If you’re going to visit Hokkaido Ramen Santouka (山頭火), a Japanese ramen chain that just opened its first Taiwanese branch in the basement food court of the Sogo Department Store on Fuxing South Road (復興南路) in Taipei, my first suggestion would be to wear a comfortable pair of shoes. A book to pass the time isn’t a bad idea, either.
Long queues of diners curious about Santouka’s self-declared “legendary” noodle soups have been the norm since the restaurant first opened in early April. The wait can take up to one hour, and the lines rival those of Din Tai Fung (鼎泰豐) at the other end of the hall.
On a visit last week, I thought I would beat the lines by arriving around 11am, when the department store opened. I was wrong. I got there at 11:10am, and already the line consisted of 25 people. It took half an hour before I was seated.
So is it worth the wait? If you’re a ramen fanatic on a constant search for the perfect bowl, then a trip is in order. I don’t consider myself an aficionado, but it was easy to appreciate the quality of the store’s specialty, the shio ramen (literally salt ramen 鹽味拉麵, NT$190, NT$220 and NT$260 for small, medium and large bowls, respectively). The broth lives up to the marketing hype on Santouka’s Web site: it does indeed taste like it was made from pork bones that had been simmered for 20 hours. The soup is hearty and well balanced, and not overly creamy as the typical Japanese ramen broth tends to be. And the requisite garlic flavor in this concoction is subtle rather than overpowering.
Such attention to detail extended to the rest of the bowl. The noodles tasted fresh and were cooked to a nice chew texture; a few thin slices of bamboo shoots and wood ear mushrooms added some crunch, and a red pickled plum, perched on top like it was a glace cherry on an ice cream sundae, was there for tartness. But what stole the show were the two slices of grilled pork, which melted in the mouth like the classic Chinese dish dongpo pork (東坡肉).
Address: B2, 300, Zhongxiao E Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市忠孝東路三段300號B2)
Telephone: (02) 2731-7533
Open: 11am to 9:30pm (last orders at 9pm) from Sunday to Thursday and 11am to 10pm (last orders at 9:30pm) on Friday and Saturday
Average meal: NT$220 to NT$500 per person
On the Net: www.santouka.co.jp/en/index.ht
The servings in Santouka’s Shio Ramen are just a tease, though. There’s a deluxe set called toroniku ramen (山頭火特製麵, NT$290, NT$320 and NT$350), which is made from choice cuts of pork jowl meat.
Other noodle soup choices include shoyu ramen (soy sauce broth with noodles, 醬油拉麵）and miso ramen (味噌拉麵), both of which cost NT$190 for a small bowl, NT$220 for a medium and NT$260 for a large. A spicy miso ramen option (辣味噌拉麵) is also available for NT$10 extra.
Santouka recommends a medium-sized bowl for a stand-alone meal. But there is also a wide variety of side dishes, including salmon sashimi salad (鮭魚刺身沙拉, NT$160 for a single order), fried pork cutlet (日式炸豬排, NT$180) and Japanese-style pot stickers (煎餃, NT$160). I ordered the latter and found them to be a nicely done and lighter version of the Northern Chinese variety. They have a thinner skin and are cooked until the bottom is crispy.
These dishes are all available as part of combo sets that come with a small bowl of noodles (your choice of broth flavor) and a boiled egg, with prices ranging from NT$330 to NT$360.