Ah. ramen. Everyone in Toronto knows where to get it. From the everyday pleasures of Ajisen or Kenzo to the more upscale dining experiences at Momofuku or Kinton, there’s no shortage of ramen places in Toronto. If they were any more ubiquitous, they’re probably gonna sell some coffee and bagels and rename themselves Tim Hortons.
I’ve actually never been a big fan of ramen. Heck, the last time I reviewed a ramen place, I more or less ordered something OTHER than noodles (though I did get multiple mouthfuls of WW’s ramen order). I’ve never been a big fan of the combination of uber-rich broth with super-bland noodles. To me (growing up in Indonesia), I prefer my noodles to be served dry, with broth on the side, and both items must be equally flavourful in a way that doesn’t overwhelm each other. Tough ask, I know.
So naturally it came to WW’s (and even my own) surprise when I suggested to her that we try out a rather hidden ramen place called Niwatei, located deep inside the J-Town complex. I thought it may be interesting, having read some reviews online and finding out it’s completely owned by Japanese people. I know that may seem to be obvious to many, but to those non-Canadians I have to explain that a LOT of ramen places in the GTA are owned by either Chinese or Koreans. Kinda like our sushi joints, actually.
J-Town itself probably deserves an article of its own. An extremely obscure collection of shops that cater to the Japanese (and Japanophiles everywhere), this awkwardly shaped collection of shops is located facing the INSIDE of a nondescript office building complex, right off of Steeles Avenue. Its proximity to a 404 highway exit should, logically, mean that this place is extremely well-known. But it’s nook-like positioning and lack of prominent signage pretty much guarantees that only people who go looking for this mythical place will find it. Granted, quite a few of my friends know of J-Town’s existence, but it’s quite staggering the number of people who are unaware that Toronto has a rather awesome (though extremely miniaturized ) Japanese version of a Chinese mall.
Back to the restaurant. Even by J-Town’s already odd standards, this place was pretty hard to find. There was a lack of prominent signage OR lighting to highlight where the location was in relation to the main J-Town supermarket. Even the door was a nondescript entrance that I honestly thought led to a corridor or such. This is another thing that’s always bothered me. How is it possible that Japanese people, with their highly creative design minds and colourful logos, suddenly lose all ability to create one for their own business the moment they cross the Pacific Ocean and enter into Toronto? Mind-boggling.
Anyway, after consulting at least three maps, a compass, and extorting information from two frightened Japanese grandmas, WW and I finally found the restaurant. Walking in, we saw that it was a pretty simple but spacious room, sparsely decorated with cute framed pictures of the restaurant’s mascot (I think it’s a bear of some sort). The menu selections was equally sparse, with only very few selections (in which the ramen section only had around 5-6 types).The very friendly waitress told us that the most popular one is the chashu ramen, which basically means BBQ pork noodles. So we did something unprecedented: we both ordered the same thing. No ” I try yours and you try mine” nonsense. We were BOTH going for the best the place has to offer.
When the food came, I have to say that I was instantly converted. No more for me the constant whining that ramens aren’t to my taste. No more bitching about the craziness (sheer batshit craziness!) that the noodles are soaked in the soup and not served separately from it. The chashu ramen was, indeed, awesome. The slightly sweet and savoury broth hit all the right notes for me, with a taste that is pronounced but not overwhelming. Even the noodles were perfectly cooked, not too al dente the way it was at Yokozuna, but not too soggy either.
And the best part? The chashu itself. The most tender and delicious piece of pork I’ve ever tasted. It almost made me wail in agony when I found out how small the chashu portion size was. It was undoubtedly the star of the show and, with small sprinklings of togarashi (Japanese hot pepper powder), it was near-perfect.
The meal was filling, the taste was delicious, the service was good, the restaurant felt spacious, and the overall experience was very nice. I think I’m beginning to see why people crave this stuff so much. Done right, it really is quite an awesome dish. It may never beat the Bakmi Gajah Mada (there’s s a little something for all my Indonesian readers!) of my childhood but I can now start to appreciate it for what it is.
Now if only I can find the restaurant again without a freakin’ map.
Note: map is below.
–Final verdict: Mari Makan!
3160 Steeles Avenue East
Markham, ON L3R 4G9