770 Bute Street
“If you build it, they will come”. Its as if the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson from the 1989 classic film Field of Dreams is whispering all the way across the Pacific Ocean into the ears of the leadership responsible for steering the business growth of established Japanese ramen chains. First of the known bigger players, Santouka, ventured forth and established a Canadian beachhead in the burgeoning ramen battle zone situated in the west end of Robson Street. It’s probably my favorite in town these days, but I’m I would be curious to hear what the likes of the man behind the original true ramen-ya in Vancouver, Matsubara-san of Kintaro fame, would have to say about the growing market and resulting competition for the dollars of Vancouver “rameniacs”. Hard to believe its been eleven years since this all began in our fair west coast city.
Delving into the history of Sanpachi is an interesting read. Starting in that ramen hotbed of Sapporo back in 1987, its stretched to now approximately 70 outlets throughout Japan and as well as overseas (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan). Progressive it seems in their business model as well, by offering “gift packs” of its popular miso and shoyu variants through an online store. The sole founder (and current CEO) is fiercely proud of the original and unique taste of their ramen, and has expanded this love of ramen and keen dedication into a motto that serves to remind their entire network of stores and staff of their purpose. Loosely translated, I would say in English this would be “Warmly Satisfied in Both your Stomach and Heart”. Yeah, that didn’t come out well, but I think you get the point.
My own personal memories of this chain are faint, for some reason I remember eating it (and had to refer to an old notebook where I jotted down notes) during my one and only trip to Fukuoka (southern Japan) a long time ago at their outlet there during an insane ramen-focused food journey. And I can recall hearing stories from some Hokkaido-born friends that I played hockey with and they had mentioned that Sanpachi was one of their favorites during their high school/university days as they were best known for their generous portion sizes and lots of toppings. Hungry teenagers are the same around the world. As you’ll see below, the larger sizes held true here – especially the amount of noodles I had in mine. Great value.
While still early days and their menu booklet is littered with “coming soon” stickers and covered up parts (I think three of the five pages were completely unavailable yet), I had to try them out as the rainy weather made for a craving for this comfort food for me. On first glance, there are many similarities with the Japan-based menu that I’ve found online, albeit some of the more localized/special soup bases were missing (e.g while they have the spicy miso, they don’t have the extra spicy miso; or the extra strong miso with thicker noodles, etc.). That said, they do cover off a full range of soup choices: miso (of course), shoyu, shio, and tonkotsu.
From what I could gather, the base of these soups is constructed from a mixture of both pork and chicken bones at Sanpachi. And a multiple-miso blend is also used for the miso soup. Further notes, basic toppings are covered in each, while you can order more separately on the side (again, a slight difference from the Japan-menu was the lack of other sets that had some of these extra toppings added already). I had the full egg (which wasn’t cut in half), and it was the right level of done-ness, slightly runny, added to my bowl, which already had some menma and chashu (thin slice).
Strangely I usually go with the signature dish of many places that I’m visiting for the first time, as one would hope in a new outlet of a formula-arranged chain that they would get this practiced first and foremost so its a good solid representation of the overall business behind the brand. Alas, I passed on the miso ramen, and opted for one of my other favorites that I don’t think I’ve really seen listed out independently on menus around town – that being the negi ramen. Sure, a bunch of thin sliced leeks might not sound that appealing to many, but I love this as a topping on ramen, especially for the slight sweet-bitterness it generates and the aroma that a little splash of hot oil on top can create and which works to bolster the entire flavor of the steaming hot bowl.
I digress, but two of my favorite places for negi ramen are in my memory from a pair of the smallest (in terms of space) ramen-ya I’ve ever frequented: one is a tiny little town in Saitama prefecture that was a shrunk-down tin shack, and another in the Oimachi district of Tokyo that is basically a five seat counter bar in the size of a place that is reminiscent of the food trucks that are stationed around Vancouver these days.
Thoughts on the noodles. A more toothsome and structured chijiremen. As its a stronger, thicker variety, it could handle the extra boiling time, as mine were cooked well through. With all the al dente thinner type of noodles around town, I’m sure there will be fans (who don’t like “chalky” noodles) and those against the offering here. Again, a preference thing, I get it. If I might add, the heavier weight of this slightly crinkly noodle makes the meal more filling and looks more voluminous. The soup was a mid-level in terms of heaviness in my opinion. Slightly cloudy and on the lighter side when it came to oiliness. Salt content was mild and I had some hints of peppery-ness to it as well.
Across the table from me was a bowl of straight up tonkotsu ramen. No extra toppings. Hidden underneath the murky broth and the large cut strip of nori, were more thicker cut (relative to those in my negi ramen) slices of chashu. The nori was obviously passed over a heat source as it was smoky and really infused itself into the soup itself, along with the black droplets and drizzles of a flavored oil of some sort. I should have asked what exactly this was, but forgot. A completely different flavor profile from other tonkotsu soups I’ve had around town as a result. Might take a spoonful or two to get used to, but I was quickly reaching over and having more and more as it was really different. Though it looks rich here in the photo, it wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. Again, the combination base of bones in the broth making process probably has something to do with it.
With the full menu yet to be unleashed, there are still some other choices – mine would be next to try the miso and then the shoyu (which is probably my least favorite) – to keep me intrigued and to come back even though they are not running at 100% menu capacity. Courteous service, although I think the two Japanese girls who were the main servers (though one of the cooks would sometimes bring out some bowls to cover the slack) were in need of help once the tables were all full. From the conversations that I could hear all around me, the word of mouth in the young Japanese community (mainly Working Holiday-ers) was quite good and I’d say 90% of those around me were speaking only Japanese.
The space (I understand used to be a Thai restaurant) is bright, clean and relatively well spaced out, even if you get a table location and not a counter seat that rims the floor and gives you a look out onto the street. It felt so much more “nicer” than ramen shops that I’m used to, not knowing what the former occupant looked like and what was changed, I think the remnants of a more “restaurant feel, layout” are the cause for this sensation that I experienced. Clearly, a place where women (like my dining partner) would like for the ambiance, even though what you are eating is essentially Japanese fast food. I think as a result, this will create even more lingering and slow eating that I normally feel happens too much at ramen-ya here in the GRVD. Slower turnover, more waits, more annoyance for me, who can down a bowl pretty fast. 🙂