Ok, I’ll admit that the ramen boy title is a bit misleading. I’m no ramen expert. I’d my first bowl of ramen only after coming back to Singapore. I’ve grown to like it though, more than any Japanese noodle. Luckily for me, Singapore is becoming quite a ramen city. Ramen shops have been sprouting up around Singapore, the latest being Ippudo, the famous Japanese ramen chain. It’s their second branch outside of Japan, their first being in my beloved New York City. Which I think speaks volumes on how Singapore is becoming a major gastronomic destination.
But enough navel gazing, back to Ippudo, I joined June and her brother on a Sunday night during their soft opening to try the much hyped ramen. 9 p.m. and there was still a pretty long line, gratefully it was relatively fast moving. June’s brother could hardly contain his excitement when we were finally seated. He was almost gleeful with anticipation to taste Ippudo’s ramen again. I like ramen but I’m not really a fanatic, so I wasn’t really infected by his enthusiasm. But after our pork buns came, I started to buy into it. The pork was tender and the bun, pillow-y soft, which contrasted with the crisp snap of the lettuce. It had a really flavorful sauce and… mayonnaise! Which made such a delicious flavor combination. It reminded me of the Samurai burger that MacDonald’s served in Singapore a very long time ago. (That comparison to MacDonald’s is a good thing, the burger remains one of my favorite food memories.)
Our ramen arrived and it was quite a sight. My Akamaru Modern had a reddish-orange blush, a slick of black garlic oil and vivid green from the scallions, all set against the milky fat emulsified off-white broth. I was excited to eat it.
It was good. But I expected more. Maybe it was the hype, or maybe it was because I’m a ramen noob. Maybe I just couldn’t grasp the intricacies, nuances of their ramen. It felt as if the ramen was lacking something but I didn’t know what.
As I started looking at my photos and writing this post around lunchtime the following Monday, I felt the sudden urge to eat ramen again. I needed another gauge. I called up a chef friend who has been urging me to check out a ramen place that serves theirs with pork cheek, one of our favorite meats.
He picked me up and we drove to Hokkaido Ramen Santouka at The Central. They offered pork buns as well and we just couldn’t say no to that. This rendition had two slices of pork belly, a much more defined sauce and better fixings. The pork wasn’t as meltingly tender as Ippudo’s and I wished that there was mayo. But overall I preferred this one at Santouka.
It’s difficult for me to describe ramen broth; I don’t feel I have the right vocabulary, having been introduced to it so recently. So bear with me as I try.
Imagine flavor being like a car and how fast it’s going as its intensity. My bowl at Ippudo was flavorful, but there was so much going on that everything got a little drowned out, a little diffused. It was like a car traveling fast but constantly making radical turns. There is speed but it doesn’t really get anywhere. Santouka’s broth though was like a car steadily accelerating on a straightaway. It started off not as aggressively as Ippudo’s, but the flavor was definitely more focused. The beautiful pork taste was well defined, and it lingered in my mouth.
I also preferred the noodles at Santouka. They were a little thicker and chewier. More Q as the Chinese like to call it. Noodles at Ippudo were straight and thin, made in the Hakata style. But my favorite noodles are still from Miharu. They are yellow, curly and have just the right diameter, which makes for a substantial noodle that has the perfect chew.
But the highlight of Santouka is the pork cheek, which is meltingly soft and flavorful. I usually prefer my pork cheeks with more of a bite, a crunch to them, but these in the context of ramen worked.
However my favorite ramen pork accompaniment is from Tampopo. Tampopo sometimes gets a bad rep. Some of it might be justified but take a look at the picture of that piece of pork. Doesn’t it look fucking good? It is. I love the alternating layers of fat and meat. I’ve always had very solid pork from the place. Their tonkatsu is pretty good as well. It’s crisp on the outside and succulent on the inside. It makes up for the fact that I can’t get enough of that rolled pork in the noodles. I always wish I had one more slice.
One of the things that Ippudo does right is that they’re generous with their slices of pork like Noodle House Ken. There were quite a few pieces submerged below the soup of my Akamaru Modern.
You might have noticed that I never declared a favorite ramen joint. It’s not a cop out. As a food writer I firmly believe in putting your balls where your mouth is. (Ha ha ok that didn’t come out right.) What I wanted to convey is that writers should have the guts to stand by what they write. One of my pet peeves is reading a blog that reviews restaurants, only to state a disclaimer that all taste is subjective.
The thing I’ve learned while eating my way though Singapore’s ramen shops are that there is a multitude of ramen styles available. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. It wasn’t apparent to me at first. I thought ramen was ramen. But each region of Japan has its own variation. What makes it so fun and exciting is that I can eat across Japan, experiencing and celebrating all that ramen diversity within a few square kilometers in town, here in Singapore.
Check out all the different styles of ramen here.
#04-02/03/04 Mandarin Gallery
333A Orchard Road
Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Tel: 6235 2797
Hokkaido Ramen Santouka
#02-76 The Central
6 Eu Tong Sen Street
Open from 11 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. last order daily.
Tel: 6224 0668
Miharu Sapporo Ramen
#01-11 The Gallery Hotel
1 Nanson Road
Lunch from noon to 2:45 p.m.; Dinner from 6 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. last order. Closed on Wednesdays.
Tel: 6733 8464
#01-23/24 Liang Court Shopping Center
177 River Valley Road
Open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. last order daily.
Tel: 6338 3186
Noodle House Ken
#01-17/18 Orchard Plaza
150 Orchard Road
Lunch from noon to 2 p.m.; dinner from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday to Friday. Saturday lunch from noon to 3 p.m.; dinner from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. or till sold out.
Tel: 6235 5540