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October 26, 2011

Santouka Ramen

Miso Ramen Dominic Armato

I've often stated that the ability to go back and relive my food memories is one of the main reasons I write this blog. Sometimes that's a good thing. Sometimes it's kind of embarrassing. About five years ago, I visited Santouka Ramen during a trip to check out Mitsuwa Marketplace outside of Chicago, and while I really enjoyed it at the time, I'm somewhat flabbergasted to read back and discover that my appreciation wasn't deeper. I said at the time that I was no ramen expert. I'm still not. The breadth of my ramen experience isn't yet a fraction of what I wish it were. And in the intervening years, almost every time I've had a bowl of ramen, I've thought of this one and was annoyed that it wasn't the one I was eating. Yes, Santouka is a chain. So's Din Tai Fung. Doesn't change the fact that consensus among the hardcore ramen nerds seems to be that it's one of the best bowls you can obtain in the States, and I don't have a hard time believing it.

Shio RamenDominic Armato

Santouka dishes up Asahikawa-style tonkotsu, meaning that it's the rich, milky concoction extracted from pork bones that defines tonkotsu, but with hints of seafood local to Asahikawa (located in northern Hokkaido) that provide a gentle, briny undercurrent. This broth comes with four tare options: shoyu, miso, spicy miso, and the signature shio. On this last pass, I destroyed a bowl of the shio before working through as much of the miso as I could, and though every type I've had there has been exceptional, I'm coming to understand why the shio is the one that's most highly regarded. It plays as the simplest and perhaps noblest of the quartet. All come adorned with chopped scallion, pickled bamboo, woodear mushrooms, a fish cake and optional pork, though the shio is the only one that wears the signature pickled plum, with tart and salty flavor, crisp texture and bright red color. Though all styles are available with pork, the real treasure here is the toroniku, succulent and moist slices of pork cheek that are too precious to be served in the soup. When you order the toroniku, it arrives carefully fanned on a separate plate along with the regular accompaniments, leaving a minimal bowl of broth and noodles as a palette on which to arrange them.

ToronikuDominic Armato

The toppings are fresh and precise, the pork is very good to stunning depending on whether you get the chashu or the toroniku, the noodles are on the thinner end of the spectrum, slightly kinky with a great bite, but it's all about the soup, and this stuff is powerfully intoxicating. Who cares if it's served in a spartan food court? It's rich and deep, a lush and wonderfully fatty broth with those faint hints of the ocean, provided by who knows what manner of Asahikawa seafood they've slipped in. I'm particularly impressed by how mellow it is, the flavors striking a balancing act so subtle that it initially plays as less complex than it is, only to slowly reveal itself as you get deeper into the bowl. The problem being, of course, that the bottom arrives too quickly, not because the bowls are too small (though Japanese-sized, they're dense and filling), but because you just don't want it to end. Sometimes experience causes us to gain an even deeper appreciation for something we've already known. For me, such is the case with Santouka, and I wish I had access to this on a regular basis.

Santouka Ramen
Mitsuwa Marketplace
100 E. Algonquin Road
Arlington Heights, IL 60051
Mon - Sun11 AM - 7:30 PM


This is one of my favorite things EVER! One visit to OC, we hit it 4 out of 5 days and Heather gained 10 lbs and freaked her OB out (was pregnant with Hayden). Turns out it was likely all water from the sodium intake. The toroniku with shio is just flat out amazing. This is what makes me just bum out whenever I have ramen in AZ. Santuoka is so good that it completely changes your paradigm and I can't go back, nor do I want to. Happy you got a couple bowls, Dom. Only wish we were there too!

Must be something in the water.

My ladylove just came back from Napa with a copy of Lucky Peach. It's a David Chang & friends magazine published by McSweeney's. Issue #1 is all about ramen.


For those trying the recipes at home, note the corrections at the bottom of the McSweeney' page:


Glad to know I can get kick ass ramen the next time I visit Chicago. I'd love to get back to Japan, but Chicago's a regular trip.

Thanks for the reminder to save some of my liquid & sodium intake for this next time I hit the Edgewater, NJ Mitsuwa Marketplace. Mostly, I need to remember to make time since I mainly go there for Japanese groceries. I passed it by a couple of weeks ago because of a long line, but that tends to happen on the weekend.

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