Famed for its snow white (shio) ramen, Santouka is one of the biggest ramen chains out there today. Here's everything you need to know about Santouka!
Santouka's Humble Beginnings
Santouka first set up in shop in Asahikawa, Hokkaido in 1988. Asahikawa is Japan's coldest big city, with temperatures as low as -25° C during winter.
Local Aashikawa ramen is primarily soy sauce (shoyu) based and features a good amount of pork lard. This tasty pork lard is particularly useful, trapping the soup's heat.
But Santouka's ramen is completely different from what Asahikawa ramen shops normally serve. In other words, they went in another ramen direction.
Santouka Ramen's Empire Today
Including its Asahikawa headquarters, Santouka has 13 branches in Japan. Several of these are in Tokyo (like Shibuya).
But they have a whopping 41 branches outside of Japan. The majority of them are in the US.
This sort of ratio is normally the other way around. Risk-adverse Japanese companies often try to dominate the Japan market before even considering venturing outside.
Not Santouka. They set up overseas outposts (a franchise model) well before others did in the ramen world.
White Shio Ramen
Santouka has a a fairly big menu in Japan. It's probably even bigger overseas. Among choices are shoyu (soy sauce), miso, spicy miso, and tsukemen (dipping) ramen.
But everyone orders the shio (salt-seasoned) ramen. It's their crème de la crème. The salt seasoning holds up a silky, white colored pork bone (tonkotsu) soup.
This soup is rich with flavor but is also relatively mild. Furthermore, it doesn't taste as wild or messy as other pork bone bowls. The soup also isn't super hot when served. This is so even young kids can enjoy it.
The signature toppings are kikurage (wood ear mushrooms), menma (bamboo shoots), negi (spring onions), naruto (fish cake), chashu pork slices, and ume.
The slices of pork stand out with their strong shoyu (soy sauce) flavor. But the topping that steals the show is the ume (red pickled plum) in the middle. Santouka's affectionately calls it "red lipstick". It's a fun, sour contrast to the soup.
I sometimes watch old Japanese ramen TV programs from 80s and 90s. Let's just say that Santouka Ramen was a HUGE part of the 1990s Japanese ramen boom.
At the time, you'd often see kilometer long lines outside any of Satouka's Tokyo branches. But nowadays, you never have to wait...at least in Japan. They just aren't as popular in Japan as they used to be.
One reason might be that they decided to focus on becoming a large chain. Another reason - ramen shops in the last 20 years have taken ramen to ridiculously high levels. This is especially true in Tokyo's competitive ramen scene.
Regardless of this, Santouka has left a big, lasting mark on the ramen world in Japan. They still have legions of fans, both here and overseas.
Fantastic Instant Ramen
Their business-minded approach has allowed them to try various things over the years. Most notably, Santouka's premium instant ramen has become a huge hit.
As you may have guessed, I eat Santouka's instant ramen much more than I do their restaurant ramen. Pound for pound I think it performs better. Regardless, I cannot stress enough the important role that Santouka's played in the ramen world up to now.
Asahikawa (HQ) Shop:
Shibuya (Tokyo) Shop: