Finding yourself championing the success of an international chain is not a common experience these days.
However, that’s precisely what happens after the first slurp from a steaming bowl of ramen from the first Boston location of Harvard Square newcomer Santouka Ramen. And if it’s not a ready cure-all for the winter blues, it should be, given that the company’s founder, Hitoshi Hatanaka, cites the bitter cold of his roots in Shinagawa, Japan, as the inspiration behind getting the original Shinagawa Santouka off the ground back in 1988. That, and the urge to see smiles across the faces of the people eating it.
“I started this company simply because I wanted to see my own family have a hot bowl of delicious ramen. One of the happiest moment for me was to watch my own family taste the ramen that I made with a big smile on their face,” he tells us over email. “This concept of ‘making people smile with our food’ still stands till this day.”
And it all starts with the “tonkotsu” base broth, which is made from scratch and simmered on site with pork bones for 20 hours. Then, the ingredients of whichever style of ramen you’re going with (shio, shoyu, miso) are bathed and dressed, with noodles and toppings (fish cake, dry seaweed, bamboo shoots, mushrooms), carefully designed with everything placed in specific locations in the bowl. Timers on the cauldrons ensure that each batch is pulled at the right time after properly simmering, so that the bowl you’ve ordered has the freshest stuff they can ladle out. The steel of the cauldrons is visible through a glass window as you enter the communal seating dining space, the way a small brewery displays the places where its particular magic happens. Only instead of suds, it’s the delicious soup the pork belly sits in when you get the spicy and savory kara miso ramen (all praise its name).
The space itself is industrial and minimal, with a lot of gray and black tones, as well as dramatic overhead “spider” lighting, a custom job that’s meant to turn a string of collapsible desk lamps into a hovering good luck charm of arachnid illumination (spiderwebs are thought to be good luck because they “capture” good things and bring them into your life).
Already there have been droves of new fans flocking here, and even the staff is enthusiastic about the offerings. In the case of one of their hostesses, Jasmine, the arrival of Santouka has not only meant an exciting new job in the bustling Harvard Square dining scene, it’s even woken up her son’s tastebuds to the glory of ramen. “My four-year-old son loves the food and learning some Japanese,” she says with a laugh. “He even brings chopsticks everywhere, and now I have to give him sushi [and ramen] for lunch.”
Luckily she won’t have to travel far for the good stuff.
Dan is a freelance journalist and has written for publications including Vice, Esquire, the Daily Beast, Fast Company, Pacific Standard, MEL, Leafly, Thrillist, and DigBoston.