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Benke Ramen - Vancouver - First Visit

Spotted a short while back by a friend as now being open, I decided to go check it out myself today… a new Japanese ramen shop called Benke Ramen (1741 Robson, Tel: 778-384-1460) on Robson Street between Denman and Bidwell Streets and thus just around the corner from what is probably the current king of the genre in this city, Kintaro Ramen. I had heard rumors of it possibly opening around early November, but apparently renovation and staffing delays resulted in the official opening on January 21st. A month had passed so I figured this was enough time for them to work through the ‘just-opened’ issues. Walking in at about 1pm (Sat), my lunch companion and I were seated quickly though the place was practically full. We were sitting in the front area where there were those glass shutter-type doors that open up, as one would find in say a café on this very same street. I sat facing this side as a result I could see lots of people walking by, with many of them stopping and pressing their faces against the glass to sneak a peak inside, so obviously they too noticed this was a new joint and were curious.

Some background queries on this place revealed that it is being backed by a noodle production/ramen ingredients supplier company based in Kyoto, Japan called Takara Sangyo, and that Benke Ramen was in fact created as a subsidiary company. The interior design was created by a Japanese food industry consulting company called Kukan Kikaku (in English, this would literally translate as perhaps ‘Space Planning’) who has done this type of work for many restaurants back in Japan. The overall theme of the design was ’Japanese style’ and was based on earth (or clay) walls and tones with Japanese paper coverings and embedded, indirect lighting to give it a warm feel inside. Even the seat dividers on the walls added to this theme, by their use of natural bamboo. The total floor space is 1700 sq. feet, with a four-seat counter at the back end, and larger tables (with four or six seats) with an overall seating capacity of 42. There seemed to be a great deal of pride in the product, as it was said it was a totally manual process in preparing the soup and resulting ramen dishes, using all organic vegetables, and wanting to present a true representation of ramen as one would find in Japan. The owner has said that by the start of the 2010 Olympic games in the city, he aims to have four outlets in the city, with even grander hopes of opening up in Paris, New York and Los Angeles!

Okay, back to the menu and the food. It was quite simple and straightforward which I thought was a good choice, as most really good ramen shops in Japan are really focused on a few key select items and do them well. A two sided, one sheet color menu revealed a choice of three soup flavors: Shoyu (soy sauce), Shio (salt), and Miso. With base toppings of onions, Chashyu (sliced pork), bamboo shoots, a standard price of C$6.60 for each. The base Shoyu soup was a chicken stock combined with some beef part stock apparently (what part, remains a mystery to me), with a seven vegetable mixture (tomato and celery were known) added in, cooked and reduced; the dish was finished off with some shavings of Yuzu fruit for both flavour and aroma. For the Shiyo soup, it was made from pork bones cooked down over five hours, with added vegetables, seafood (what exactly, was not told), and sea salt. The Miso soup was a mixture of both the Shoyu and Shio flavorings, which were then added to some direct-from-Japan Miso (more specifically, the Shinshu brand, originating from Nagano Prefecture), which itself was a combination of both red and white Miso. Additional toppings such as extra Chashu, corn, butter, etc. were also available for prices ranging from fifty cents to a dollar. An option to add all available additional toppings could be had, raising the base price to C$10. Also, extra noodles could be had for an extra $1.50. Both of us had the standard Shio bowl, wih me adding an extra topping of a half boiled egg, and extra noodles. From my past experience at Kintaro Ramen, I was interested to see how this pork bone based soup would compare. It turned out to be a bit more heavier than I expected (can’t recall offhand how heavy the super fatty edition of the Kintaro version was), and was really salty, which my dining partner disliked but I could manage. I think with both us being bigger fans of lighter tasting pork bone-based soup after eating many in Japan, this kind of turned us off, but for others who like the heavier flavour I am sure they will like it. The Chashyu was also much fattier than I had hoped, it was cut nice and thick though but I would say over half of it was pure fat, which I just had to cut out and discard. A shame as I like my Chashyu leaner.

Aside from the ramen, there were some side dishes such as the usual Gyoza dumplings (pork). These could be had for C$3 and came in a set of five pieces. They were perhaps a bit on the small size but were incredibly juicy inside and nice and crispy on the outside, which I enjoyed. I am guessing though, that they were not handmade and probably a mass produced variety judging from the total uniformity of the folds and general shape they came out as. A young couple next to us had chosen to get a side dish of Kimchi, which they were eating like a salad on its own, which brought smiles to our faces knowing its not what one would do with that spicy Korean dish in most people’s minds.

In the end, would I go back? Probably. But I would not be in any major rush. Perhaps to try out the Miso soup version and ask for a lighter soup stock (but perhaps the mix with the Shoyu base would thin it out a bit). Will be interesting if this debut will cause Kintaro to jack things up a bit but judging from their loyal fans who always stretch outside in a lineup, I figure there is room for both on this busy block. Anyhow, nice to have some selection of good ramen made by people who understand it and are passionate about it in Van city...

Image 1: Interior, taken at a previous time
Image 2: My bowl of Shio Ramen, taken with cellphone camera so not great

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  1. Great review and backgrounder jay_jay. Thanks.

    1. super review. never having had the real thing in Japan, I think I could enjoy the heavier broth here. Now there is an alternative to the throes of despair that the Kintaro lineups inspire in my friends.

      1 Reply
      1. re: alex8alot

        Would love to hear your take on the broths and the general salt level if you do go with the Shio version.

      2. I really need to know, what should one do with the kimchi? I just eat it separately when I go for Korean BBQ, but I would put it in the ramen in this case.

        Great review, I really need to go there now.

        2 Replies
        1. re: lotuskitty

          I generally think of kimchi as not really a stand alone type of sidedish or an appetizer by any means... its to be eaten with the main meal (when we are talking about Korean food). Its not really a topping to go with ramen in a traditional sense either, but perhaps its just another one of those Asian-fusion developments. :) But hey, if people want to eat the spicy stuff on its own, good for them. :)

          1. re: jay_kay

            :) My father has a conniption fit everytime he sees me grazing on kimchee like salad. He firmly believes that my stomach lining is pockmarked from acid holes.

        2. I had lunch there today- loved it! I say just try to eat the whole slab of pork, fat and all; it was melting good. Shoyu broth was light and lovely, and I got kimchee on top (not as a side) and found it worked beautifully.

          You Vancouverites are so damn lucky!

          3 Replies
          1. re: John Manzo

            Hi John, great to hear another one visited this place and came away happy. Though I will have to take a pass on your recommendation on the 'chashyu', as the last thing I need is to consume more fat than I probably do. :) The owners seem to have grand dreams of expanding but think a place like Calgary is a much easier transition for them, so I wouldn't count it out. Just think of how Caffe Artigiano is making its way east, I am sure good ramen joints are not far behind. :)

            1. re: jay_kay

              Love Caffe Artigiano and thinks it one of the best on the planet..
              I am from San Diego and was staying at Sutton Place for a week last year and I am so happy to the concierge that told us to go..that and the dim sum at Floata's.

              1. re: jay_kay

                Indeed- we need more NON-sushi Japanese places like these ramen, gyoza and izakaya places! Send 'em over, Vancouver!

            2. Wow, awesome review and such details and based on your review alone. I am so there tomorrow for lunch with my best bud.

              1 Reply
              1. re: sgtoca

                checked out Benke yesterday with best bud, wow, the room is nice, the decor and tables everything was comfy. The food tho, hmm, was good, gyoza plumpy and not over cooked but the ramen was tasty but I kept thinking Kintaro still makes a better broth. I'd go back again to try their non ramen stuff. Service was slow but not bad considering they were swamped at lunch on a weekday.

              2. Greetings,

                Benke actually does not serve Shio (Salt) Ramen, only Shoyu, Miso, and Tonkotsu flavours.

                Shoyu is the ramen most Japanese eat although Miso is also quite popular. Tonkotsu (which I think the reviewer ate by the description) is the heaviest of the three and is very much an 'acquired' taste (which I myself have not acquired).

                I would personally never recommend Tonkotsu ramen to any person who has not tried it before. If your going to go to Benke I would encourage you to try either the Shoyu or the Miso ramen. If your not sure or if your new to ramen go with Shoyu.

                Also, know that, traditionally, belly pork, which Benke serves, is very fatty. It's considered the best pork for ramen but again, it may not appeal to some. Benke, in the early days, used to also serve 'shoulder' pork but they discontinued it for lack of demand (so they told me) which was unfortunate because, like the reviewer, I preferred it. I do like the belly pork also so it's all good.

                In general I consider Benke to be the best ramen in Vancouver (or at least in the downtown/Robson area). In fact, because it has quite a refined flavor (the subtle taste of lime/orange as you hit the bottom of the bowl is pure genius) it rivals many of it's Tokyo counterparts.

                I was, I must admit, never a big fan of Kintaro which, in my opinion, tastes quite 'greasy', even in their Shoyu varieties. Prior to Benke I always went for ramen to Ezogiku which I much preferred to Kintaro and I would still recommend it (though my wife would not agree). The kimchi ramen in Gyoza King is also quite good.

                Anyway, for all those who have the opportunity, do yourselves a favor and go try the ramen at Benke, it really is awesome stuff.

                1 Reply
                1. re: kristoph

                  1. At Benke, they call their Tonkatsu Ramen "Shio" - this is where a lot of the confusion is coming from im sure. I wasnt sure if this was a Shio stock, that they added pork knuckle and other assorted bits to, nor what a traditional base for tonkatsu ramen other than pork was....

                  2. I find chasu preference is such a personal thing. Most people like leaner... which is fair - my dining companion preferred the chasu at Kintaro because it was leaner. I like mine fatty, so i really enjoyed the thick cut belly. I prefer a mix of shoulder and belly, but i can see why many people prefer lean. In the dozens of bowls i've had in Japan, i never found Chasu to be standardized - every place, every region did it differently. I'd encourage people to try all the ramen shops to find what suits them best.

                  I'll concur that Benke is really good. But to me, ramen is such an individual thing that i would suggest everyone try each place that serves good ramen, and decide what they like best for themselves.

                2. Thanks for the review.

                  Having been disappointed by Kintaro, I told myself I wouldn't bother with ramen during the rest of my time here in Vancouver. But someone recently told me they liked Benkei better than Kintaro, so I may have to try, especially if this crappy weather continues.

                  Re: kim chee -- I've always eaten kim chee by itself. In Korean restos, it's always served with other pickles before the main dishes arrive. Great way to whet the appetite with nice cold one. Japanese style kim chee is also generally less spicy and a bit sweeter than the more authentic Korean style, making it easier for most to eat as a stand-alone side. And it's great in ramen, and is commonly served in Japan this way -- e.g. "kim chee miso ramen."

                  I'm looking forward to trying this place out.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: aburitoro

                    So I found myself grocery shopping for dinner at Capers on Robson tonight, when I suddenly felt too lazy to prepare anything. So I walked down the street to Benkei.

                    Ordered the shio tonkotsu ramen (their shio broth is in fact tonkotsu), with corn, green onion, and egg as additional toppings. I also ordered a side of kim chee, which turned out to be more like authentic Korean kim chee than the sweeter, less spicy, Japanese variant. Nothing wrong with that.

                    The tonkotsu broth at Benkei was thick and rich, but not overly so. I've had it both richer and thinner elsewhere. This was a good balance. The corn was still ice cold when the bowl arrived, which made the first bite a bit annoying. Nothing that a quick dunk didn't solve, though. The char siu was tasty, but a bit dry. Good thing the slices had a rim of fat to counter that.

                    Overall, a good bowl of ramen. Better than my experiences at both Kintaro and Motomachi Shokudo. I will probably go back and try a miso-butter-corn ramen next time.

                    On a side note, someone I spoke with tonight insisted that Kintaro is better than Benkei, which makes me think that I need to try Kintaro again. Could it have been an off-night for them when I went? If this rain keeps up, maybe I'll go later this week.

                    By the way, the ramen with 3 toppings and a side of kim chee came out to just under $10.

                    1. re: aburitoro

                      I haven't tried any of the ramen places in Vancouver yet, but after trying a few places in New York this summer, I was hooked and had to find out where I could satisfy some cravings here. Benkei is the first one I tried yesterday, and I ordered the shio tonkatsu as well. I don't think that this is a proper tonkatsu broth, as compared to descriptions of what I've read it's supposed to be - plus, from what I had in NYC. I think a true tonkatsu broth is supposed to be milky white in color, and the one I had in NYC was indeed like that. It was the most amazing broth I've ever had, and the on at Benkei is nothing like that. To be fair, they don't call it Tonkatsu broth, they call it Shio. I've never had a proper shio broth myself, so I can't comment on it, but what I had yesterday was not a tonkatsu broth. It was super rich, on the thick side. It was tasty, but wasn't what I was expecting. The noodles were really good, nice and springy texture. The pork is way fattier than I've had at other places, but I still ate it! ;)

                      I think that trying ramen in NYC first has ruined me for ramen in Vancouver. I've got to try Kintaro next, plus the other ones mentioned on this board. Otherwise, I'll have to take a trip to NYC once a year just to get that tonkatsu ramen!!