Ramen Fight: Santouka vs. Mottainai, a Blend of Pork and Soy
Yes, it's hot -- has anyone mentioned that yet? -- but while a sultry bowl of thick, porky ramen may not be the first thing your body craves in the dog days of L.A. weather roulette, you could certainly do a lot worse. Remember, in many of the more torrid parts of the world, steaming liquid is a common tool in decreasing body temperature -- tea for Bedouins, phở in Vietnam. So today we look at two bowls of ramen from two very good Los Angeles shops: Santouka and Mottainai. But since both are best known for rather different types (Santouka for shio ramen, Mottainai for miso), we decided to take on their versions of tonkotsu shoyu, a blended broth of pork and soy sauce.
We began at the Santouka in Torrance, located inside the Mitsuwa Marketplace, where grabbing a table in the food court on a weekend afternoon can occasionally be a trying exercise. We did eventually secure a seat, and shortly after, a bowl of ramen too. The broth had a strong pork presence -- fatty, salty, and very comforting. The thin yellow noodles were appropriately al dente, with a decent chew to them. They were far from any kind of textural revelation, but also much better than most of the inferior competitors around town. The slices of pork themselves mirrored the broth rather well, and were tender, fatty, and succulent. The bamboo shoots offered a strong contrast to the rest of the bowl, with an intense brininess and very tough texture.
Mottainai Ramen, which opened in Gardena back in July, is a simple restaurant, located in the Pacific Square Shopping Center, with a homey, comforting atmosphere. Their tonkotsu shoyu ramen, called Yokohama Freaker, had some strong differences from Santouka's, which were immediately apparent. The slices of pork were much leaner, and packed far less flavor than the previous bowl. The broth, though quite nice, did seem to lack a bit of the depth and complexity of Santouka as well, while still maintaining a lingering fattiness on the surface. The differences are mainly based on style (Santouka's style is from Hokkaidō, while the one from Mottainai, as the name expresses, is from Yokohama), and this bowl also features a drizzle of chicken oil for accent. Yet while Mottainai is still working toward preparing their own noodles in the coming months, we did prefer these noodles anyway, which were thicker and had a more satisfying texture. The bamboo shoots were also more tender and mellow, and integrated themselves better into the dish.
Mottainai also offers ramen additions called "magic bombs," available in either red (spicy) or white (containing garlic and fatback). After working our way through part of the ramen, we gradually added a little of the white bomb, which complemented the broth well, adding a strong garlic fragrance and a deeper richness in taste.
But while both bowls were very appealing, with each having their stronger and weaker points, we must say that we preferred Santouka's. The quality of the broth and the pieces of pork did just enough to push it into the winner's circle. We will certainly be returning to both shops, though perhaps for their other more highly regarded styles, which in all honesty we do enjoy a bit more.
Santouka: 21515 S Western Ave., Torrance, (310) 212-1101., Mottainai Ramen: 1630 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Suite 9, Gardena, (310) 538-3233.