated disaster. It is thin, oddly flavored, out-of-balance, with no luxuriance or weight typical of the broth. It isn’t even a good, ordinary ramen broth. Swill is a better word.

Ai Sushi
15600 NE 8th St
Crossroads Mall Food Court
Bellevue, WA 98008

The Bomb at Ton-Chan (San Gabriel, CA)—CLOSED

Before the crush of food preparation for osechi ryori, five of us headed over to Ton-Chan for lunch. A previous review of it is here. Instead of the usual Sapporo miso tonkotsu ramen that others ordered, I went for one appropriately called The Bomb, basically a miso tonkotsu ramen with spicy ground pork. As noted before, the addition of chile paste, optional with all three kinds of tonkotsu ramen (shio, shoyu and miso), is a modern introduction to appease the public’s growing appetite for spicy dishes. The Bomb is another departure, a synthesis of Japanese and Chinese styles. Even without adding the chiles, the ramen is lustily hot, though not anything approaching Ton-Chan‘s six-chile noodles. The same rich tonkotsu broth is here, along with slices of baby bok choy, slivered green onions and half of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg (firm whites, runny yolks) that Ton-Chan does so well. In short, this is a tasty alternative to the standard soup noodles.

The Bomb

The Bomb

Ton-chan (**NOW CLOSED**)
821 W Las Tunas Dr
San Gabriel, CA 91776