With the relatively well received post (in terms of our internal hit counter) on ramen, I thought I’d take our readers on a nostalgic jog down memory lane to the location of my first North American exposure to this Japanese noodle-in-soup dish, at a place called Shijiki.
But before going there, let’s step back a bit further, to my childhood. Ramen as I knew it then was the plastic wrapped, fried slab of noodles that came with a small packet of salty powdered soup mix, that you had to cook in hot water, adding in your choice of toppings such as cooked ham and veggies. At least that’s how it was in our house. The brand of choice was the Demai-Ichi. Shoyu (soy sauce) was the only soup flavoring I knew. I didn’t think much of it, until the one time I went to a neighbor’s house and I saw them eating instant noodles like this but without the soup, and the packet of soup mix being used as a dry dusting over top of the cooked noodles on a plate, to give it “flavor”. Suffice it to say, I was shocked. But still, I was in no position to say how great these noodles really were, even when made as per the instructions. As after all, it is “just flour and water”.
Fast forward to college. It was in the early part of winter in the years just before the global Y2K worries. The Liberals seemed invincible with Jean Chrétien as Canada’s PM, the price of regular gasoline was hovering at around 45 cents per litre, and I can remember thinking my recently acquired Pentium II-powered computer was the fastest thing I had ever seen. Oh how times have changed. And for the good… well, mostly for the good. Returning to my narrative of my fateful first experience with ramen in a proper shop. I was hanging out with some exchange student friends of mine from Japan at the university. They suggested a day trip down to Banff, that tourist hot spot better known for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. Being that none of us were into those particular winter sports, my bewildered mind posed a question…
“Why should we go down there?”
Their reply, “to eat ramen”.
“Ramen?”, I said, “they actually have that there and its not the instant kind I can make at home?”
“Yeah, its just like you can get in Japan.”
Well, that was enough for me and the four of us crammed ourselves in my two door sports car and made the drive down from Alberta’s capital city. The journey took almost five hours on not-so-great roads and we made it there just before the lunch hour. Pulling up in front of what is known as the Clock Tower Mall on Banff Avenue (the main strip that juts its way through the heart of this town), we piled out and I was led inside by my pals. Towards the back of the first floor space, was a tiny restaurant that was partitioned off by glass panels (today, it houses the Pad Thai Restaurant). Immediately inside the entrance was a small open window leading into the kitchen, with some short curtains hanging on them to prevent a clear view inside. A head popped out with a bandanna wrapped around it, and a man bellowed out “welcome” in Japanese. My friends had obviously come here before, as they immediately recognized each other. Leaving it up to them to order, they did just that and we soon squatted down as one of the open tables inside.
A short while later out came the steaming bowls of ramen. My friend had gotten me a Shio (salt) based broth, with lots of toppings. I immediately recognized the Cha-shu, but my experience at that time just associated it with Chinatown and the big slabs of barbecued pork, and I did not expect to see it as one of the toppings. I was by no means complaining though, as it was quite tasty. The noodles to me were obviously not the same instant noodles I had had all these years. I remember drinking down the entire bowl of soup while madly slurping up the noodles. I was in heaven. Knowing that we wouldn’t be making this a regular occurrence, after a few hours of checking out the town site, we came back and had another bowl before we made the long drive back. I was forever grateful to my friends for letting me know that there was something like this in Alberta, albeit not a place I could visit regularly, even with it barely costing twenty dollars to fill up my gas tank in those days.
Shikiji, had found a place in my heart.
Jumping back into Doc Brown’s DeLorean again, this time adjusting the flux capacitor and setting the date box to circa 2004. I had learned that Shikiji had moved to its current Calgary location in the early part of this decade after a landlord situation and a better economic climate in the bigger city drew the owners out from the confines of Banff. By now, Shikiji had established a name for itself predominantly within the ex-pat Japanese community and Japanese tourists in this picturesque town, but was looking for a more regular and wider customer base. The owner/chef, a stern looking but kindhearted gentleman originally from Akita prefecture in northern Japan runs the show. His son is often seen there as a server. Numerous articles adorn the wall, showing that the media has caught wind of this place amid the growing Japanese restaurant scene in this oil town.
The menu is now much more diverse, now including space for a sushi bar, and other popular cooked dishes coming out of a much bigger kitchen. I won’t comment on that here, though I’ve had many items from the menu and came away without complaint.
Instead, I want to revisit the ramen offering.
Perhaps its because I am older, have a better understanding of ramen after time spent traveling to Japan to eat the “real deal”, or my memories have a halo hanging over them, but this dish is clearly not the same as I remember it being in terms of my satisfaction. I had the Shio Ramen again, which comes with toppings such as green onions, wakame, the unorthodox Bok Choi, and slice or two of Cha-shu; price is $10.60. They also provide a small Japanese grinding bowl to break up some sesame seeds, to put into the soup as well. The noodles are a slightly thicker straight variety, with decent texture/consistency. With Shio soups, I am not as concerned with it being crinkly to pick up the soup, as its not as thick as compared to say a Tonkotsu or Miso broth. The soup is average, but nothing to write home about. There is not a great depth to the flavor profile of the liquid, and I can tell its simply made from just a basic chicken stock.
But for Alberta, having to deal with a lower skill level/understanding in making ramen soup and poor availability in getting authentic noodles, and despite being made in a Japanese-run restaurant, this is probably as good as you are going to get. Trust me, there are are much more horrible ramen impostors in Alberta – The Tokyo Noodle Shop in Edmonton comes to mind. That place should be ordered to take that off the menu!
Shikiji Japanese Noodles and Sushi
1608 Centre St. N.E.
Hours: Mon/Wed-Fri, 11:30am to 2:30pm, 5pm to 9pm; Sat, 11:30am to 3pm, 5pm to 9pm; Closed Tue & Sun