Going to Toronto meant one thing: access to delicious food. Ottawa’s culinary scene is certainly not weak but good quality, decent-priced Japanese food is hard to come by (says the ex-Vancouverite). One dish that is particularly missing from the Ottawa food scene is good ramen, and so this became the focus for my trip to Toronto. To have a fair comparison between the ramen shops, I decided to order my favourite miso ramen – with its standard toppings of green onions, cha-shu (pork), corn, and bean sprouts – each time. Whenever I had an option to sit at the counter, I took it.
Stop #1: Ramen Raijin
(Gerrard St E at Yonge)
For dinner, I had the miso ramen for $10. This was my first taste of non-instant ramen in many many months. It was good but I’d say it was more like a warmup for my stomach for what was to come later in the weekend. We arrived at around 5pm on a Saturday and were quite happy to be seated right away. The front seating area is actually just half of the seating capacity for the restaurant but only the front was being used while we were there. As we were leaving, there was a small group of customers waiting.
My ramen came with one slice of pork…could’ve used another one. The broth was decent but not quite what I was expecting with a miso ramen.
Two things that I realized I enjoy at a ramen shop – the traditional wood-based counters and a good view of the kitchen – were both missing from this place. However, the service was decent and the staff provided a warm Irashaimase (welcome) and Arigato gozaimashita (thank you) to every group of customers.
Stop #2: Kinton
(Beverly at Baldwin)
We were the first in line for the 11:30am opening time (arriving just past 11am) at this fairly small restaurant. Once the doors opened promptly on-time, it didn’t take long for all of the seats to fill up.
I had the miso ramen for $9.50 with regular broth and pork belly. You have a few options here: pork shoulder or pork belly, and light, regular, or rich broth. Despite choosing the regular broth, I still found it was super rich and heavy, making it hard to drink more than half the bowl. The noodles were delicious and the chewiest of all 4 places I visited. The 1.5 slices of pork belly was good but after trying a bite of the melt-in-your-mouth super tender pork shoulder, I know next time, I’ll just go with the pork shoulder. They also offer calpico (hot and cold) for $3, which gets an extra point with me, as it is one of my favourite Japanese drinks.
The energy was, by far, the most festive here with animated staff yelling and confirming orders. The service was excellent and everyone was super friendly. A hearty Irashaimase and an equally hearty Arigato gozaimashita from all of the staff in unison bookended your meal. We also had a prime spot at the wood counter with an awesome view of the kitchen. We watched them steam-fry the gyoza, cook the noodles, and prep the ramen for service. Very exciting stuff. Almost feels like you’re right in the thick of things.
One neat thing that you may not pick up on if you don’t understand any Japanese (or Japanese geography, for that matter) is that the staff refer to the different seating areas as the different Japanese islands (e.g., Hokkaido, Honshu). All of the tables that I saw were bar height.
Stop #3: Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
(Dundas at Church)
Arriving for an early dinner at around 5pm, we had a choice between a few tables or the counter, but the place was comfortably full (no line yet). Opting for the counter, I was disappointed to find that because of a higher ledge, I couldn’t see as much of what was happening in the kitchen as at Kinton, but at least I could see a bit.
I had the miso ramen, in a smaller portion for $9.50. At this place, with their standard ramen, you have an option of up-sizing for an extra $1 or getting a smaller portion for less $1. Unlike the other 3 places, Santouka also offers their version of tsukemen, although instead of getting the noodles on the side to be dipped into the broth, you get the toppings on the side with the noodle already in the broth.
This was the only ramen that came with some bamboo shoots, some black fungus, and a slice of chikuwa. The pork tasted more strongly marinated than the other places and melted in your mouth. Delicious stuff.
The staff was friendly and the service was good. This place was a lot quieter than Kinton but more cozy than Ramen Raijin. Because most of the seats are at tables, there isn’t much communal seating.
Stop #4: Sansotei
(Dundas at Chestnut)
I arrived at 10:50am on a weekday, being the first in line for their 11am opening. One thing to note for this place is that they are closed on Sundays. Although they offer table seating only (read: no counter to watch the kitchen from), it can turn into communal seating as there are a handful of large 6-seat tables. Half an hour past opening, the place was just over half full. Not bad for an early lunch on a weekday.
I had the miso ramen with original noodles for $9.50. You have the option of Sansotei original noodles, thick, or thin noodles. I was also very pleased to see cold calpico on the menu for $3. This was the only ramen shop to include a soft-boiled egg with their miso ramen in addition to two pieces of the most tender cha-shu! The pork was also the wrapped variety (to me, I feel like this is what should be offered with every bowl of ramen), scoring an extra point in my mind.
The service was decent and the Japanese pop music was playing at the perfect volume in the background. However, I was quite disappointed that there was no counter seating and the kitchen was hidden behind a wall.
Favourite noodles: tie between Kinton and Santouka (different styles but both very delicious)
Favourite pork: Sansotei
Favourite ambiance: Kinton (far surpasses the other 3)
Favourite broth: Santouka, only because it was rich but easy to drink.