From 67-cent Top Ramen at CVS to Instagram-worthy burgers with ramen patties instead of buns, a tasty Japanese staple has come a long way in America. As one might expect, the rise of ramen has created a demand for traditional shops that serve the real thing—no styrofoam packaging necessary. This phenomenon recently arrived in Harvard Square in the form of Santouka, a bona fide restaurant serving ramen and only ramen.
Unfortunately, a regular-size bowl costs about $12, a price that could buy you nearly 18 packages of Top Ramen. So, the question remains: Is fancy ramen really worth that price tag?
Well, the residents of Cambridge certainly seem to think so. As one woman standing near me put it before she turned around and walked out: “Look at that queue, man.” Noodle-hungry patrons packed the entire entrance to the restaurant. At lunch time, it took nearly a half hour to get a table, and I couldn’t even get in the night before because they hosted a private party.
Santouka’s interior is modern and simplistic, bathed in hues of grey, white, and black. An open kitchen lets customers observe the ramen creation process. It’s a huge step up from the scenery of the microwave in my dorm room.
The entire staff is unbelievably helpful. Whenever a new customer is about to be seated, the hostess yells something in Japanese, and the entire kitchen staff responds. While I understand nothing beyond “domo arigato,” I certainly felt welcomed.
Santouka also provides a plethora of seating options. There are both small tables and large, dining-room style seating meant for large parties, or in my case, communal dining. Because of the midday rush, I was seated at one of the larger ones with eight complete strangers. It was Freshman Week all over again.
When enjoying packaged ramen, I can slurp it up in the solitude of my dorm room, not worrying about what I look like with a cascade of noodles dangling from my mouth. This is not possible when eight other people are positioned to stare at me, whether or not they want to. Thankfully, the large plants in the center of the table and the wonderful distraction of the iPhone provided me with enough cover that I didn’t actually feel too uncomfortable.
This may have had to do with the ramen itself, because as soon as I took my first bite (or slurp), I was lost in the carbo-loaded bliss that is Santouka’s ramen. Unlike Top Ramen, the noodles are real. They’re made of real dough—not mysterious, GMO-ridden strings—and subsequently don’t crumble away to nothing when they’ve been in the broth for more than five minutes. The broth bursts with flavor that clearly didn’t come from a “chicken-flavored” packet. I tried Shoyu, a version flavored with soy sauce in the signature pork broth. It comes topped with several vegetables and cha-shu, pork meat that they marinate for an absurd twenty hours. It shows.
In terms of flavor, packaged ramen cannot even touch Santouka. Go for that reason alone. Trust me.
But because we’re all broke college students, I won’t say that I’ve sworn off Top Ramen forever. Unfortunately, with Santouka’s prime location quite literally across the street from the Yard, many students’ wallets— perhaps even mine—could be taking a beating this semester.