Ramen Butcher: Sublime noodles in a space short on soul

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I hate lining up. Apart from being on hold for support when the Internet stops working, I can’t think of a bigger waste of our short time on this planet. That’s why it’s taken me so long to visit The Ramen Butcher, the latest ramen shop to open up in Vancouver.

Just about any ramen shop opening downtown is going to have a line, at least at first. I already skipped the $5.00 bowl soft-opening but the first time I went, they ran out of noodles. At 8:30! The second time, the line-up was a block long and I couldn’t be bothered. Luckily, Ramen Butcher is located down the street from chicken wing mecca Phnom Penh, so you have options if too many other people are waiting.

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SEE ALSO: Ramen Butcher carves a sweet spot for noodles in Vancouver's Chinatown

ramenbutcher-13The Ramen Butcher is a franchise of Menya Kouji, a Japanese restaurant group that spans 50 ramen shops run by chefs that trained under Yamagishi Kazuo, known as “The God of Ramen” in Japan.

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The menu features seven different kinds of ramen, although not tsukemen, which Yamagishi-san made famous in Japan in his original Tokyo shop, Taishoken. The four most interesting ones are described by the general colour of the garnish in each bowl. ‘Green’, for example, is green because it contains basil paste along with parmesan cheese.

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‘Black’ is named for the roasted garlic oil dotting the rich tonkatsu broth. It’s an intense flavor and aroma that goes well with the equally intense broth, thick with slowly melted pig. As with most ramen joints, you’ll probably want to avoid The Ramen Butcher if you’re on a diet.

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The spicy food lovers among us will probably want to go with ‘Red’, which gets its red (…ish) hue from spicy garlic paste.

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‘Orange’ was my pick, mostly because they add miso-marinated ground pork to the tonkatsu broth and pork-on-pork action is as sure a bet in Flavortown as there is.

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The chashu is lightly blowtorched to bring out a little more smokiness and flavor. Given the choice between fat and lean pork, being the jerk that I am, I asked for my pork somewhere in the middle. I always find completely lean pork at ramen shops lacking in flavor and given how much pork fat is in the soup, ordering lean is like getting a Diet Coke after supersizing your fries.

How am I only getting a single, lonely slice of pork in my bowl? I’m usually quite understanding of how good food costs good money. I probably wouldn’t complain if I got two slices but just one seems a little stingy. Is there a pork shortage I’m not aware of?

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Overall, the bowls at The Ramen Butcher seem a little on the light side in comparison to many other places in Vancouver, especially when it comes to the garnish. Half an egg, a slice of pork and some green onions are about all you get. Even bean sprouts are an optional extra.

You do, however, get one free refill (‘kaedama’) of noodles, which is fantastic because the noodles are made in-house and delicious. I usually prefer the thicker-type ramen noodles but these thin noodles are what I think are the ideal texture and cooked to perfection.

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The restaurant is still only a couple months old so the entire menu isn’t available yet. The rice bowls and karaage were crossed off when I visited. I’d like to see a few more small appetizer options available. In addition to the ramen, the only other menu item being served at The Ramen Butcher thus far is the gyoza.

Although the ramen is clearly the headliner here, the gyoza aren’t too far behind. While I had my doubts, about the cheese gyoza in particular, each one is very good in its own way. The okonomi, for example, is made like okonomiyaki, covered with green onion, Japanese mayo and shaved bonito. The filling is juicy and the wrapper is a nice crisp outer crust holding it all together.

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The spicy gyoza is spicy and the cheese ones are covered with cheese; simple, but they also work quite well as a different combination of flavours and textures in a bite. I was surprised at how good these were. I usually don’t order a lot of gyoza but I can’t think of a place that makes better gyoza than The Ramen Butcher.

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The food at The Ramen Butcher is delicious. The noodles are sublime. They’re the best thin ramen noodles I’ve had in Vancouver, besting Marutama if only because the cook is spot on throughout while Marutama only really gets it right on the refill. Marutama has the better egg, though.

The broth is probably also the best I’ve had at a Vancouver restaurant. The rich, thick, aromatic slowly simmered melted pig is subtly sweet and exceptionally well-balanced by the large handful of sharp, fresh green onion in each bowl. Of course it’s fatty but it doesn’t feel especially heavy so it just disappears. I don’t know how well this is going to go in Vancouver, though, as everyone seems to be on some low-carb, gluten-free, organic juice cleanse and I’m thinking of all the people that would split their yoga pants if they knew how much liquid bacon is in every bowl.

I’ve eaten at every ramen shop in Vancouver. It’s unfair to compare to all the ramen I had in Japan but since The Ramen Butcher is supposedly a branch of a Japanese chain, I will say that while they aren’t quite up to that standard, they aren’t far off. One of the best, if not the best, in Vancouver and there’s no reason to think the food won’t be even better as they refine their process. The place is still only a couple months old.

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While the ramen is fantastic, I found the actual experience of eating at The Ramen Butcher a little lacking. The way the restaurant is laid out fits a few more tables in but without the open kitchen, you don’t get to experience the theatrics that usually come with ramen. Seeing the chefs work and the attention to detail that goes into making every single bowl just makes it feel more special. The serious ramen guys, the ones that are in it for life, if you really pay attention to how these guys move and work, how they’ve dedicated their lives to making each bowl of ramen better than their last, it’s like watching a musician or a master craftsmen.

It’s not something I really noticed until it wasn’t there but when I did, it made me realize how much of an impact the atmosphere of a ramen place matters to the experience. Even though the basic building blocks of ramen are the same, when you see the work that goes into each bowl, you better understand why the chef made it the way he did, why he chose these particular flavours and how much of his personality and vision are in his food. For a great example of this, check out Hida Takayama in the Robson Public Market.

Still, there’s some soul in the food at The Ramen Butcher, even if it’s harder to see behind all the modern and edgy and Pabst Blue Ribbon. If I’m trying to check all the boxes in my search for the perfect ramen place in Vancouver, we’re still not there yet but I will be back for more.

As long as there’s no line-up.

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The Ramen Butcher

Address: 223 E Georgia Street, Chinatown
Phone: 604-806-4646

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Ed Lau is a contributing writer and photographer for Vancity Buzz. You can check out his other adventures in food, travel and more at EdEats.com or Instagram at @edlauphoto.
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