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

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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