Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santoka Ramen

I’m supposed to be in Portland, Oregon, at the moment, seeing friends and drinking amazing wines. Unfortunately, nature isn’t cooperating (nor is Delta Airlines, for that matter), so I’m marooned in NYC for a few days. Fortunately, there is plenty of ramen here to keep me occupied.

I finally made it out to the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Edgewater, New Jersey, on Sunday. The idea of a real Japanese market (something larger than, say, Sunrise) was in itself alluring enough, but the true goal of my journey was Santoka, the ramen shop inside the market. Now, we’re not in Tokyo, mind you, but ramen here in New York City inspires fairly heated debate nevertheless. (Unfortunately, the debate is not always very well-informed, but that’s another story.) With the arrival of first Setagaya and then Ippudo, the idea of NYC ramen has become exponentially more intriguing. There are some people, however, who maintain that Santoka is still the finest ramen in the NYC area, and I was keenly interested in putting this opinion to the test.

While Santoka serves shoyu ramen and miso ramen, the specialty here is shio ramen, flavored with salt rather than soy sauce. (Apologies for the poor photography, taken with my iPhone as I didn’t have my camera with me.) My bowl of shio ramen was slightly on the smallish side, although still acceptable for $7.89, and came adorned with fairly standard accompaniments of chashu pork, bamboo shoots, black mushrooms, scallions and a slice of pink-and-white fish cake. (Plus a little umeboshi in the middle, which, quite frankly, I could do without.) The chashu was very good, but rather on the lean side—perhaps better to bring out the chashu flavor, but somewhat less satisfying in the pure porky goodness department. Still, it was delicious, and the next time I go, I will definitely take the option of super-sizing the porky portion for a few cents more. The shio broth was satisfying, lighter in body and distinctly less complex in flavor than that of Setagaya, but with a pleasing balance and harmony. The noodles themselves, though, seemed out of place in the overall context of the bowl, as they were disappointingly industrial and very ordinary in character.

Overall, Santoka is better than anything in Manhattan that starts with an “M”, but the finest ramen in the NYC area? I can’t see it. Granted, an assessment based on one bowl of ramen is hardly fair, and I would certainly go back to Santoka for further exploration. But the lackluster quality of the noodles alone should disqualify it from contention as the greatest ramen in the area. The broth doesn’t reach the heights of either Setagaya or Ippudo (those are two very different things, but they each attain a higher level within their respective styles than Santoka does), and the chashu is a bit lean, although you might like that if you are averse to pork fat (in that case I might question why you were eating ramen in the first place). I would certainly go to Santoka if I were shopping at Mitsuwa—I might consider it mandatory, in fact—but it’s not worth a special trip from the city.

On a completely random note, I managed to get a photo of my four year-old nephew Luca (who has not yet been initiated into the glories of ramen), polishing off a bowl of natto (fermented soybeans) and rice, a bold maneuver that makes him braver than many people ten times his age. Makes an uncle proud.


Santoka, Mitsuwa Marketplace, 595 River Road, Edgewater, NJ

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow. Luca is something else! During my stint in Toyko as english language sensei, this round eye never warmed up to natto.
Peter: my friend Jason French--now Chef Jason French--just opened up a restaurant in the Pearl District called Ned Ludd. If you happen to eat there, I would love to hear about it.
Happy Holidays,
Robert

Salty Mouth said...

Soy salt is also a wonderful substitute for soy sauce too.

If ever so inclined, take a peak:

www.secretsalts.com

Here's to the weather cooperating over the next week! Seattle too has come to a standstill with icy hills, closed streets, and over a foot of new snow.

the vlm said...

Funny, I used to eat at the Santoka Ramen at the Mitsuwa Marketplace in Costa Mesa when I was out in SoCal.

I preferred Shen Sen Gumi, but lots of folks swear by Santoka.

At the Costa Mesa location I found the chashu to be excellent. It seemed to be braised and quite succulent. I also found the noodles to be of good quality, but not the best.

I really would love to hear what you thought of Shen Sen Gumi. It is a slightly different style of broth (from Hakata) but mind-numbingly good.

I'll definitely try Ramen Setagaya and Ippudo. Any other tips?

Peter Liem said...

I've actually never been to Shin Sen Gumi. I've heard a lot about it, but I hardly ever get out to Southern California these days. I'll definitely go the next time I'm there. Isn't it Hakata-style ramen, or at least advertised as such?

In NYC, Ippudo, Setagaya and Rai Rai Ken are the only three ramen shops that I will go to. I would advise avoiding anything that begins with an M (and among the M shops, the longer the name the lousier the ramen).

the vlm said...

Peter-

Yes, Shen Sen Gumi is Hakata style. Really delicious with slightly thinner noodles.

My experience is the same with the M restaurants. Expensive, crappy Ramen. Show a little respect, please.

Hope you have a great holiday.

See you in Feb?