We are seated at the counter at Benkei Ramen in Vancouver, BC. As we wait for our lunch we watch the cook hustle. He grabs portions of fresh ramen noodles and submerges them in boiling water. He drops a double handful of bean sprouts into a steamer, arranges thin slices of pork in another steamer basket, ladles broth into a saucepan, then turns, just as the timer goes off, to pull the ramen from the water with a practiced shake, placing it in two big bowls—then the sprouts, meat, broth, other toppings, and he shoots a quick, staccato burst of Japanese at the waitress as he places the two perfectly arranged bowls in the pass-through and turns to begin this sequence again. As he spins, he bumps into a plastic bin of noodles with a mild thump, and all of a sudden he breaks the fourth wall, catching my eye and laughing at himself without missing a beat.
At last, after watching the cook run through his routine several times, the waitress slides two steaming bowls in front of us. I inhale the aroma of my vegetable shoyu ramen as I stir in the corn, green onions, bamboo shoots, and nori arranged atop the noodles. The broth is light but rich, the noodles pleasantly chewy. It is a good bowl of ramen.
It is our last day in Vancouver. We came to town to enjoy ourselves—to wander Granville Island and bike around Stanley Park, and we also came with a mission: to try the best ramen that Vancouver has to offer.
We talk, as we eat, about the various bowls of ramen that we have eaten over the course of the weekend.
The quest started, as these things often do, with an episode of No Reservations. As we watched Anthony Bourdain slurp handmade ramen noodles in Hokkaido, I realized that I had never eaten real ramen. I had never even thought about it. Clearly, there was so much more to ramen than the lackluster Top Ramen that I consumed by the case during college—it was a food with a long tradition of care and craftsmanship.
The consensus on the internet seemed to be that adequate ramen could be had in Seattle, but Vancouver was the place to go for really excellent ramen. We were planning a weekend trip to Vancouver anyway. Clearly the quest was meant to be. We armed ourselves with a list of highly recommended ramen-ya (ramen shops).
We started at Motomachi Ramen. The tiny restaurant was filled with Asian students, and I watched their technique with interest. Some lifted the ramen with their chopsticks, filling the bowl of their ladle-like spoon with a few strands of ramen, then topping this with choice bits from their bowl. Others favored the bend over and slurp method. Conversation in several languages filled the steamy air.
My spicy miso ramen arrived on a beautiful lacquered tray with a single flower alongside. The noodles were springy and the broth a poem—layered and nuanced, intensely flavorful. Michael reminded me that it is de rigueur to slurp ramen, allowing a small amount of air to enter the mouth. And we tried, really we did—but my American mouth had the hardest time producing audible slurping noises, after all of the years that my mother spent teaching me not to make noise while eating.
At Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, we had joined a line that stretched out the door and onto the sidewalk, with a pleasant anticipatory sense that there must be something worth waiting for inside, if this many people were willing to line up for it. The shoyu ramen at Santouka was simple, but perfect. The broth was made by boiling pork bones for two days. Behind the kitchen windows, we could see large stockpots at a full, rolling boil. This resulted in a broth that was not thick, but had a meaty flavor as rich as gravy.
As we finish our bowls of ramen at Benkei, I note some serious slurping going on near us at the counter. I am impressed, but still cannot manage more than a tiny schloop myself. In spite of this, I now feel like a seasoned ramen aficionado, piling noodles into my spoon, and topping the little heap with a few kernels of corn.
We decide that it is really impossible to choose a favorite amongst the ramen restaurants we tried. They were all excellent in different ways. In each place we were served a simple bowl of noodles that was produced with the utmost care and presented with elegance.
It is good to be here in this pleasant city on a sunny day, sitting next to my beloved in a ramen-ya, chasing the last curly noodles around the bottom of my bowl with chopsticks. Finally, we push our stools back from the counter and stand up to leave. The entire staff shouts “Arigato gozaimashita!”
Our weekend ramen quest is over.