Japanese pop culture has a lot to be snobbish about, from mochi ice cream to Gwen Stefani’s latest clothing line, Iron Chef to tentacle porn, J-pop to noise metal, and from T-shirts that double as fine art to Suntory’s World Executive Blend, a superior mellow, milky coffee in a can. Comic books as literature? Japanese. Postnuclear fashion? Japanese. Five-hundred-dollar dinners of raw fish and rice? Japanese. If you happen to be at an opening in downtown or Culver City and there are no Japanese onlookers present, you are emphatically in the wrong gallery.
But it was still a bit strange to come across high Japanese attitude last week in Santouka, which is not just an inexpensive noodle shop, but an inexpensive noodle shop in a supermarket food court.
Santouka, part of a Japanese chain with American outlets in Orange County and Torrance, is pretty spare for a food-court restaurant, modestly covered up, almost hidden away beneath two giant flat-screen televisions flickering sumo matches and the odd Japanese news program. A wooden vitrine to one side of the cash register displays plastic replicas of the food on the restaurant’s menu, which you are well-advised to study — if you aren’t ready to order when you reach the counter, you will be ignored. If you make the mistake of asking for gyoza, the counterwomen will sneer. If you ask for a beverage, the women will suggest a glass of water. If you ask for your noodles to go, they will giggle at you. Ask if your friend’s noodles can be served without fishcake or seaweed, and they will frown. You may have dealt with Barneys salesmen or the import guys at Amoeba, but they have nothing on the counterwomen at this place.
What you get at Santouka is ramen, or more specifically shio ramen, thin, squiggly noodles, a bit chewier than you might expect, served in a boiling-hot pork broth minimally seasoned with salt. Floating among the noodles will be a bit of seaweed, a pinch of chopped green onion and a thin round of bland fishcake decorated with a swirl of Barbie-box pink. There are three slices of pork — one, two, three — each a sort of Oldsmobile brown and edged with a generous layer of pale fat. At the exact middle point of the bowl, so precisely placed that I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a centering device back in the kitchen, is a single scarlet pickle, the size of a scarlet pea, probably chosen for its vivid color as much as for its pinprick of acidity, the dot over the “i” that brings the entire composition into focus. Santouka’s shio ramen is a considered work of art.
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Still, the restaurant’s aesthetic may not be your own. Where the basic broth at Little Tokyo’s Daikokuya is a lush thing, paled by the proteins of the Kurobuta pork bones at its base and oozing the mellow essence of pig and garlic, Santouka’s is a sharper-tasting liquid, slightly milky, resonant with the defined funk of pork that has been cooked a few degrees past well-done. Like authentic Mexican carnitas or Cuban lechon, the broth operates as a function of pork’s tendency to become stronger-tasting over time, to the extent that the contours of its flavor could probably be expressed mathematically. You do not lose yourself in Santouka’s ramen: You sip it, admire it, experience the softness of the meat, the spring of the noodles, the bite of the scallions, but you are always aware of the individual components of the whole.
Add or subtract a buck or two and get a bigger or smaller bowl than the default size; throw in a couple more and get a bowl of rice topped with glistening salmon roe, with bonito flakes and chopped green onions, or a frosting of natto, hyperstinky fermented soybeans. If you are so inclined, you can get your ramen enriched with a spoonful of miso, which rounds out the broth at the expense of its distinctiveness, or with a bit of soy sauce, shoyu, whose spectacular qualities of umami somehow submerge everything that made the broth special in the first place. The spicy miso ramen, on the other hand, is wonderful — ruddy and complex. When I was part of a group that ordered a couple of each variation, it was the red ramen that I ordered when we went back for seconds.
But the top of the line at Santouka is undoubtedly the ramen with special pork — which is to say, a plateful of fattier, roastier slices of pork served on the side, unsullied by the taste of noodles or broth. At Santouka, even the pork sometimes feels like couture.?
Santouka, in Mitsuwa Marketplace, 3760 S. Centinela Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 398-2113. Other locations in Torrance and Costa Mesa. Open daily 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. No takeout. Lot parking. Lunch for two, food only, $14–$19. Recommended dishes: shio ramen, spicy miso ramen, ramen with special pork.