If you’ve ever driven down Denman and have wondered why even on the coldest, wettest days that Vancouver’s winter has to offer, there is a solemn line of people quietly shivering on the street halfway between Alberni and Robson, then that means Kintaro is unknown to you. And in turn, it also means that you have not lived. Your life, regardless of whether or not you see it this way, is gray, colourless and devoid of meaning until you have had a bowl of Kintaro Ramen.
Ooooohhh ramen. Big deal. You’ve had ramen before. You might even have a stash of Nong Shim instant noodles in your cupboard right now. You think you know what you’re talking about. You think you know what I’m talking about. I think you think you know what I think you’re thinking about. You don’t. You don’t have a clue. Seriously.
Short anecdote to prove my point: While visiting my good friend in Taipei, who happens to be a food critic for a well respected magazine, like most conversations in my obsessive little world we got to talking about ramen. “Oh you like ramen you should go to this place, and that place, and this place.” Firstly, let’s point out that Taiwan was a Japanese colony for 50 years and still has a strong Japanese influence permeating the country, so you might expect that they know a thing or two about Japanese cuisine. So I tried the noodle shops my friend recommended and they were all fine, quite good – good textured noodles, fairly complex broth, some good options like kimchi, egg, lean and fatty pork etc. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy these places, it’s just that they were okay. My friend felt like a bit of a failure, so she took me to the best place in Taipei. There was a lineup, the windows were misty with a pork fat condensation, things were looking up. But to cut the story short, this place was better, but still not great. Very good, just not great.
In a round about way, what I’m trying to say here is that I’ve tried a lot of different ramen in a lot of different places, and Kintaro isn’t even in the same league as anything else. I’m not sure if it’s even the same sport.
The secret is in the broth. Or at least one of the secrets is in the broth. You’ll enter the narrow slightly oily restaurant and the first thing you will notice is bar seating around a kitchen area, where four large cauldrons of pork broth are at a rumbling boil. These pots of stock have percolated for long enough that there is no need for MSG because the floating, stewing anonymous bits of pork provide flavor enough. Actually, this is slight lie, as Kintaro broth has a portion of fish broth in addition to the pork– yes fish – and this is perhaps what gives the soup the perfect balance that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. If for some reason that turns you off, stop yourself. Get over your North American sensibilities, and realize that there is almost always something fishy in the Asian dishes that you love. Don’t believe me, ask what goes into a Thai Green Curry or Pho or many of your other non-seafoody favorites.
So you have the broth, which can then be served with one of three flavours added: shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), or miso. You also choose whether you want it light, medium, or rich. Medium is a good starting point, unless you have a penchant for cowlick in which case opt for the rich broth. Lean or fatty pork. These are really misnomers, it should be options of ‘pork’ or ‘fat’. The fatty pork is pretty a much a solid wheel of fat with thin marbled lines of pork. The noodles themselves are egg noodles sourced from California. The texture of these noodles is really second to none, slightly thick, but still firm and not at all pasty.
Now if you’re going here on a date, you may have made a bad decision. Not that all ladies don’t love the occasional pork sauna, but sweating over a bowl of noodles at a table with six other soup-slurping strangers doesn’t really scream romance. There are four tables that are for two people, but these seem to elude me 8 out of 10 times that I go. Generally I sit at the big kitchen style table and try and avoid making eye contact while ordering my Shoyu, medium, lean, add corn, kimchi side plate and gyoza. At other times if I’m by myself, I sit up at the bar where you can reap the full benefits of the pore cleansing pork steam. I do want to quickly point out that despite the lack of sleek decorations and soft, wisping music, Kintaro is a very clean restaurant. Things may get a bit greasy, but they do keep a very good shop.
This is going to change your life. You will wait in line. You will likely sit with perfect strangers. You will probably sweat – more so in the summer. You will try and order a coke and the waitress will wait for you to say “Pepsi”. But every slight inconvenience, every slight oddity, becomes a labour of love that is well worth the gauntlet of Denman St at noon everyday except Mondays.