A popular ramen chain from Japan finally arrives in the East Coast, with its first location in Harvard Square. I cannot tell you how excited I was to see the window on Bow Street with the plastic models of all the different ramen. It totally reminded me of Japan!
Santouka began as a single ramen shop in Hokkaido back in 1988. Founder Hitoshi Hatanaka was inspired to open a ramen shop after watching the Japanese movie Tampopo, a comedy about a ramen shop.
Santouka began with just one item on the menu - the Shio Ramen. Guests absolutely loved the flavors of the creamy, elegant broth together with the thin noodles. The ramen shop quickly grew in popularity, and pretty soon was basking in all sorts of media attention. As time went by, Santouka expanded to more and more locations. Currently, there are locations all over Japan as well as internationally, including Vancouver, Toronto, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Phillipines, Thailand, and the U.S.
Up until recently, there was only location in the East Coast: a shop inside the Mitsuwa Market Place in Edgewater, New Jersey. Hungry patrons in Boston who craved Santouka would have to drive a good four hours for their fix.
Then just a couple weeks ago, in February 2015 amidst Boston's numerous snowstorms, the first New England location opened right in Cambridge, in Harvard Square.
We showed up on day two of the soft opening!
It was a cold and snowy Wednesday during lunchtime. The restaurant was brave, opening right in the aftermath of a recent snowstorm.
It didn’t seem to matter at all. Even at 1PM (arguably just a little past lunch hour), the wait for a table of two was still 25 minutes. I’m sure it will only get worse once the snow melts and the subway system is fixed.
Their creamy, flavorful bone broth (“tonkotsu”) is made by simmering pork bones with vegetables, dried fish, kelp, and other “special ingredients” for over twenty hours. You can actually see the seven large kettles of broth simmering through a sliver of a window.
Shio ramen ($10.25 small / $11.25 large) is their signature dish and the one that made them famous. It’s made with that mild and creamy tonkotsu broth. The dish also comes with two slices of chashu made with pork back rib meat, menma (marinated bamboo shoots), kikurage (wood ear fungus), a slice of fish cake, and their signature pickled plum.
Adding aji-tama, or a marinated soft boiled egg, costs an extra $2.00. There are many other add-ons that are available, such as corn and butter, extra meat, and extra toppings (e.g., seaweed, bamboo shoots, fish cake).
The shio ramen was delicious, wonderfully satisfying on a cold winter day. The broth was creamy, though it didn't feel heavy, which I liked. The quality of the pork was good - soft, tender, and flavorful. All in all, it was an excellent bowl of ramen, and definitely one of the best in Boston at the moment.
The Kara Miso ($11.25), is a spicy broth that is thickened by miso. The broth is rich and full of umami with a definite kick from the heat!
The noodles are medium in thickness, nice and chewy in texture, though I might slightly prefer the texture of the Sun Noodles that Pikaichi uses.
Toroniku chashu is a special add-on ($6.50 extra), and consists of a generous bowl of slowly simmered and sliced pork cheeks. The meat is gorgeously tender, rich, and beautiful in flavor from the simmering. Even though I thought my normal chashu from the basic Shio ramen was pretty good, this was leagues above that pork. I would highly recommend trying this!
All in all we really enjoyed our meal at Santouka. Our server was very pleasant and worked hard to make sure our our hot tea and water glasses were always full throughout the meal. The noodles did take a bit longer than preferred to come out of the kitchen. I will attribute that to soft opening pains. Hopefully the kitchen will be able to speed up, which will also help alleviate the long lines.
The prices are a bit higher than what you might find in a Santouka in LA, for instance. This is not casual fast food inside a Japanese food court or market. Instead, it's a full service ramen restaurant with upscale modern decor sitting in a location with really expensive rent. Bryan's large ramen with the toroniku was $17.75. My friend who recently went to Santouka in Los Angeles only paid $12 for the same bowl.
I would argue the $6 difference is still a lot cheaper than a flight out to LA or even a road trip to New Jersey. I'm still thrilled this place is so close to my house and I'll happily pay the premium to have access to it on a more regular basis.
Santouka Ramen Harvard Square
1 Bow Street
Cambridge MA 02138