Food – Ajisen Ramen Review
In my previous blog about food I touched upon the one accidental restaurant that my wife and I always seem to end up going to. This time around I’m going to focus on my wife’s favourite fast food restaurant which, we found completely be chance. These are always the best finds and though they often turn out being unpalatable there is a chance that you will find something refreshing.
Growing up in Toronto, Canada, I’ve been exposed to many fast food restaurants, all of which are western chains such as your usual suspects like McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC. I don’t think there are many people around the world who would never have heard about any of these. Then you have those franchises that are a step up like Swiss Chalet, TGIF, and Pizza Hut. All of them have their own advantages depending on your current culinary mood. I sincerely doubt that those professional food critics will not find something to their liking in all these joints. Then again, not knowing any professional food critics, maybe they go out of their way to avoid these establishments.
So what about franchises that are not Western in nature? Even though Toronto is the most culturally diverse city in the world (yes, I know technically Miami has a higher ethnic population but the bulk of those are Latinos whereas Toronto is amazingly split into many different groups), there aren’t too many big food franchises based here that specialize and originally come from other parts of the world.
So why this preamble on non-western food chains? Well, that’s because my wife’s favourite fast food restaurant originates from Japan and it so happens to have taken root here in Toronto. Yes, that’s like someone from China saying their favourite joint was McDonalds. I shiver at the thought. Like so often happens, we were one day driving home and spotted a new restaurant that had opened. It wasn’t so much the look of the restaurant that made us excited but rather the name that gave it away.
The store in question is called, Ajisen Ramen, originally from Kumamoto, Japan and its speciality is ramen. Yup, simple ramen.
For the uninitiated, ramen is basically noodles and soup, the base of which is usually meat-based. To this is added a variety of toppings such as pork, beef, seaweed, green onions, cabbage, or corn. Ramen originally came from China although through the years the Japanese have refined and modified the recipes into many different permutations. If one goes to Japan you can find ramen stores just about anywhere including crowded locations such as subway terminals where you see business men and women eating bowls while standing up – they are obviously pressed for time. Ramen is featured prominently in Japanese animation (anime) and is treated as fast food. Turn on your local broadcast of Naruto for instance and you can always see the title character longing for his favourite noodle dish.
Now my wife loves going to Japan for what reason I don’t know – might be the shopping? Anyhow, she’s always loved ramen so imagine our excitement when we realized a new ramen store was opening up right here in our home city. Of course, we had to try it a.s.a.p.
With over 120 stores, Ajisen Ramen has quickly expanded to include tons of locations in mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Phillipines and Malaysia. It even has stores in Australia and the United States. I must admit I have not tried any of these other locations but by chance my wife and I managed to find one, in all places, in Changi International Airport Terminal 3 in Singapore. Unfortunately, I was not feeling too well that day and could not order anything but luckily my wife had no such impediments and merrily ordered a steaming hot bowl of ramen.
Ajisen Ramen’s big draw is its soup which is not clear but a milky white. I remember our first time there thinking, “What type of soup is this??” as I had never seen ramen cooked in broth that resembled this. Sure, I have had miso based soup before but even that has a different texture. Imagine my surprise when I tasted the soup and found it tasted very rich, a bit salty but satisfyingly smooth. The salt level is above average which probably makes people think it comes from a powder but after tasting it more than a hundred times I don’t think this is the case.
According to the literature, the soup gets its unique look and taste by boiling pork bones until the broth turns white. One can only imagine what sort of minerals and nutrients are added by the bones dissolving in this process yet one can’t deny it definitely makes for a tasty broth.
The noodles themselves are not what you usually expect as they are not udon or soba but rather have a texture more resembling spaghetti. This gives the noodles an unexpected firmness that compliments the soup very well. I am not a lover of mushy noodles and I can’t stand it when I overcook instant noodles in a pot or go to an Italian restaurant only to find my linguine is as limp as a wet towel. The closest description I can think of is “Al Dante” in that the noodles are firm but neither too hard nor too soft.
Nearly all the ramen choices come with either a half-egg boiled in soya sauce or a healthy helping of bean sprouts. When the store initially opened they used cabbage but they changed it to bean sprouts after a while probably due to customer feedback. I didn’t mind the cabbage but bean sprouts are fine for me as well although there are times when I think too many sprouts alter and dilute the taste of the soup base. Depending on my mood this is not such a big deal unless I get too many sprouts but all I have to do is deposit them on a side plate anyhow.
Though the soup and the noodles are the most important in ramen one shouldn’t forget the toppings as plain soup and noodles can get a bit mundane. Ajisen Ramen has quite a large variety of noodle choices that will satisfy a wide range of palettes ranging from different meats like chicken, beef and lamb to seafood like scallops and shrimp to completely vegetarian. Usually, these toppings are placed right on top of your noodles and soup unless you order something like the chicken teriyaki which comes on a separate plate.
My personal favourite is the Beef Teppanyaki Noodles ($7.95 CAD) that adds grilled peppered beef on top of the soup. I just find that the subtle taste of the beef teppanyaki soaks into the soup below slightly altering but accentuating the flavour. My wife’s dish of choice is probably the pork ramen ($7.95 CAD) which adds extremely thinly sliced pieces of pork that have their edges grilled, not too hard, but enough to see them blacken, to the soup. These thinly sliced pieces of pork almost literally melt in your mouth as they are extremely tender.
That’s not all my wife likes though. She likes things HOT – not temperature hot although that’s a must for ramen, but hot as in chilli. First, it must be said that lukewarm ramen is a huge turn off and any store which doesn’t properly heat their soup base is just looking to drive customers away. Thankfully, Ajisen Ramen has piping hot soup which works well especially when the Canadian winter arrives and temperatures plunge well below zero Celsius.
So to the pork ramen, my wife always orders a side dish of spicy pork. You can get spicy pork as well in Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen ($7.50 CAD) but this dish doesn’t include the thin pork instead substituting it with rounded thicker slices of pork where you can see a layer of fat. This is also appetizing although the texture is much meatier than the thin slices. Now my wife can eat hot food and so can I although my own level of chilli tolerance is much lower. I remember clearly that during my first visit to Ajisen Ramen I ordered the Spicy Pork Ramen thinking that it would not be hot and boy was I in for a shock. To my complete surprise it is incredibly pungent and biting. This is way beyond Tabasco sauce and tastes much fiercer than raw Jalapeno peppers. In short, be prepared and don’t order it if you are adverse to eating spicy foods.
Ajisen Ramen offers four levels of hotness (50, 100, 150, 200) indicated by number from lowest being mild to highest being almost hellish. 50 and 100 I can handle but 150 and 200 is scorching but my wife doesn’t blink an eye. If this is your first time there you can ask the server to give this to you in a separate bowl which makes things much easier as you can pick and choose how much to add to your ramen at any given point in time. If not, they will add it straight into your ramen which drastically increases its potency.
Also included in the menu are some appetizers that range from dumpling gyoza to cucumber and crab meat salads. Most of these are your standard fare and make a good compliment to your bowl of ramen. There is sushi on the menu but these are not your typical sushi rolls with raw fish but rather different concoctions that center more on seaweed and cucumber. Don’t expect raw fish or sashimi here.
You can also change the soup if you want as they offer a miso broth instead. I am not a fan of miso broth in general so although I tried it I much prefer the original soup base.
If ramen is not your thing the restaurant also serves rice dishes although I have never tried any of them. From what I could see these include your standard Japanese-style curry dishes as well as beef and chicken staples. Then again, if you don’t like ramen why would you go to a store that specializes in ramen in the first place?
Finally, as for beverages, you can order your usual soft drinks and ice tea but the Yonge Street Ajisen Ramen location offers Chinese Bubble Tea for a discount if you order it with your meal.
In terms of a bill, depending on what you order, lunch or dinner for two which includes just two bowls of ramen will set you back around $14-16 without tax. Add an appetizer and two soft drinks and you’re looking at around $25 which is not a bad deal considering the quantity is quite big as the ramen bowls are rather large.
In terms of decor, both Toronto locations feature shocking pink chairs and giant Japanese style handpainted wall murals. Each location also has an assortment of ramen bowls on display on wall shelves. It’s a comfortable atmosphere although you can’t say that this is fine dining. This is, afterall, a fast food restaurant where you expect customers to finish their ramen in around 30 minutes. Just be warned that the location at Warden and Steeles is not very large and is usually packed during lunch hours so getting a seat might take a while if you go during those hours. The second location at Yonge and Finch is much more spacious although parking is usually on the main street.
Ajisen Ramen might be known as a fast food chain in vast parts of Asia but it still goes down well and the rather odd combination of Al Dante noodles and pork bone broth works wonders giving the ramen its own unique taste while providing customers a satisfying meal. I know after this review my wife will probably ask me to go back a.s.a.p. and I for one don’t mind one bit.
***1/2 out of ****
Two Toronto Locations:
5229 Yonge St.
Just North of North York Center
7010 Warden Ave., Unit 23
NW corner of Warden Ave. & Steeles
Note: Whoever designed the ventilation system in the Yonge store needs to have his head examined as I constantly find cold air blasting down on me while sitting in the booth – not bad unless it’s the middle of winter!