McRamyun (or Ramyun?) : There’s a Good Chance Ronald Showed up with a Louisville Slugger

I was on a lunch break recently and decided to check out Baldwin village for lunch.  Although I was still lamenting the closure of Yakitori Bar (i still swear they had some of the best soup going), I was intrigued to try McRamyun, the new ramen bar that occupied the space.

I knew little of the place when I walked in but appreciated the fact that a ramen bar exists which doesn’t involve the hot, tight quarters that exist with similar eateries elsewhere in the city. It has maintained the interior of Yakitori bar complete with a large bar and spacious tables.

At first glance it was clear the menu offers one of the largest variety of ramen (almost 20) in the city. In addition, you can choose your own adventure by adding your choice of toppings unlike other places tend to dictate the condiments of each bowl. Usually I order dumplings and soup as a benchmark in ramen joints, so i killed two birds with one stone and ordered the mandu ramen which offered the dumplings right in the soup. As I was waiting, I went to the washroom located in the old Odd Seoul space next door.  That’s when I made afrightening discovery.  The room was filled with skids of packaged ramen noodles.  I felt like I was in a university dorm room.  When I returned to the table (the washrooms were quite nice by the way) the soup arrived.  The broth was thin and spicy and the noodles originated from one of the packages in the back room.  The mandu were deep fried prior to being thrown in the soup which I found odd from a texture perspective.  They did not have remarkable flavour. The broth lacked the complexity of other places and was seasoned primarily by salt and heat. The egg (available for an additional  $0.50 per half..I got a whole egg) was cooked nicely and was the best part of the dish. They forgot the slices of pork belly I ordered so I can’t comment. It would have been and extra $2.49 which would have made the total price of the ramen bowl a staggering $12.50, a price which would make David Chang shake his head.

Mandu Ramyun $8.95 plus $1.00 for egg (pork belly missing)
Mandu Ramyun $8.95 plus $1.00 for egg (pork belly missing)

My Take

Burgers and ramen are probably the two hottest trends in the Toronto right now.  The burgers range from patties smashed on the flattop to those stuffed with short rib and are price accordingly.  Until now, most ramen has been prepared according to traditional recipes complete with homemade noodles and thick pork broth which has simmered for hours.  Sure, I’ve made all kinds of ramen; from following an old school recipe to cracking open a dried package after a drunken night out in university but I never thought I’d see the latter served in a restaurant.

Then it made sense. I should have clued in that the name McRamyun said it all.  This was fast food…the McDonald’s version of ramen.  What confused me, however, was the fact that prices were not much lower that traditional ramen.  I mean a quarter pounder isn’t $20, right?

I looked at the table tent on the table, saw the following sign and laughed.  How do they get away with this?

Clear copyright infringement
Clear copyright infringement

A Sapporo pitcher and McChicken wings for $24.95?  McChicken? The signage outside, the menu, the packaged food..everything made me think that at any minute Ronald McDonald would show up with a Louisville Slugger ready to kick ass and take names later. Interestingly enough, there was a profile picture update on the restaurant’s webpage two weeks ago which displayed their new logo which simply said  Ramyun.  I wondering if that change was proactive of may have had something to do with a few broken windows and a pissed off clown.
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Touhenboku Ramen: It’s Chicken Broth…knot Pork!

It’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bowl of ramen and I figured nothing was better than a snow storm to dive back into a bowl.  I have scratched a few places off the list but hadn’t had the chance to try Touhenboku ramen on Queen Street. Spearheaded by owner Zuimei Okuyama,  it has all the hallmarks of the trendy Toronto noodle houses.  First, it has a name a white guy has a hard time remembering (Touhenboku means “blockhead” in Japanese).  Second, it has a cute mascot (in this case a smiling tree stump named Tomo who is a half breed consisting of a Canadian and Japanese maple).  Third, it has a small menu, modest interior and they sing you a farewell tune on the way out.  The big difference is that they use chicken instead of pork as the base for their broth.  From what I understand, this may be a “bone” of contention among ramen purists, but I approached it purely from a taste perspective.  They also adhere to the “vegetarians need love too” philospohy and offer a vegetarian broth which is not the case for some of the other ramen houses in the area.

That said, I ordered my regular fare; shio ramen (thin noodles) and an order of gyoza.   Since I was breaking the pork broth doctrine anyway, I decided to go spicy since I was intrigued by the addition of the “special chili oil”.  The soup arrived quickly and I immediately noticed the distinct smell of chicken emanating from the bowl . Any fears of a dainty broth were quickly extinguished after the first few sips.  As promised, it was rich and creamy and the oil added a modest amount of heat to the broth. The noodles and egg were cooked to near perfection (the noodles were firm and the egg was not quite hard boiled). The other ingredients were in good proportion to the broth and noodles.

Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50
Spicy Shio Ramen $10.50

Despite the fact the place was rather empty, the gyoza, despite being called an appetizer, didn’t arrive until I was almost finished the soup. With this annoyance aside, I was treated to a good plate of dumplings.  They were seasoned well and nicely pan-finished, keeping the integrity of the dumpling while adding the right amount of crispiness.

Gyoza $5.50
Gyoza $5.50

My Take

I wanted to insert some witty banter into this post  but I was left stumped.  Once you’ve branched out to a number of ramen places, you run out of ideas.  Touhenboku turns over a new leaf by having the gall to focus on mizutaki (chicken broth) and knot the traditional tonkotsu (pork broth) as the base to its hearty soups. The flavours are quite rich which might help justify the fact that boles are a bit smaller than other ramen joints.  In the case of the spicy ramen, it’s bark was worse than it’s bite although the chili did add a nice flavour.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the gyoza, despite having a filling a little less poppy than others, were some of the better I’ve had since they were pan-fried to near perfection. In the end, Touhenboku has blossomed into good competition with other ramen houses in the area in regards to both service and more importantly, a decent bowl of soup.  Domo arigato Zuimei Okuyama…wood you please take a bough?

Touhenboku Ramen on Urbanspoon

A Noodle Face in the Crowd not as Pretty as Dirk Benedict or Bradley Cooper

There are a number of references to famous faces (and maybe not so many) I have come across in my travels:

• Two-face is a notorious villain in the Batman franchise.

• Faceman (the Face), played by Dirk Benedict and later Bradley Cooper, was a member of the quartet which made up the A-team.

• My Brave Face was Paul McCartney’s attempt to import and adapt his immense musical talent into the mundane late 80’s pop scene

• Furnace Face was a 90’s Canadian Indy band who put out such songs as “We Love you, Tipper Gore” with an anti-censorship theme and “She Thinks She’s Fat” which addresses the body image image which plagues to this day.

The newest addition to the list is Noodle Face, the recently opened Chinese restaurant in Baldwin Village.  Like many of it’s neighbours, it’s a no frills eatery with relatively inexpensive meal choices served with the ethnic flare of the far east. The hand-drawn sign is almost invisible among the other makeshift ones lining the street. Inside is no different.  Concrete brick walls on one side and a hand drawn mural on the other, plywood counters and a large, messy blackboard highlight the 40 seat interior.  I arrived around lunch and managed to get a seat by the window (in fact probably the only seat by the window). I was offered a tea which was served in an aged enamel cup as a ratty menu was presented containing all sorts of traditional Chinese noodles and soups as opposed to the more common ramen and pho.  There is also a list of signature and specialty dishes ranging from pancakes to perfect chicken legs and secret buns you have to drop in and try.

Noodle Face Subtle Signage
Noodle Face Subtle Signage
Tea at Noodle Face
Tea at Noodle Face

The “Chef Q handmade dumplings” is a broth soup made with seaweed,  scallions, a few glass noodles and the aforementioned dumplings.  It was very different from the ramen and pho  in that the broth was predominately sour versus salty. It was a bit of an acquired taste that got rather pleasant as you ate more of it.  When you ate something else and went back, however, you were caught off guard again because of the sourness.  The soup dumplings were thick and tasty and  filled with flavourful, seasoned pork. The plentiful onions added a nice bite.

Chef Q Dumpling Soup
Chef Q Handmade Dumpling Soup $6

 

The dummy salad came with a choice of green beans or broccoli with no description other than that. I had no idea what a dummy salad was so I ordered it. Basically it was a plate of cold beans dressed lightly and topped with sesame seeds.  The beans were not the freshest I have had but the dressing was subtle and refreshing.  Otherwise, it was rather unremarkable.

Dummy Salad (Green Beans)  $4
Dummy Salad (Green Beans) $4

The menu is in no way modest.  Case and point is the Rou-Jai-Mo, which is described as follows:  “Is mo a bread? Bun? Bao or Nann? Figure it out yourself for our top-rated small food.”  Intrigued, I ordered one. I expected a soft pork bun but instead got something that I would describe as a cross between a crunchy english muffin and a tea biscuit. It was  stuffed with meat which resembled canned flakes of ham seasoned with cilantro in both appearance and taste.  It wasn’t unpleasant but it  a was secret that wasn’t as juicy as anticipated.

Rou-Jai-Mo
Rou-Jai-Mo $3

 

My Take

Noodle face co. is a new joint with a no frills appearance that fits well with the Baldwin Street scene.  Instead of duplicating the numerous ramen and pho houses, it offers unique fare more indicative of China than Korea or Japan. The menu is diverse and cryptic which either offers no description of items or very detailed warnings, precautions and promises.  Although nothing blew my mind, I wasn’t too disappointed.  If anything, the food is unique and the price point reasonable.   Noodle Face isn’t pretty like Templeton Peck.  It doesn’t aim to conform to the popularity of everybody else like at a late eighties Paul McCartney song. If anything, it’s kind of like Furnaceface; refreshingly unpredictable while making  bold statements on a budget…but not for everybody.

 

 

Noodle Face Co on Urbanspoon

I Battled Gyozilla at Kenzo

Most ramen joints are strutting their stuff right now.  Neck in neck with tacos, ramen was the top trend in the GTA in  2013.  Large windows showcasing the interior cramped quarters have become the norm for these eateries, so I was intrigued when I hit Kenzo noodle house on Dundas street over lunch.  Blinds cover the windows below a modest red sign and a logo of a rather mean looking dude with his arms crossed.  It seemed a bit taboo. Swinging open the door, I felt a little like Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown until I quickly realized the blinds were likely there to keep out the sun and not to hide something forbidden.  The decor was plain; in fact almost run down.  A combination of tables and booths line the walls which are covered with aged pictures advertising Matcha tea smoothies.  The creepy white ceramic cat which features in the majority of Asian restaurants stared and  waved at me with that look I don’t quite trust.

A pleasant waitress came by quickly with a glass of water a handed me a menu which looked like it had been dropped in a puddle and then used as a origami medium to create that creepy white cat or some other creature.  It consisted of a number of ramen bowls, categorized into basic, hot, cuisine and  tonkotsu.  There were also a few interesting sides including a breaded pork chop,  gyoza and octopus balls.  As usual, I ordered the gyoza dumplings and opted for the tonkotsu ramen. You have the option of three levels of spice, so I ordered the middle intensity.  The soup was out in minutes, served on a tray with shichimi and pepper. It was a pretty soup, topped with finely slice scallions, bok choy, bamboo shoots, roasted pork, egg and a fishcake.  The broth was a vibrant, milky white contrasted by specks of red indicated that some heat would ensue.  It had a balanced taste with a bite (definitely don’t go level 2 if you don’t like spice) that didn’t overpower the dish.  In fact, there was no prevailing flavour which made for a nice base.  The liberal use of scallions really helped the soup and the other ingredients, including the noodles, were cooked properly.

Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95
Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95

Unlike the other ramen houses I have been to, the Gyoza came after the soup.  I choose an order of three as opposed to the full order.  When they arrived I realized why there were blinds were on the windows.  They were housing Gyozilla, the largest Japanese dumpling I have seen in a restaurant.  I felt feeble as I lifted my puny chopsticks to battle my pork filled foe.  Although a little greasy, they popped with flavour, especially when coupled with the tangy sauce on the side. I eventually won the battle, but it took three or four bites each to do so.

Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50
Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50

My Take

Kenzo is like a B movie, offering one of the largest cast of ramen bowls in the downtown core.   While other ramen houses have fancy decors and lines out the door, Kenzo is modest in appearance and appears to have a devoted following (there was a steady stream of people the whole time I was there).  Relatively speaking, it’s almost unmentioned on urbanspoon.   After conquering Gyozilla in an epic battle, I did feel a bit like Anthony Bourdain in a Walter Mitty sort of way.  Having seen the octopus balls at another table,  I’d come back for the sequel, this time turning my attention to Oodako, the giant cephalopod which ravished villages in the B movie classic  King Kong vs Godzilla. My chopsticks are ready.

Oodako
Oodako- My next target

Kenzo Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Ramen Raijin

I was at a conference at a nearby hospital and decided to sneak out in order to avoid the generic wraps which graced the lunch table.  It was a frigid day, so a bowl of ramen sounded divine.  I trekked to the Corner of Yonge and Gerrard, hoping I could get a prime time seat at Ramen Raijin.  It was about 80% to capacity so I didn’t have to wait in line.

The first thing I noticed was the set-up.  I found it a lot roomier than some of the other ramen houses nearby.  I was seated along a counter facing away from the kitchen with a side view of a large and attractive sculpture of what I perceived to be some sort of mythical Japanese idol. On the counter sat a menu held together by a clipboard.  One part of the menu was a lunch combo flyer which presented like a grade 8 art project, complete with pictures of a disproportionate chicken and a pig that kind of looked like a cat.  Of greater interest was the offering a small bowl of one of 5 types of ramen and 4 types of rice with a salad for $11.95.  I tend to gravitate toward Shio Ramen and an order of Gyoza and today was no different.  I chose the Soboro Don as the rice dish as part of the combo.

Menu which got an A in art class
Menu which got an A in art class

The starter salad was fresh and well dressed.

Starter Salad
Starter Salad

The gyoza was terrific.  The dough was tender and fried to perfection and the filling with robust with flavour. The dipping sauce was pleasant. They lacked both the greasy or watery nature that I’ve experienced with these dumplings elsewhere.  They were also priced well at less than $3 for 5 dumplings.

Gyoza (less than $3)
Gyoza (less than $3)

I kind of expected a very small bowl of ramen as part of the special but both the soup and rice were quite a reasonable size.  Raijin’s interpretation of the shio included pork shoulder, green onion, Kikurage mushroom, cabbage, egg and black garlic oil.   The shoulder was tender, the egg cooked to a perfect soft boil, the broth was rich and tasty and the noodles were firm and delicious.  This is likely one of the more polar bowls of ramen I’ve tasted mainly because of the distinct flavour of black garlic oil. It has a strong and distinct flavour which could easily take over some of the delicate flavours of the soup itself.  If you love it..great.  If not, you may be a bit disappointed.

As for the rice dish,  The nori was a nice touch but for some reason the bowl was missing the green onions advertised on the lunch combo flyer. As a result,  it was a safe dish with no contrasting taste or contrast.  It was missing any soft and sweet, missing  the crunch and bites the onions would have provided.

Shio Ramen and Soboro Don (part of $11.95 lunch special)
Shio Ramen and Soboro Don (part of $11.95 lunch special)

My Take

Ramen Raijin offers a roomy and comfortable environment with good service and good food. It has a simple yet attractive decor (I like the sculpture) and lots of room to think or eat or people watch…whatever your fancy.  The lunch special is a good value and allows somebody to try an array of flavours whether a fan of pork or chicken. The gyoza are among the best I’ve had at a ramen house. As mentioned, all the components of the ramen were well executed but the liberal use of the Mayu black garlic oil may not appeal to the masses. I wouldn’t hesitate to return on a cold winter day, but I may bring a bunch of green onions just in case.

Ramen Raijin on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Downtown:Sansotei Ramen

I dropped into this Ramen house around 11 am on a Tuesday morning, taking advantage of the fact that there wasn’t a crowd huddled around the door like you’d see during a Sylvester Stallone sighting.  The reasons for the mass crowds are threefold:

1.  It’s ramen and it’s Toronto.

2.  The place only holds about 30 people.

3.  The policy is wait outside because there’s no room inside.

The decor is plain.  The tables are bare.  The menu is a small laminated, folded card.  The tiny kitchen is barely visible in the back. No cliffhanger here…I followed my standard routine and ordered shio ramen with a side of gyoza dumplings.

The Ramen

It was quite a simple presentation, including green onion, noodles, a few bamboo shoots, pork belly and a softish boiled egg. It ignored the bells and whistles such as nori, pickled plums and goji berries. The broth was rich and full of pork flavor.  On one hand, it was not oversalted. On the other, it was a bit greasy which wasn’t  helped by the really fatty pork cut submerged in the broth.  The egg was cooked and seasoned well, the amount of onion and shoots were not enough and the noodles (ordered thick) were a bit starchy. In the end, it was a decent bowl and less than $9.

Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen

The Gyoza

The lipophilic  nature of Sansotei was evident again when I ordered the gyoza.  Four pieces  for $4.50 (I ate one before I remembered I didn’t take a picture) arrived Stallone style (slightly tanned and glistening with oil) and served with a tasty dipping sauce.   Despite being a bit greasy, the dough had a great texture (unlike Stallone  post Judge Dredd) in that it was not too chewy nor too crispy.  The filling was well seasoned and not watered down in a fashion similar to the plot of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.

Gyoza
Gyoza

My Take

Sansotei is a small, simple eatery with an equally simple menu.  It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of other ramens, but despite being a bit greasy,  the rich broth is flavorful enough and is not oversalted.  None of the broths are vegetarian. The gyoza were terrific although a quick wipe with a napkin wouldn’t hurt.  I really need to do a ramen power  ranking but as it stands Sansotei comes in Stallone style again (an underdog who  proves to be a serious contender).  In the end, it may not the be the Rocky of all ramen, but it sure isn’t  the Rhinestone  either.

Sansotei Ramen on Urbanspoon

Review:Toronto:Queen West:A-OK Foods

Upon entering A-OK, which over hovers over County General at the corner of Queen and Shaw,  I felt like I was in a high school cafeteria, complete with pastel coloured picnic tables. Instead of long-winded calculus problems scripted on the board, a short and simple menu was presented offering eclectic spins on Asian food. The curriculum included  small plate options  mixed with the equally popular ramen bowls. The question would be whether the food had the same cafeteria flare as the decor.

A OK Menu
A OK Menu (Subject to Change)

Must

The salt cod inari was a terrific start to the meal….kind of like a first period english class with a cool teacher. The wrapper was a chewy but not an uncomfortable texture housing rice that was moist, not mushy. The salt  cod added subtle spots of saltiness throughout the inners of the roll.  The feisty dipping sauce was cleverly spread along the rim of the plate, appealing to both the dimension of visual appeal and sapidity.

Salt Cod Inari
Salt Cod Inari
Salt Cod Inari (inside)
Salt Cod Inari (inside)

Maybe

The spin on the shoyu ramen was decent but it certainly wasn’t the best in the city.  It was rather generic and lacked the complexity of some of the other soups.  The broth was one-toned, the noodles a bit limp and  the pork was tender but not remarkable. The egg was well cooked and nicely seasoned  and the goji berries were a cute touch. In the end, it was satisfying but not memorable, creating an economic argument by being  priced at over ten bucks a bowl.

Shoyu Ramen
Shoyu Ramen

The pork ssam had a messy appearance and was  tricky to eat. In the end, it had a  nice, fresh taste but the flavours were scattered depending on the placement and size of the bite.  Not a bad snack for 5 bucks. It might have been a bit more exciting if a short course in engineering promoting  self-assembly had been employed.

Pork Ssam
Pork Ssam

Mundane

My table mate ordered the Sichuan Tsukeman ramen bowl.  I was tempted to do the same and I’m glad I didn’t.  It was a bit of a mess. Understanding it’s a bit of a variation from the standard noodle bowls ( the broth is replaced with a spicy dipping sauce on the side) , it lacked the heartwarming nature of its Shoyu cousin. After dragging the limp noodles through the sauce, I was left with a nice quantity of spice but an oily taste that was less than appealing.  The pork, egg and seaweed were interesting additions but still couldn’t cut into the monotony of the overpowering sauce. Let’s call it a cool science experiment gone slightly wrong.

Sichuan Tsukemen
Sichuan Tsukemen

My Take

A-OK foods fuses two of Toronto’s hottest culinary trends: asian inspired street food and ramen.  Although it doesn’t deliver the best of either world, there were a few dishes worth talking about.  As for the vibe, I only experienced the midday experience but it felt a bit like being in detention, lacking the buzz and excitement of  similar eateries. In the end, the report card is such that I can’t  give A-OK foods an A, but more likely a C and possibly a B minus if the salt cod  inari is somewhere in the lesson plan.

A-OK Foods on Urbanspoon