Toronto to ramen: ‘We love you. Please stay forever.’
It’s not difficult to grasp the appeal of the ramen joint: the steamy air, polite and quick-footed staff, a big mug of frosty cold beer, and, at the centre of the experience, a food that excels in salty, carbo-rific goodness.
Some three or four years since the dawn of the city’s ramen craze, it’s beginning to look as if these heavily salted wheat noodles will prove, in the long run, to be less of a fad and more of a permanent feature of the landscape. Toronto is usually an eager city when it comes to new cuisine styles from Asia; and with regard to pork consumption, well, they don’t call it Hogtown for nothing. The warm welcome also makes sense when you think of the frigid winters here. In short, ramen plus Toronto equals an especially auspicious match. No surprise, then, that it can still be difficult to score a table at the hottest spots, and some of the restaurants that took root during the first wheaten wave a few years ago are opening satellite locations to meet the demand.
Ramen noodles originated in China but in the West it’s the Japanese style of ramen bowl that reigns, with its multiple styles of broth and interesting flavour combinations (seaweed and pork; fish cake and brie and egg). What ties a bowl of ramen together is the strong pull of “umami” – that’s the fifth basic taste in addition to sweet, sour, bitter and salty; umami is more or less synonymous with “savoury.” And wouldn’t you know, it was Japanese scientists who discovered umami’s role in human taste perception.
Here are Billy’s picks for the best ramen in (Hog)town, and scroll to the bottom for a handy glossary to peruse before you go.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
Always flattered to be noticed, Toronto was aflutter with pride when David Chang’s New York-based Momofuku empire chose this city for its second international outpost (after Sydney). In fact, Momofuku Toronto is not a single restaurant but a complex of several, and they’re all jammed and stacked atop one another inside the Shangri-La Hotel. The Noodle Bar is the first level, and above it, as we ascend, are the dessert-focused Milk Bar, a cocktail lounge called Nikai, and high-cuisine restaurants Shoto and Daisho. Descending back to the slick-yet-affordable Noodle Bar on ground floor, take a seat at one of the long communal tables or stools and anticipate the famous ramen. Momofuku’s signature ramen sits in a unique, non-traditional broth (built around seaweed, shiitake mushroom and chicken). It’s meaty and heavy and satisfying: perfect. Try to reserve some room for Momofuku’s other famous offerings: steamed buns with pork belly, and Crack Pie, a cookie-like dessert so tempting they had to trademark it to discourage imitators.
Inside the Shangri-La Hotel, 190 University Ave., 647-253-6225
Don’t be discouraged if you encounter a queue outside one of two downtown locations of Santosei: Lining up for a seat in this bustling little bento box of a ramen joint is worth it. Santosei’s signature “black tonkotsu” ramen features a thick, unctuous pork broth (the “tonkotsu”). The style originates – incongruously enough, given its suitability to chilly weather – on the balmy southern Japanese island of Kyushu. The “black” refers to a Rorschach splatter of black garlic oil on the surface of the light yellowish broth, which helps make this a bowl of salty heaven. Black mushrooms and lightly seared chashu (pork) compound the richness. Umami? Oh mama! This is arguably the best ramen in town, and certainly among the most flavourful. Other noodle styles are available – none of them vegetarian – and portions aren’t huge, for which you will probably be grateful.
179 Dundas St. W., 647-748-3833
650 Yonge St., 647-349-3833
3987 Highway 7 East, Markham, 905-604-7118
If you can jump and touch this rope after a bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Santosei, kudos to you.
Ryoji Ramen & Izakaya
High ceilings, blond wood and inventive use of mirrors make Ryoji the only rival for Momofuku in terms of polished atmosphere. It’s more than suitable for a business dinner. Ryoji is a far-flung branch of a Japanese ramen and izakaya chain headquartered in Okinawa, a chain of islands relatively far to the south of the “main” islands – they’re sort of Japan’s Hawaii, with their own distinct culture. When it comes to ramen, the further south you go in Japan, the more likely your broth is to be heavy, porky tonkotsu. Ryoji’s rendition fills your whole being with the warm glow of its piggy fulness, and it’s advisable to opt for the full, hefty one-litre nama biiru (draft beer) to counteract the sodium. The wise begin the meal with a few lighter bites: The bijou izakaya-style starters make for tasty nibbles while you wait. But you’ll be forgiven if you can’t resist Okinawan specialties including so-ki (soba noodles with pork ribs), and grilled pork jowl.
690 College St., 416-533-8083
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
This is another Japan-based chain making a foray into Toronto; this time it’s from the other end of Japan – the northern island of Hokkaido. The yellow shio broth is luxuriously silky-thick, while the signature of the house are the slices of toroniku – deliciously savoury simmered pork jowl – that any meat lover really ought to try. Santouka rivals Momofuku as the most expensive ramen place in Toronto at about $15 a bowl, but also among the tastiest. Seating is a mix of stools (great for the solo traveller) and tables.
91 Dundas St. E., 647-748-1717
At Kinton, you choose your own adventure: first the broth (chicken or pork; shoyu or miso, and so on); then the noodles (thick or thin); then the toppings (including jalapeno paste, corn and swiss cheese). While the poindexters ponder all the possible permutations, you could do what we did and put Kinton through the paces with a traditional lineup: pork not chicken, thick noodles, shoyu broth, and standard fixings (green onion, egg, pork shoulder and seaweed). Wash it down with shandy gaff (Sapporo lager plus ginger beer). With several bustling locations. Offers a choice of stools or tables.
Visit www.kintonramen.com for locations
You can’t have this for lunch and remain in a bad mood. It’s science.
This cheerful three-location chain probably makes the spiciest ramen in town, though probably not the best overall. Ajisen is principally interesting for its wide range of Japanese izakaya snacks – where else in Toronto are you going to get deep-fried chicken knees?
332 Spadina Ave., 416-977-8080
Unit 23, 7010 Warden Ave., Markham, 905-470-6318
5229 Yonge St., North York, 416-223-0618
Ajisen lets you pick your spice level. We found 150 (out of 200) sweat-inducing but tolerable; results may vary
Brightly lit, sparsely decorated and full of twentysomethings – due to its proximity to the University of Toronto – Isshin is bang-on in terms of capturing the atmosphere of an actual Japanese ramen restaurant (albeit with tables instead of stools). Also spot-on at Isshin are the takoyaki, so try them as a starter (takoyaki are these little fried croquette balls containing pieces of octopus, a street food specialty of Osaka – and tastier than they sound). When it comes to the main noodle event, the ramen here is up to spec – with several vegetarian choices, not just a single default one (kudos). But for a change try the (very much not vegetarian) bowl of crinkly dan dan noodles with pork, and enjoy the fun of crushing your own black sesame seeds with a tiny mortar and pestle to add to the salty broth. Whatever you order, wash it down with Asahi Black, a dark, malty-sweet Japanese lager that’s perfect with ramen and normally hard to find in Canada.
421 College St., 416-367-4013
A homey spot in Toronto’s main, central Chinatown, this is where to try Chinese-style as opposed to Japanese ramen. The protein is slow-cooked and tender beef or lamb, the noodles are thicker and the broth simpler. It’s a deliciously hearty, stick-to-your-ribs experience, if not the “ramen” most Westerners are looking for. Best washed down with a Tsingtao beer.
263 Spadina Ave., 647-352-6068
HANDY RAMEN GLOSSARY
Wrap your noodle around these terms before you go.
- miso (broth): a broth style based around miso, a fermented soybean paste; likely already familiar to a lot of people thanks to the frequent appearance of miso soup at Western sushi restaurants. Its use in ramen is sort of newfangled; the next few broths are more traditional
- shio (broth): a broth style based around sea salt, it’s the most light-bodied option
- shoyu (broth): a soy-sauce based broth from Central Japan; it’s sort of the default, Baby Bear’s porridge option if you can’t decide
- tonkotsu (broth): a heavy pork bone broth that’s so laden with umami it can make you feel full after a few bites. Often the ramen connoisseur’s choice.
- dan dan/tan tan: Dan dan (or tan tan) noodles aren’t ramen, but another noodle style that originated in China and went on to be absorbed into Japanese cuisine. They’re served with minced pork, mushrooms and chili oil – beware of clothing stains! (By the way, if you’re in Japan and you spot a smiling pig figure outside a restaurant, it often means the place serves dan dan – not Southern barbecue.)