Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
SITE FOR SOY EYES: The soy sauce pork ramen at Santouka is served with salmon eggs over rice.
Where Saratoga Avenue meets Highway 280 lies ramen heaven, and Santouka leads the way
By Stett Holbrook
THERE IS no flashing neon sign at the intersection of Saratoga Avenue and Interstate 280 to let motorists know they're entering Silicon Valley's ramen nirvana, but there should be. Within just a few hundred yards of this crossroads are the three best Japanese noodle soup purveyors in the South Bay.
There's Ramen Halu, a longstanding outpost of outrageously delicious ramen. There's Kahoo Ramen, a 2-1/2-year-old member of Silicon Valley's ramen elite. And just a few storefronts down is the brand-new Santouka Ramen. Adjust your GPS device accordingly. I would be hard-pressed to pick my favorite, but after downing two bowls of ramen at Santouka just a few hours ago, I'm still under the spell of this 4-week-old newcomer.
Just so we're on the same page, when I say ramen I do not mean the little bags of dried noodles with the foil packet of seasoning. Real ramen is made from a slow-simmered, complex broth poured over springy, fresh-cooked noodles and crowned with an array of delights such as braised pork, pickled bamboo shoots, green onions, soft boiled eggs, fish cakes, spinach and dried seaweed. A real bowl of ramen is to the store-bought packaged stuff what a warm spring day perfumed with lilac blossoms is to a can of floral-scented bathroom freshener. Real ramen is one of the world's great meals. It's quick, cheap and filling, and when done right it's heaven in a bowl. And Santouka does it right.
Santouka is a Japanese-based chain with locations in Southern California, Chicago, New Jersey and San Jose. But don't let the restaurant's chain status keep you away. It is just spreading the love. The restaurant occupies a space in Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese supermarket that is a culinary destination in its own right. If ever there were a contest for "great food in an unlikely setting," this place would be sure to win. I'll take great food over atmosphere any day.
There's no sign for Santouka outside the store, but once inside, the ramen shop is hard to miss. Look for the line of people waiting to order as they stare at the strangely lifelike display of plastic ramen replicas behind a sheet of glass. The delicious-looking diorama serves as the restaurant's menu.
All the choices can make it look complicated, but there are really just three basic options based on the kind of soup flavor: salt, soy sauce and soybean paste (miso). With options such as extra pork, "special pork," spicy broth and side dishes of salmon eggs, rice and natto (fermented soy beans), the variations add up. The ramen is available in a choice of small, medium and large, too.
As adjectives, salt, soy sauce and soybean paste don't do justice to the worlds of flavor within. The salt-flavored ramen, or shio ramen for ramenophiles, is Santouka's flagship offering. The milky, opaque broth is luxuriously rich with a salt-edged sweetness that comes from the addition of shellfish broth to the pork-bone and salt broths.
According to rameniac.com, this is Asahikawa-style ramen from a small town in the cold northern island of Hokkaido where seafood is a mainstay. One of the distinguishing features of the ramen is the dappling of pork grease on top of the soup, which serves to trap and retain the heat of the broth. It works remarkably well and yet doesn't taste overly oily. Nary a whiff of steam escaped until I disturbed the bowl with chopsticks and spoon. One time, I ordered two kinds of ramen at once. I saved the salt-flavored ramen for last, and when I dug in, it was still tongue-burning hot.
The yellow, curly noodles (shipped fresh from Japan) are firm and chewy and hold up well in the hot broth. Floating on top is a raft of goodies, including thick slices of buttery braised pork, pickled bamboo shoots, a thin slice of fish cake, green onions, wood ear mushrooms and a single bright-red pickled plum. It's tremendous. A small bowl goes for $6.95.
As good as the salt-flavored ramen is, don't pass up the soy sauce– or shoyu-flavored ramen, which also goes for $6.95 for a small bowl. The café con leche–colored broth yields a pleasingly salty and rich broth. A subtle sesame flavor undergirds the soup, giving it a nutty and creamy quality. The toppings are the same as for the salt-flavored ramen, minus the umeboshi plum.
For a real trip into decadence, check out the salt-flavored ramen with toroniku, described on the menu as "special pork" ($9.95 for a small bowl). I asked one of the women at the cash register what made the pork special. She said it was a different cut of meat. Not too helpful. Another woman offered the opinion that the meat was softer. Not much help either. Further investigation revealed that it is pork jowl. Best known as guanciale in Italian cuisine, the meat is richer and finer than pork belly. It's an over-the-top experience of porcine bliss.
The ramen arrives unadorned, with a side plate loaded with slices of pork-cheek meat and all the other toppings so that you can assemble your soup to your liking. Once the broth hits the pork, it softens and almost liquefies the fat within. Buttery and rich don't even come close to describing the experience. I think I could actually feel my arteries clogging up as I slurped down the last bit of broth from my bowl. It was totally worth it.
Address: 675 Saratoga Ave., San Jose.
Hours: 11am–7:30pm daily.
Price Range: $6.95–$11.95.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.