By Richard Foss
Imagine that the only burgers you had ever had came from drive-through windows, or that the only fried chicken you experienced had a goateed Southern gentleman on the side of a cardboard bucket. Then imagine that one day you had a gourmet burger on a freshly baked bun, and pan-fried chicken the way a dedicated Southern grandmother can make it. Imagine the revelation, the joy in discovering that something that had been bland and dull could be exciting.
That’s the way many people feel when they try ramen at Santouka in Mar Vista after a lifetime of eating the instant stuff. Instead of the dominant flavors being salt and instant bouillon, the broth here is intensely flavored, and the noodles have the springy texture you only get from fresh pasta. It’s an especially surprising experience because the place doesn’t look like the kind of establishment that features quality ingredients; it’s a food court counter in a supermarket. Granted, it’s not just any supermarket – Mitsuwa is the premier Japanese grocery on the Westside, so the customer base here knows its noodles.
The menu looks vast at first, but take a second look and it has many slight variations on a theme. There are rice bowls topped with various ingredients and bowls of soup that consist of combined meat and vegetables with one of four broths. There is a display of plastic replicas of their menu items right by the place where you order, so you can gauge the quantity of each dish quite nicely.
I decided to try a combination that consisted of a medium bowl of spicy pork noodles with green onion, seaweed, and vegetables along with a pickled egg and a bowl of rice topped with salmon roe and sliced seaweed. The salmon eggs, called ikura in Japanese, are one of my favorite items at sushi bars – they have a light, fresh flavor of the sea, and the experience of eating them has been compared to popping bubble wrap with your teeth. They were a perfect complement to the soup, a hearty, very flavorful broth with liberal use of spices and red pepper.
I usually discount any warnings that Japanese food may be spicy, but in this case it was actually both hot and multidimensional. The flavor of the broth actually stood up to the spices – it was made with miso soybean paste and pork stock in a style that is a specialty of the northern island of Hokkaido, where it is very cold much of the year. Even in a California summer this was delicious, and I can only imagine what it is like to come home to this when there is snow on the ground. Alternating bites with the spicy soup, fresh ikura, and the tart pickled egg was a delightful experience.
My dining companion had decided to dine lightly and ordered a bowl of rice topped with scallions and natto, a kind of pungent fermented soybean paste. I had actually warned him against this, as natto usually has an acquired taste that very few Americans actually acquire. I had compared it to what happened when the Japanese tried to make limburger cheese from soybeans, but he was undeterred.
I was quite surprised when he tried it and enthusiastically dug in; I was even more surprised when I tried it and thought it was quite passable. None of my previous experiences with this sticky, salty, funky tasting stuff had been positive, but somehow it was less of an assault on the senses and more like an aged camembert or other ripe French cheese. It’s still not something I expect to order very often, but I’d have it again.
We dined at a clean, comfortable table at the edge of the food court, where business went from languid to bustling in the half hour between 11:30 a.m. and noon. Most of the customers appeared to be Japanese, and many had obviously combined their visit with shopping in the grocery and produce sections before grabbing a bite. The adjacent market is a place of pilgrimage for anyone who likes to make Japanese food at home, and on my way out I browsed an aisle containing every permutation of dried seafood you could imagine, including candied squid jerky.
The ramen stall is a branch of a popular chain in Japan and is named after a haiku poet who wandered as a beggar for years. The food at Santouka is inexpensive enough that even a starving artist can probably afford a good lunch. Our full meal for two ran less than $25, modest for an experience of this quality. If you are looking for a place where you can dine fast, cheap and very well, you can’t do better.
Santouka is at 3760 W. Centinela Ave. at the corner of Venice Boulevard, inside the Mitsuwa Market in Mar Vista. Open daily 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., ample free parking, no alcohol served. 310-391-1101.