Belatedly boning up on Japanese table manners, I discovered that I had unwittingly broken several etiquette rules on my visits to Bellevue’s Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, a noodle shop new to the Northwest but a popular chain in Asia, where more than 40 locations span several countries.
To my credit, I did not burp or discuss toilet-related topics at the table. But, my bad, I failed to eat all my food; I didn’t put my dishes and chopsticks back to their original positions on the tray when I was finished; and I blew my nose repeatedly during the meal.
In my defense, I ordered like a restaurant critic (too much food) and the sniffles signaled the onset of a cold. Santouka’s delicate, ivory-hued, pork-bone broth, packed with noodles, meat and exotic vegetables, was just what I was craving. And with all due respect to Jewish penicillin — and apologies to the Japanese staff — it may become my go-to cold remedy.
You can see the massive pots of broth, kept at a simmer for 20 hours, they say, through a window into Santouka’s kitchen. Three chefs are kept busy artfully composing bowls of soup and the various sides, salads and add-ins you choose to accompany them.
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The sleek, bamboo- and brick-trimmed front of the house operates with the same fine-tuned precision as the kitchen. The compact space seats about 50 and seems always to be at capacity, as busy at 7 p.m. on a weeknight as midafternoon on a Sunday.
On a waitlist posted outside the front door, you write your name, arrival time, the number in your party and whether you require a highchair (many do). I saw several families and elders on the weekend visit, but it was largely a 20- to 30-something crowd occupying the banquettes and comfortably upholstered chairs.
My wait times ranged from two minutes to 15. When your name is called, a server leads your party to a table while the staff calls out: “Irassaimase!” (Welcome! Please come in.)
A basic bowl of ramen is about 11 bucks. The menu’s color photos help you sort through every possible option. You must choose from among four types of broth. Salt-flavored shio, adorned with a single, bright red, pickled umeboshi plum, is the signature bowl and the most neutral broth. Shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented soy bean) and spicy (kara) miso are more assertive. Shio and kara miso were most appealing to me, but all are built on the same almost creamy, long-simmered pork broth.
Santouka’s ramen noodles are slightly wavy with a sturdy bite. Joining them in the broth are bamboo shoots, chopped scallions, crinkly wood ear mushrooms (kikurage) and a slab of pork rib meat thinly rimmed with fat.
Toroniku is a meat upgrade. For $5 more you get butter-soft slices of pork cheek you can cut with the tip of a chopstick. They are arranged on a side plate together with nori and other vegetable accompaniments, to be added as you like to your bowl of noodles and broth.
Tsukemen offers a variation on the theme. Cold noodles, thicker and straighter than ramen, are served separately, to be dipped in a bowl of hot pork broth that has a deeper, funkier taste than the others. In addition to chunks of pork, bamboo shoots and scallions, the broth contains a soft-cooked, soy-braised egg that, once punctured, gives the soup a richer, luxurious taste.
Soft-boiled eggs are among the add-ins you can order for any soup. Corn kernels stirred into the soup with a pat of butter make a nice addition as well.
If you want to be polite and finish everything, think twice before starting with nibbles like a steamed bun stuffed with braised pork cheek, or pot stickers (gyoza) filled with savory minced chicken and pork. But both are delicious little bites.
I also enjoyed the warm rice bowl topped with morsels of grilled salmon, salmon roe and chopped scallion. Order it alone, or as part of a combo with ramen and a tiny bowl of egg salad.
If you can’t manage to finish the last grain of rice and salty pearl of roe, don’t worry. You can still count on a chorus of “arigatou gozaimashita” (thank you) and smiles from the staff as you walk out the door.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.