Another bowl of ramen in Toronto

Kenzo Ramen (Mississauga location: Burnhamthorpe Road West by Mavis Road)

Whenever I’m in Toronto, I like to try to get in at least one bowl of ramen into my itinerary.  I’d gone on a bit of a ramen adventure in Toronto during a 4.5 day trip there last February (read about it here) and though I never wrote about it, I also had some delicious ramen at Momofuku Noodle House as well. Unfortunately, when I’m staying in the suburbs, the concentration of ramen shops in the downtown area does me no good.

This time, I thought I’d lucked out. Kenzo Ramen, which I had yet to try, has 5 locations in the Toronto area, including in the suburban city of Mississauga. We arrived there just past 6pm on a weekday to find a good-sized but fairly empty restaurant (score!?). I should note that by the time we left, all of the tables were full. We walked in to Irashaimase (welcome)…a good start. We ordered takoyaki as an appetizer (at an expensive $8.99 for 6 pieces), and a tonkotsu ramen and a tonkotsu miso ramen (both bowls are $10.95 each).

Takoyaki
Takoyaki

The takoyaki were a decent size but again, pricey for (a) what you get and (b) what it entails.

Tonkotsu Ramen
Tonkotsu Ramen
Tonkotsu Miso Ramen
Tonkotsu Miso Ramen

I expect tonkotsu broth to be rich, flavourful, and hearty. It should taste like pork. The charsiu (BBQ pork) at a really good place is wrapped, not just a piece of pork, and should melt in your mouth. I did not enjoy the tonkotsu broth at Kenzo, neither in flavour nor in richness, and the charsiu at other ramen places in Toronto is much better (though the flavour at Kenzo was decent). Unfortunately, despite not having eaten a bowl of ramen in over 6 months (read: we were ramen-hungry), we did not feel satiated by this ramen.

Sigh.

It also took a while for our dishes to make their way to our table, despite there not being too many customers ahead of us.

Kenzo Ramen on Urbanspoon

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Downtown Toronto in a few images

With a 4 day weekend getaway to Toronto and this being my first time truly spending time in the heart of the downtown area, I knew I wouldn’t see everything this trip…but here are some places I did visit:

Negitoro and spicy scallops rolls at Nami on Adelaide E.
Negitoro and spicy scallops rolls at Nami on Adelaide E.
Amazing little coffee shop, Fahrenheit Coffee, at Lombard and Jarvis.
Amazing little coffee shop, Fahrenheit Coffee, at Lombard and Jarvis.
St.Lawrence Farmers' Market on Saturdays, Front at Jarvis/Lower Jarvis.
St.Lawrence Farmers’ Market on Saturdays, Front at Jarvis/Lower Jarvis.
Gentrified Distillery District
Gentrified Distillery District
Izumi distillery (also known as the Ontario Spring Water Sake Co.) in the Distillery District. Tours and tastings available.
Izumi distillery (also known as the Ontario Spring Water Sake Co.) in the Distillery District. Tours and tastings available.
Mill St. brew pub in the Distillery District. Tours available.
Mill St. brew pub in the Distillery District. Tours available.
SoMa chocolate shop in the Distillery. Tried their drinking chocolates. Not bad at all!
SoMa chocolate shop in the Distillery. Tried their drinking chocolates. Not bad at all!
Warehouse converted in some shops. In the foreground is a manual metal-bending machine.
Warehouse converted in some shops. In the foreground is a manual metal-bending machine.
Gigantic billboard at the edge of the Distillery District...just look at the scale of that thing.
Gigantic billboard at the edge of the Distillery District…just look at the scale of that thing.
Kensington Market area just west of Chinatown
Kensington Market area just west of Chinatown
Kensington Market on Augusta Ave. Very cute shop/bookstore called the Good Egg.
Kensington Market on Augusta Ave. Very cute shop/bookstore called the Good Egg.

Bring on the Ramen: Toronto

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.

Ramen

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.

Miso ramen
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.

Shio ramen also from Ramen Raijin
Shio ramen also from Ramen Raijin
An order of gyoza at Ramen Raijin
An order of gyoza at Ramen Raijin

Ramen Raijin on Urbanspoon

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.

Kinton

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.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

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.

Best seats in the house!
Best seats in the house!
Charring the pork
Charring the pork

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.

Shio ramen also from Kinton
Shio ramen also from Kinton
Spicy karaage at Kinton
Spicy karaage at Kinton

Kinton Ramen on Urbanspoon

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.

Santouka

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.

Smaller portion size of the miso ramen with an appetizer of kimchi
Smaller portion size of the miso ramen with an appetizer of kimchi

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.

Santouka's version of tsukemen. Toppings come on the side instead of noodles coming on the side.
Santouka’s version of tsukemen. Toppings come on the side instead of noodles coming on the side.

Santouka Ramen on Urbanspoon

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.

Miso ramen
Miso ramen

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.

Where is the counter and the view of the kitchen??
Where is the counter and the view of the kitchen??

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

In summary:
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.

Another train adventure: Toronto

I’m quickly growing quite fond of train travel and in a nutshell, here is why:

Air vs Rail

VIA Rail offers 50% off sales every so often (I took advantage of this sale when I booked my Vancouver to Winnipeg to Ottawa rail adventure) and the last time they offered this, I decided to book myself a trip to Toronto for a weekend. It’s a 1 hour flight, 5 hour drive, or 4-4.5 hour train trip from Ottawa to Toronto…and for not being too far apart, I haven’t seen much of downtown Toronto. Hence, a trip!

The scenery in the winter is a bit bleak (lots of white, grays, and browns) but nonetheless, here are a few snaps of the ride between Ottawa and Toronto.

Snowy farmland Storage spaces More farmland A barn Transformers A river Future PanAm Games

The cranes in the photo above are located near the Distillery District. If I read the maps correctly, this location is where the PanAm games will be in 2015.

More on the trip to come!

Three perspectives on food through three films

I visited a library branch that I’d never previously been to; I love randomly combing through the DVD section and I love it even more when I find things I want to watch! At this new-to-me branch, I found 3 documentaries.

Ingredients: the local food movement takes root (a film directed by Robert Bates in 2009)

Pay the doctor or pay the farmer. Simplicity, flavour and quality are the most important. Pay now or pay later (some may say, suffer later). Growing food more naturally makes more sense. As a farmer, you’re producing food, not fuel. Vibrant healthy ecosystem = better colour, better flavour, better quality, better nutritional values. Taste and how the producer takes care of the land are important. We have been taught through the industrial food system that cheap food is better because it is more convenient and cooking is time-consuming drudgery. This is a well-made film featuring chefs, including Alice Waters, and farmers/ranchers that I’d definitely recommend watching.

Escape from Suburbia: Beyond the American Dream (directed by Gregory Greene in 2007)

The film is centered around the concept of peak oil, which is when oil extraction rates peak; after this point, production would decline and what happens thereafter is somewhat speculative.

The timing of when we’ll reach peak oil, or if we’ve already reached it, is also debated, but the one thing that is for sure it that oil is a finite resource that we will not rebuild within our lifetime (let alone many lifetimes). This core concept is simple but the implications are incredibly vast. You can’t have a discussion on peak oil without getting into politics, community dynamics, societal lifestyles and culture, lobbyists and corporations, environment, ownership and stewardship, personal responsibilities, and much more.

As the name of the film implies, connected to the concept of peak oil is the reliance on vehicular transportation based on the suburbia model. The premise isn’t necessarily to decry suburbs but to make suburban developments more self-contained, with services and food sources available within walking distance, and at the same time really considering the environmental toll that development takes, particularly when agricultural land is under consideration. Once the land is paved over, it will be incredibly difficult reclaiming the land for agricultural use. If our reliance on oil continues in the same way, then presumably, demand will surpass supply, costs will rise (prohibitively, I’d guess), and we won’t be able to transport ourselves in the same way that many of us do now: in our own personal cars. At that time, we’d probably want to have food sources nearby…but if we used up agricultural land for housing or other development, how can we supply ourselves with enough food to sustain communities? There are also many food deserts already throughout North America and this would become more apparent if access to cars was limited. Location, location, location!

Those are a few of the issues discussed by the film; you can see the trailer here:

Food Stamped: Is it possible to eat healthy on a food stamp budget? (A film by Shira and Yoav Potash in 2011)

Accessibility of healthy food options can be a barrier for people, particularly if there are socioeconomic factors at play. The film doesn’t get detailed with respect to the issues affecting accessibility but the filmmakers were interested in spending a week living on a food stamp budget (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP). The filmmakers are a young couple living together who had time to pre-plan a weeks’ worth of meals, have access to a supermarket, do not usually live on a fixed income, have no children, and are familiar with how to cook foods. Although I’m wary of projects like this where folks take on a fixed income lifestyle for a very short period of time, I think they’re good if they increase awareness of food accessibility issues (eg. food deserts) and help us examine how our lifestyle choices affect people of all different backgrounds. I recall some Ottawa councillors taking part in a similar endeavour as part of the Living Wage Campaign a few years ago…but I’m not certain how much of an influence the experience had on affecting food policy in the city.

Ride along on VIA Rail’s The Canadian: Winnipeg to Ottawa

After travelling from Vancouver to Winnipeg aboard VIA Rail’s The Canadian then hopping off in Winnipeg for a few days of sightseeing, it was back onto the train for the rest of the trip back to Ottawa.

Just stepped into the main hall at the Winnipeg station
Waiting area at the Winnipeg station…dim lighting and old-fashioned furniture
Forest fire remnants?
Lunch: Quinoa salad with feta cheese and cranberries
Old telephone poles, left to rot
Another small town beside a huge lake that we passed through
The Canadian Shield!
A stop at Hornepayne, a small town that used to be a booming CN Rail town…but is now just a small town. This used to the old train station.
Dinner: Chicken soup with wild rice. Sound familiar? It’s usually served as an appetizer but I wasn’t all that hungry so opted to have it as my entree.
But of course I had room for dessert after dinner! Chocolate caramel torte.
Interesting stand of trees in the background

And then it was off to shower and then to bed (early)!

The sunrise (before 6am)
Starting to enter Toronto
A bridge crossing over the Don Valley Parkway
Union Station in Toronto is located near the foot of the CN Tower!

And then we arrived in Toronto! A great view of downtown as we pulled into Union Station. The ride onto Ottawa from here is on a typical commuter-style train. The scenery is mostly farmland all the way in, which I had seen plenty of through the Prairies…so I didn’t take many photos.

A view of Hurdman Station, a hub in Ottawa’s public transportation system.
Ramp leading up to the main lobby at Ottawa’s VIA Rail station

Back to hot humid Ottawa!