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May 3, 2007 10:53 AM

SANTA RAMEN is #5 of 6 in norcal ramen shops pwned (review & pics)

well, we're almost at the finish line... my recent trip to the bay area and it's improvisational itinerary of six ramen shops in two and a half days - ugh. the second to last stop on the journey, the evening before i drove back down to LA, was Santa Ramen - which seems to be the most popular favorite for you norcallers.

did i like it? i'd been there before, years ago, when my friend in the silicon valley took me there. i remember thinking that santa had a nice pork bone soup, and my memories were correct. it's the most savory tonkotsu i've had up there, although i suspect it's pretty heavy on the MSG. it's not perfect though, a little bit off taste-wise.

i had the mentaiko tonkotsu ramen, but what bugged me the most were santa's noodles. they're pretty generic, yellow egg noodles that kind of are all wrong for what they're trying to do, which is serve "hakata-style" pork bone ramen. my friend might have mentioned that they've changed ownership once but it was pretty much the same assessment i had the first time i tried the place back in like, 2002 or something.

anyway, i can understand why there's always a big line at santa, although i kind of think it's for lack of something better. if any of you guys know LA ramen, it's a brother-in-arms to daikokuya, which has a funky, porky tonkotsu soup and janky, generic noodles, but a line out the door because it's the best option in little tokyo.

as it stands so far, here's my homage to melanie lol:

1. kahoo ramen
2. maru ichi (mt. view)
3. halu ramen
4. santa
5. ryowa

one more to go!

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  1. I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with your take on the noodles at Santa. While they are not like Hakata style noodles, they are still chewier than say, the noodles at Santouka Torrance. And if you're going to forgive Halu for having hard noodles, why not cut Santa some slack for having noodles that don't fit classic Hakata style ramen? It sounds mostly like a philosophical disagreement than one of taste.

    3 Replies
    1. re: Porthos

      hi porthos, glad you brought this up actually. this is a tricky one and i knew i'd probably get some dissenters. but i'll try to address this as best i can:

      it's not so much an issue of whether the noodles are firm enough or chewy enough (although firmness and/or chewiness are general traits that most of us like in our noodling). santouka has flourier, usually softer noodles sure, and halu's are thick and hard. what i don't mind about either of those are that they taste and feel "special"; whether the shop makes the noodles themselves or sources them from somewhere a bit off the beaten path, you can tell when you bite into them that they're fairly "proprietary" and that you're not going to get noodles like that just anywhere.

      with santa, the noodles, while competently prepared, seem to be the same generic JFC or Nishimoto-trading imported yellow egg noodles that most places use - the stuff you'll find at any number of mediocre ramen shops around town.

      when a soup is so flavorful, especially a tonkotsu one, such generic noodles really stand out and bug me. in L.A., i have the same problem with daikokuya, kyushu ramen in the valley, and It's Q in hacienda heights. even though the soup is good, you can just kind of tell that not much thought went into the noodles and that they're just ordering packaged "fresh ramen noodles," probably all from the same distributor.

      but beyond that, if you WANNA get a little philosophical, why not? ;).

      here goes: this is a minor thing that i wouldn't expect anyone to have known, but the reason i say santa is kind of aping the hakata tonkotsu style is that theirs is a straight pork bone broth (where the soup is white and derived almost solely from the boiled marrow), a soup which is pretty much unique to southern japan.

      daikokuya, halu ramen, and even santouka don't do this: daikokuya and halu are shoyu-tonkotsu hybrids (more commonly found in central japan) and santouka ramen is from hokkaido - while it looks white, it's actually a blend of pork bone and seafood.
      santouka is asahikawa-style ramen, and it's worth pointing out that halu is actually kind of close to a real, accepted style of ramen as well - that of Yokohama's thick broth yoshimura-kei shops.

      anyway, i say all this because with shoyu-tonkotsu, there's typically a lot more leeway as to "authenticity." it's true that ramen is an ever-evolving art, but there are kind of accepted parameters or tendencies that shops tend to follow, guidelines which have been developed over the years.

      it's kind of like jazz. while there's always room for improvisation, there are standards and song structures behind it all. every once in a while, someone goes out and does something totally different, whether good (like herbie hancock) or bad (um, "smooth jazz" - sorry it's just not my taste =P) and stuff takes time to get accepted into the canon. either that or all the beatniks freak out and say "this is not jazz!!" whenever they hear kenny g.

      so sure, i'm something of a traditionalist in that sense, but if i come across a truly innovative and unique bowl of ramen that makes me weep tears of joy, believe me, i won't let you NOT hear about it =).

      1. re: rameniac

        So are you saying that if you had the shoyu or miso ramen at Santa, then you would rate the noodles higher because there's now more leniency? Food and philosophy is fun.

        1. re: Porthos

          you know, i wouldn't be more lenient, but even if i were, i don't think it would have affected the noodle score all that much. at most maybe a point in either direction. santa's noodles to be honest, didn't seem all that exceptional to me, just very "off the shelf." so on a scale of 1-10, i'd say a 4 (maybe a 5) is about right.

    2. The red marinated ginger that comes with all the Santa tonkotsu ramen bowls bug me the most.

      Santa's noodles are similar to that of capellini and a few notches harder and thicker than somen. Come to think of it they are close to Kahoo's noodles in some way, except Kahoo's seems to be a tad bit thinner.

      Note that Kahoo is the only ramen-ya on your list that does not offer tonkotsu broth, only shio, shoyu, and miso. Tonkotsu is arguably the most popular broth at least for the Bay Area ramen-ya's and their fans, but another perspective is that quite a few of the top ten places don't do the other broths well (e.g. tonkotsu at Himawari is good but miso was quite off the mark several times and having a weird taste. Ryowa's buttercorn and shoyu ramen bowls are rather horrendous even when they were really top notch 7 years ago), so in a way tonkotsu shines over them, and is thus chosen over others, and this might carry over to the next ramen-ya someone else goes to. But there are one or two exceptions.

      Should you return to Santa, do try one of their fine ramen bowls with shoyu broth and re-evaluate. The standard one is pretty good, more fattening than Kahoo's, although I have a soft spot for the curry ramen in shoyu broth. Apparently the "roasted seaweed citron peel" ramen in shoyu broth is really good, which sounds kinda boring compared to roasted pork or the regular cha shu for toppings, but in reality it is yuzu nori, not really as topping, but integrated as part of the broth, and apparently has flown under the radar for quite some time (I've yet to have this, but now that I know it has something yuzu in it, now I want to!).

      5 Replies
      1. re: K K

        yeah, this time out, i went with the tonkotsu because my friends in the bay area who are all santa devotees go specifically for their pork bone broth and that's what the place appears to be known for.

        there IS a huge fascination with tonkotsu up in the bay it seems. in that sense, norcal is a little bit ahead of socal. tonkotsu ramen has become a really trendy thing in japan within the last few years, as such everybody and their mother's ramen shops are trying to cash in.

        the red ginger, by the way, is just another indicator of santa trying to serve ramen in the hakata style. it's definitely an acquired taste, but it's what they do in southern japan.

        thanks for the tip on the shoyu! i'll have to check it out next time i'm there. i go up to the bay every now and then and have a lot of friends up there, so it could happen pretty soon actually.

        1. re: rameniac

          A little bit of a post tease simply because you missed it by less than a week, but I did see the ramen chef of Do-Henkotsu/Tokushima Ramen when they were still around, prepare a bowl of broth before. It starts off with a near white tonkotsu from the vat, poured into a bowl of something that looked like a dark brown paste, resulting in a broth with a shade of brown. The effect is a pork soup that is still very light but has another dimension in depth and flavor.

          Well you're right on the other reason why tonkotsu is so popular. In summary, Bay Area ramen-ya's doing one or two broths better than the other (which is pretty much always tonkotsu no matter how bad everything is or how low it is on the ramen ranking scale, you will pretty much always find pork broth anywhere you go....except at Kahoo interestingly who hopefully stick to their guns and don't give in to the masses), all the ramen fans and unfortunately too many bandwagon jumpers/trend following foodies who seem to only like tonkotsu or not want to try anything else, pretty much help escalate the popularity of the fatty bone/marrow soup trumping over everything else.

          Much like the analogy of sushi, everybody loves toro and rich fatty fish flavor. In fact go to the General Board thread of favorite sushi item, most folks vote for fatty toro, salmon. But there's another breed of fans who prefer shiromi (white flesh fish) for more subtle sweet flavors.


          1. re: K K

            ahh if only i could have tried that tokushima ramen! you don't know how jazzed i was about that once i got it in my head to take a drive north.

            ...but then i would never have had kahoo ;P.

            yea i wonder what's up with the tonkotsu phenomenon in the bay. most of the ramen shops in L.A. are what are generally considered "assari-kei" ramen shops - which means something like "children of non-oily broth" - they serve shoyu, miso and shio in the most generic way possible and that's about it. and if they do happen to have a tonkotsu, it's typically quite awful. this has changed over the last few years, but there are still only a couple of shops that stand out. shinsengumi hakata, daikokuya, and santouka are the big three.

            one theory about norcal, i'd say, is that it's silicon valley. more computer programmers = more anime fans = more people hip to the latest japanese fads? hehe...

        2. re: K K

          I started out a tonkotsu fan mainly because of Menchanko-tei in NYC who I feel does a decent hakata style ramen with firm chewy noodles. The closest I could find to that subtle sweet white broth (msg or not) was Santa.

          However, after going to Kahoo last night, I'm going to have to agree that I like the shoyu and shio ramen at Kahoo better than Santa. The broth as you've mentioned is sweet, subtle, and flavorful and the noodles are nice and chewy. Picking a favorite between the shio and shoyu is hard and I had to go back and forth about 10 times before deciding that maybe I liked the shio a micron more.

          I also had the spicy-miso ramen with vegetables which was a little too busy for my tastes (napa cabbage, cabbage, thin slices of pork, sprouts, chives). It was actually pretty spicy and flavorful and I could have sworn I detected szechuan peppercorn but I prefer the simple refinement of the shoyu and shio ramen.

          1. re: Porthos

            ah menchanko-tei! i went there once about three years ago. not bad and fairly authentic, it seemed kind of like the new york equivalent of LA's hakata shinsengumi. not astounding, but at least it exists so far from japan.

            btw kudos for eating multiple bowls of ramen in one sitting! so kahoo's shio is good too? i'm definitely going to have to try that.

        3. I've been warning about the downhill quality of Santa for a couple of years. Their noodle really is a shame to be served in a ramen shop. I also don't see what's so special about their plain white tonkotsu broth. Maybe it's just a preference thing, but if it's plain pork bone broth, I can get it anywhere else. What I look for is something deep that can use the good tonkotsu broth and add the extra dimension that makes the broth unique to a shop. In that sense, Halu, Do-Henkotsu (RIP), and Gen (RIP) all really outshine Santa.

          While I try to compare each restaurant's offerings with other restaurants equivalents, there are times I have to resort to comparison with instant noodle ramens. And unfortunately the Santa experience had me start thinking about all the instant noodle ramen noodles that were better.

          As far as the broth types, for tonkotsu, there can be many varieties of quality and different characters. But most of the shoyu I've tried are pretty much the same. From the shoyu ramens I've tried in Tokyo, I don't know how much better they can get. I have yet to try Kahoo since they took over from Do-Henkotsu, but it sounds promising. I'm looking to be enlighted by their shoyu broth.

          Santa downhill:

          1 Reply
          1. re: tanspace

            i thought it was a little bit better than your run-of-the-mill tonkotsu soup, but according to my friend, we actually happened to go on a "good day."

            but yea id say there are many instant noodles that are much more full-flavored and authentic than what you'd find in most shops stateside.