I can count, on one hand, the number of ramen-dedicated eateries in the city where I live, a far cry from my previous life in Japan. I will freely admit that I have a serious bias when it comes to the ramen I had in Japan, particularly as it compares to my options here in Victoria, Canada.
Unlike other noodles, such as soba, udon, and even somen, ramen enjoys a particularly less rigid approach to its methodology and final product. You might even say that in the noodle world, ramen is something of an open field.
It's this open field, due in large part to the fact that ramen was imported into Japan from China, that allows for all sorts of interpretations to be developed and accepted. This openness is further exemplified by the well-publicized Ivan Orkin, a Long Island, NY transplant who opened a ramen bar in Tokyo, which satisfies the city's denizens and critics alike (all the more impressive when you consider that the city has 10,000+ ramen shops). Ramen has also spawned both exports and reverse imports. The ever-popular Ichiran Natiional Chain based in Fukuoka (the largest city on Japan's southernmost main island of Kysuhu) now has locations in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Brooklyn. Mensho San Francisco, a Michelin-starred ramen restaurant opened by Japanese Chef Tomoharu Shono, was reverse-imported to Tokyo in 2017 when a second Mensho location was opened in the Spring of 2017 near Shinjuku Station.
Ramen, particularly in the last few years with the rapid expansion of social media influence, has seen a surge in popularity in North America, and I finally decided that it was time to set aside my biases and hunt some down in my neck of the woods. One of the challenges in a city with limited choices is price. This was certainly the case with my bowl of ramen at Menbow Ramen in downtown Victoria, coming in at just under $17 with tax and tip for a bowl of miso ramen with tonkotsu broth.
When I arrived mid-week just after 1130am, I was one of the first customers, and chose to sit at the bar overlooking Blanshard Street. The servers and chefs spoke Japanese, and the condiment and utensil layout, along with being served a glass of water right away, was reassuring. Where the shop was more Canadian than Japanese was the level of cleanliness, where the fly in the ointment in the overall ambience was in fact a fly, that buzzed around my legs and throughout the shop for the duration of my visit.
Service was prompt and friendly, and ramen arrived around seven minutes after ordering, and was consumed within five, which is my typical ramen turn-around time. The tonkotsu miso-flavoured broth was rich and strongly seasoned (for those that prefer less salt, the Shoyu or Shio flavours may be the way to go with the tonkotsu broth, or you may want to select the chicken broth instead).
The noodles, slightly crimped and still chewy were delicious, as were the char siu pork slices. Other accompaniments such as kamaboko fish cake, spinach, bean sprouts and green onions made for a solid bowl of ramen. It was also really nice to have some menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) which is one of my must-have ramen toppings, and to have corn included (a nod to where miso ramen orginated, in Hokkaido, the northernmost main island of Japan where corn was one of the main crops when its agriculture was being developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). The one bone I have to pick is in regards to the "soft boiled egg" I was served, which was anything but soft. I am both a soft boiled egg snob and a slut, and the former was left annoyed, and the latter left unsatisfied.
Overall my experience was good, but I do think that for what you spend on a bowl of ramen that the portions are simply too small. It would be nice if they are offered a less expensive "regular" bowl at the current portion size and a "large" bowl with a larger portion at the current prices, or kept the size/price as is, and provided up to one additional serving of noodles at no extra charge with each bowl as it simply wasn't enough.
Overall Rating 8/10
Broth Rating 8.5/10
Noodle Rating 8.5/10
Worth Trying? Yes
Location: 1018 Blanshard St, Victoria, BC