5080 W. Colonial Drive | 407-203-6777 | $
This past May, I had the pleasure of dining at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto, and as I reveled in every remarkably rich, umami-soaked slurp, I couldn’t help but wonder when the ramen cult would boil over onto Orlando’s dining scene. Noodles & Rice Café may have whetted our appetites, but Sapporo Ramen – the first in what will hopefully be a series of powerhouse ramen-ya in this city – is the real deal.
It’s a shame that Sapporo’s Pine Hills location may dissuade some from visiting, though considering the draw it has among the Asian community, it’s not like they’re hurting. The noodle house is run by the same folks who operate Sapporo Japanese Steakhouse in Daytona, but their ramen-ya forgoes a spirited atmo in favor of calm simplicity. Apart from walls graced with scenes reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows, there’s not much to look at. (If you want visual distractions, I suggest you head over to the 1st Oriental Supermarket just a few doors down.) The “order and pay here” sign above the hostess seated at a counter was a great help – we would’ve otherwise taken a seat and waited. Said hostess also served as our waitress and was delightfully courteous and patient in answering questions.
Ramen ($8), naturally, is front and center on the menu. Four types are offered – tonkotsu (rich, pork-bone-based broth), shio (salty, clear broth), shoyu (soy-sauce-based broth) and miso (broth combining soybean paste, seaweed and bonito), and each comes with its own set of toppings, though you have the option to add slices of chashu (marinated pork belly), bamboo shoots, kimuchi (Japanese kimchee) or egg for $1 more.
Aside from ramen (but why?) udon or soba noodles, mild Japanese curries and gyu-don (beef bowls) are also offered, as are a handful of appetizers, so as we waited for our broths to be ladled, we pecked away at overdone edamame ($2), mushy octopus fritters ($3) and ho-hum korokke ($1), which tasted like “deep-fried” (read: reheated) potato croquettes that could be served at a McDonald’s in Matsuyama.
Needless to say, when the bowls of ramen arrived, it wasn’t too soon, and they didn’t disappoint. The tonkotsu was as creamy, rich and comforting as we had hoped, and the springy noodles, slices of pork belly, kikurage mushrooms and pickled ginger gave it an attitude as complex as Beat Takeshi’s.
“I’m sorry, but this is better than pho,” was the reaction of one of my dining comrades after a spoonful of shio ramen. The pleasantly salty broth was light and clear, but given added body with the addition of butter, corn, bok choy and fish cake. We also sampled the gyu-don ($8), a rice bowl topped with tender slivers of beef, caramelized onions and pickled ginger – as wonderfully simple as it was gratifying. Also on the must-try list: chicken katsu curry ($9), comprising panko-breaded and fried chicken served alongside a curry stew of beef, carrots and potatoes. While I prefer a spicier and thinner Indian curry, this one was no less enjoyable, and the heap of rice was properly done.
To end, we opted for the imagawayaki ($2), a pancake-like dessert filled with a sweet red-bean paste. The microwave-warmed treat is about the size of a hockey puck, but biting into one was like getting a slap shot to the shin. That said, even with a less-than-stellar supporting cast, Sapporo’s superstar soups give credence to the cult of ramen in its quest to supplant spaghetti as the “noodle of now,” and to prove once and for all that it’s not just for college anymore.