Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock in hibernation for the past decade, then you’ll be well aware that Melbourne is in the midst of a ramen revolution. All along Russell Street in the CBD, there are queues of people lining up come rain or shine, hoping for their next fix of this ubiquitous Japanese dish. Whilst deep in our ongoing search for the perfect bowl in the city, we stumbled across Mr Ramen San in Chinatown’s Mid City Arcade – a location that remains largely adventurous to those not already in the know.
The décor is similar to a traditional ramen-ya (ramen shop). Think polished timber seating, Japanese artwork and a long bar-like bench near the kitchen for salary-men dining solo. In fact, the attention to detail spans right down to the plastic baskets that one might find in a ramen-ya in Tokyo which are usually there to hold your personal belongings out of the way and under the table as you eat.
Though seemingly simple in its form, true devotees know that ramen is a much more complex affair than just noodles and soup. There are many subtle, delicious variations of ramen to be had in Japan though the most famous is a specialty of Kyushu, in particular Hakata-ku in Fukuoka. It is known as Tonkotsu or simply Hakata ramen. Having spent a lengthy period of time previously based in Hakata-ku, we can say that we are no strangers to the best ramen in the world, which can be found served in street-side stalls known as yatai. Hakata ramen is noticeably different from others because of its rich, cloudy and hearty broth made from boiling pork bones, fat and collagen over high heat for many hours. As such, the Tonkotsu broth is deep, flavourful and balanced nicely with a beautiful sheen of fat on top, boasting a characteristically creamy consistency mingled with delicate, thinner-than-usual ramen noodles.
At Mr Ramen San, the noodles are handmade onsite daily. Despite the already ample servings, extra noodles are provided on request free-of-charge. Although the soup is cooked for 10 hours, it does not boast the depth of flavour and creaminess of a rich pork broth. Instead, it is tempered and light; while bold in its saltiness, there is a paucity of substance that leaves the broth short of reaching authentic Kyushu Hakata style. Despite this, there is a poster on the wall exclaiming earnestness in trying “damn hard to please” and the restaurant prides itself on refraining from the use of MSG.
Try the Charsu Tonkotsu Ramen, which features large slivers of roast pork mingled with leeks, spring onion, bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, seaweed and the essential gooey seasoned egg.
If you’re after something with a bit of a kick, then look no further than the Spicy Teriyaki Ramen. Tender roast pork glazed in sweet teriyaki sauce is certainly the star of this dish, served over noodles in a thin, peppery broth with spring onion, beansprouts and cabbage.
A standout on the menu is the Vegetarian Charsu Ramen, featuring mushroom stock that warms the depths of the heart with a rich flavour and silky, creamy consistency that rivals that of milk. The smokiness of the mock-charsu delights the senses, as does generous helpings of wood ear mushroom, spring onion and bamboo shoots.
As with any ramen-ya, there is a small selection of side dishes that may be had as entrees or served with rice to form a meal. If you’re serious about dumplings, then opt for the gyoza [pork / vegetable, $6.80] for a tasty accompaniment to your ramen. The more courageous might like to try the nattō [$6.50] – a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto. This interesting dish has a distinctive scent, somewhat akin to pungent cheese, as well as a slimy texture that is likely to put you off. Ignore the unpleasant smell and you may find yourself reaping the benefits of this truly healthy Japanese delicacy served with a delectably sweet assortment of mushrooms.
Ramen is best served with beer and this restaurant plays no exception. With Sapporo Draft on tap, as well as bottled Asahi, Robot Ninja and an assortment of cocktail draft beers (mango, pineapple, soda grape & plum umeshu), you will have no difficulty quenching your thirst. Otherwise, opt for the Kikumasamune Sake Flight [$6], which will see you receiving three shots of beautiful Junmai sake to cleanse the palate.
With a friendly, warm atmosphere that flourishes with wholehearted sincerity, Mr Ramen San is a worthy establishment for your next ramen fix when the queues of Russell Street look longer than your lunch break. Though it is not true to authentic Hakata style, there is something about the ramen here that keeps regulars coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the unique and welcome recognition that is given to every diner that walks through the door. This is one place where you will not be treated as just a face in a sea of many. For the time-being, our search for the perfect bowl of ramen in Melbourne continues.
Mr Ramen San
Address: Mid City Arcade, 200 Bourke St, Melbourne
Contact: (03) 9042 1588
Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11:30am-3pm & 4pm-10pm; Friday to Saturday, 11:30am-3pm & 4pm-10:30pm.
Photos by Serena Ho for the AU Review