675 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, CA 95129 | 408.255.6699 | website
Somehow the fact that the legendary Santouka Ramen had opened up a branch in the Mitsuwa Marketplace had escaped my attention, but it was clear from the lines that the word is out and the other ramen shop in the food court has some serious competition. If you haven’t been, Mitsuwa Marketplace carries Japanese groceries and products, videos, trendy Zakka items, along with a nice selection of high-end sweets. The food court has two ramen shops with bright overhead lighting and a dreary, utilitarian, cafeteria-style dining atmosphere. I was accosted by the security guard who advised me that no photography was allowed, but he soon walked off and I tried to keep the camera low key.
The menu is simple, there are three types of broth, Shio (salt), Miso (soybean paste) and Shoyu (soysauce) served in three different sizes, small ($6.95), regular ($7.95) and large ($8.95). To avoid confusion they have a display case with lovely plastic samples of everything offered on the menu. You can get more meat, additional toppings or side dishes of rice with a few topping options. We got there about half an hour before they closed and they were out of the much talked about toroniku or super duper fatty pork. No matter, the bbq pork was fatty enough…
Besides the bowls of noodles, you can also order Setto, or sets, which offer bargain pricing for those with a larger appetite: a bowl of noodles, a side of rice with topping and a hard boiled egg for around $10. I was sorely tempted to get a bowl of rice topped with natto or their specially seasoned salmon roe, but decided to stay focused on the noodles this time. I’m very glad I did.
Behind the counter, you can see the kitchen where several fellows with do-rags were busy slaving away over steaming vats. They kicked ass, cranking out multiple bowls of noodles at a time.
At last my number was called and I went to pick up our tray, first stopping off at the condiment station to sprinkle on some Shichimi Togarashi spice mixture. It was our first visit to Santouka and I was pleased to see that my bowl was filled with a rich tonkotsu broth, which is milky rich and silky. It originates from Hakata, a province in Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan where my granny emigrated from. Both bowls were topped with several thick slices of tender fatty chashu pork, a sprinkle of finely diced green onion and toasted sesame seeds, slices of black crunchy mushrooms, marinated bamboo shoots (menma), and a slice of kamaboko fish cake that had a jaunty pink spiral design. This is Mr. K’s Miso Ramen. He took one sip and dove in.
This is my Shio Ramen, Santouka’s flagship offering. The chewy noodles were thin and crinkly with a lithe springy texture that seemed to become dense and thicker as they steeped in the opulent broth. The rich slices of pork had a symbiotic relationship with the flavorful broth and my tastebuds that was really satisfying.
A tiny umeboshi garnishes the Shio Ramen. It was crunchy and filled my mouth with the tart spicy flavor of pickled shiso, a brilliant contrast to the rich soup. You can see the sheen of richness that also serves as insulation to keep the heat in.
It was better than Santa Ramen, although I should probably go back to both just to verify…