Ramen man knows his noodles

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Kyoto native’s new West End restaurant promises to heat up competition among Japanese soups spots

Mia Stainsby

Benkei Noodle Shop customers Edward Matsuyama and son Tomoki, age 3, enjoy bowls of ramen at the Robson Street restaurant. Photograph by : Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

To most North Americans, ramen, the noodle with a curly perm, is, like Mr. Noodle, processed and instant.

Considering how many college students have weaned themselves on ramen, it’s not surprising that whenever a ramen shop opens, there are line-ups out the door. Ramen noodle shop customers are graduates of Mr. Noodle and frankly, I’m surprised fresh ramen isn’t fiercely duelling with sushi for the hearts and minds of the masses.

In a way, that’s exactly what’s going on in an enclave around Denman and Robson. Kintaro Ramen opened a few years ago with a permanent queue of people noodling out the door onto Denman. The same owner opened Motomachi Shokudo a block away recently. There, on the menu, I found an unusual ramen in a grey broth, coloured by the pinch of charcoal thrown in for good digestion and toxin cleansing.

Most recently, Benkei Noodle Shop opened on Robson, just around the corner from the other two. When I went to this small shop a couple of weeks after it opened, I thought it was still under the radar. Hah! I went in and stepped into a pudding of people, waiting for tables and — a good sign — most were of Japanese background. There were 12 people wilting in a tiny wait area. But one thing about ramen shops, it’s to-the-point eating. You order from a simple menu, slurp voraciously, and then take your leave. So we were seated quickly enough.

The owner, Mistuaki Inoue, is from Kyoto where his father owned a noodle factory and helped people open ramen shops.

When I talk to his assistant Yuki Nakazawa, it’s Tampopo all over again. “It’s secret,” she says, when I ask about the broth. “It’s secret,” she says, when I ask about the noodles. She does say that so far, the noodles are made for them according to Inoue’s exact specifications. Soon he wants to make his own.

I would say his competitor had better watch his back, not because Benkei is the name of a famous samurai but because the ramen is very good. There are the three broths, typical of ramen shops — shoyu (consommé style), shio (pork bones and meat-based) and miso (miso, shoyu and shio combo).

Toppings (green onion, pickled bamboo shoots, boiled egg slices, corn, butter, spinach, bean sprouts, kim chi) all cost 50 cents extra. Butter seems un-Japanese like but it’s actually a common ramen addition in Japan and most often combined with corn as a topping.

Chasu (slices of pork belly) is the signature meat in the ramen. One of the three side dishes is a rice ball with chasu sandwiched inside and wrapped with nori.

Nakazawa says the newest entry on the menu is the “special” ramen, with all the toppings flung in. “Looks great,” she says. “All in the same bowl. It’s huge.”

Should you find yourself belly-aching and hungry on a cold evening, there’s nothing like ramen to fill and warm you.

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars. ([email protected])

© The Vancouver Sun 2008


Comments are closed.