Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ramen Ramen Everywhere

My dad taught English in Japan after completing a Peace Corps term on Truk (one of the Caroline Islands) in the late 1960s, and I frequently recall how he described ramen as a popular fast food in Tokyo at the time. This seemed kind of funny to me when I was little, as I much preferred the idea of a hot dog or some fries over a bowl of hot soup when craving a snack. While there have always been ramen shops in Vancouver, they have become neighbourhood fixtures over the past five years and are improving in overall quality. Here are a few that I have tried over the past year:

Ramen Santouka - West End - 7/10
Even though this tiny soup shop has been open since 2010, I only heard about it this past December. Located in the Ramen Triangle, Santouka is easy to find because it always has a line outside of the door. With a big open kitchen, bar seating, and only a few tables, the servers have no choice but to be quick here to counteract the lack of space. This is actually the only Canadian franchise of a huge Japanese chain that prides itself on its milky tonkotsu broth, which also contains dried fish and kelp. When I ate here, our table ordered the shio (plain broth), shoyu (soy broth), and some gyoza. The quality was great, the noodles were not too soft, and the gyoza were pan-fried perfectly. My shio contained the right amount of salt, and the kikurage and bamboo that came with this dish contributed to the awesome textures going on in my mouthpiece. However, the portions were relatively small for the price, and there were not really any elements that made this place stand out. I was peeved that they do not accept credit card, but the fact that they are licensed quelled this irritation. If you happen to be in the West End and notice that Santouka is lacking a line-up, go for it! Otherwise, walk a bit further down to Kintaro.

Tonkotsu Shio with Tasty Egg

Menya Japanese Noodle - Main St Area - 5.5/10  
Menya is like that puny kid you always see on the playground near your house trying to reach the monkey bars, while the other kids can reach them easily and are clearly lovin' it. You just want to go over and lift that little ankle-biter up to the bars so it can produce food...I mean, so it can have fun...like the other children. I have eaten at Menya twice in my life, despite living in the neighbourhood, and forgot about my meals before digesting them. This is a family-run restaurant, with decent dishes, but there are a lot of great places near/on Main. I tried the ramen here once. The packaged noodles and watery broth turned me off the idea of soup for a while. Perhaps I didn't know what I was ordering at the time and mistook the Chinese/nagahama broth for tonkotsu. Regardless, it didn't make an impression. The second time I dined here, I enjoyed my gyoza and noodle salad. It seems as though Menya is better for snacks and light meals, rather than massive feeds. To reiterate, Menya is the vertically-challenged kid on the playground, not the abnormally tall bully who hogs the swings and dominates the monkey bars. If I ever go back I want to try the tan tan soup. Props for this local boy...errrrr, restaurant...taking credit cards though, and charging less than $9 for a bowl of soup!

Sanpachi - Kits - 7.5/10
Sanpachi Wings!
There are good things and bad things about having a ramen joint in Kits. The good: you know they will have interesting menu items and a TV to show Canucks games, in order to appease the students of UBC. The bad: it's going to be a bit pricey and lack an authentic ramen/izakaya vibe. While Sanpachi's straight-up ramen is well-made - with succulent slices of cha-shu and a milky broth - it is the izakaya tapas that set this restaurant apart. The chicken wings are surprisingly good here, as are the oysters on the half shell. Unlike stupid, bland Benkei, Sanpachi has a liquor license. You neeeeed beer with those wings, dawg. There is another branch at Alberni and Bute if you want to avoid the students in their pajama bottoms and Canucks jerseys.

Keywords: "Santouka Vancouver", "Vancouver Ramen",  "Alphabet Review"      

Friday, March 9, 2012

Microbrew Review

I average about nine beers per week. I don't drink a lot, but I drink regularly. I wonder which is better when considering long term health. I know binge drinking can wreak havoc on one's internal organs, but I also know that the chronic use of pretty much any substance can aggravate cells and lead to cancer. But I digress...the consistent consumption of fermented malted beverages enables me to try a slew of varieties and brands. It seems as though whenever I feel I am on top of my beer game I browse the shelves of the government liquor store or a specialty shop and spot a new craft beer. This becomes even more discouraging when I consider the fact that many small-batch microbrews aren't even bottled! I suppose I should be excited rather than discouraged by the prospect of an endless array of new beers to try. Here are a few of the craft beers I have tried for the first time over the past few weeks. Please note that some of these companies have been bottling for a while...I just hadn't tried them.

Mill Street

Named after the business' original site in downtown Toronto, this Scarborough-based brewery started as a successful brewpub, akin to Vancouver's Steamworks or Portland's Lucky Lab. Its popularity was acknowledged on a national level when it won 'Canadian Brewery of the Year' at the Canadian Brewing Awards not two but three years in a row, beginning in 2007. While I have read that Mill Street only bottles a selection of the overwhelming twenty-four draughts that they brew, I find that the Seasonal Samplers they release to provide a representative swatch of their skills. From the current sampler, I found the English-style Extra Special Bitter and Franconian Bock to be unique tasting and well suited for winter imbibing. I've tried bock beer before, but never this particular style, which originates from northern Bavaria. It is a strong, biscuity lager...and Mill Street even imports the malt from Bavaria for this brew! I found the Stock Ale, the Organic Lager, and the Coffee Porter to be fairly one-dimensional. The lager was definitely over-carbonated. Mill Street beers are like Torontonians: slick and intriguing on the outside, but generally disappointing on the inside.

Fernie Brewing Company

Look out world, beers from the Kootenays and Rockies are acquiring bottling machines and are making frothy, delicious waves in the Northwest beer scene. Although a brewery has existed in Fernie since 2003, it moved to a larger facility in 2008 and purchased a bottler two years ago. They have also revamped their packaging (something Nelson Brewing should do!) and started to distribute sampler packs, like Mill Street Brewing. I haven't tried all of Fernie's products, but I generally enjoy what I have tested. Last week, I bought a six pack of First Trax Brown Ale and a bottle of their summery What the Huck huckleberry wheat beer. First Trax has won a few medals at Canadian beer events, but I prefer Phillips' Ancient Brown and Cannery's Naramata Nut Brown. First Trax leaves no tracks; that is, there is very little lacing evident, and it is a bit watery for a brown ale. What the Huck would be great on tap in the summer. It is basically a rich hefeweizen, and the huckleberry is primarily noticeable during the finish. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they import all of their hops, or perhaps it is due to the immaturity of the brewery, but there is something that interferes with my desire to keep buying this beer. Perhaps I need to try Fernie's  silly seltzer fresh from the keg.  

Mt Begbie Brewery

What is better than small batch, domestic craft beer? Small batch, domestic craft beer made by an uber nerd! Owner and brewmaster, Bart Larson, has a PhD in Nuclear Physics and he applies his evil genius skills to making beer that will blow your socks off. At least his Powerhouse Pale Ale and Nasty Habit IPA will lick you for a loop...I haven't tried his milder beers yet. The hops used in Nasty Habit leave your palate coated in a pleasant pine and grapefruit patina, and the lacing is evidence of good protein levels and 6% alcohol content. I really like the pale ale too, mainly because the hops are subdued. Some pale ales try hard to convince us that they are of the colonial variety, while they should actually contain the hopping of an amber or APA. Based in Revelstoke, this tiny brewery is another example of small  towns in the Selkirk/Kootenay region growing and developing a demand for an alternative to Kokanee.   

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "BC beers", "Mt. Begbie beer", "Mill Street Brewery"

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nelson Cafe Competition

Like most ski towns, Nelson has a good selection of pubs and cafes for people to meet-up before and after their trip to the hills. While I don't ski or snowboard, I do love drinking, so I have been scouring the beverage scene. Below is an analysis of the popular coffeeshops in the city centre.

Yes, Sidewinders serves coffee, but this is the only good thing about the business. I went to Sidewinders because there are always people inside, and because there are only so many coffeeshops in Nelson, but I won't be back. The service was terrible. Not only did the girl serving appear as though somebody had just drowned her goldfish, she was also speaking to her co-worker non-stop and barely acknowledged my existence (or the existence of my cash, which was paying her wage). The baked goods on offer looked bland and glutinous, and this is coming from someone who might actually sacrifice an earlobe or pinky for an outstanding cinnamon bun. The decor was also bland and unwelcoming. Most of the chairs and tables were rigid and ergonomically detrimental, and the four comfortable chairs in the window stood alone...so you could be comfortable while you were consuming your coffee, but you would have to balance your mug in your lap. The tragic thing about Sidewinders is that their Kicking Horse coffee is pretty good. Skip this doozy and grab your cuppa at Oso Negro or The Dominion.

Oso Negro
This is definitely the best cafe in town. They import beans from around the world and roast them right here, up at Nelson Brewing Company actually. The brother of a co-worker works there and I was able to see the roasting in situ. Not only do they roast locally and have a clean, open, comfortable cafe with awesome pastries...their coffee is also good. Just because a place roasts their own beans doesn't mean they know how to roast them properly and consistently (see: Vancouver's Continental Coffee on Commercial). While it doesn't make for sexy blog writing, I must mention how great the customer service is too. When employees demonstrate good customer service skills - such as eye contact, politeness, attention to detail - it reflects well on the product being sold. As a customer, you can tell that the baristas take pride in the product at Oso, and that the cashiers are happy to be working there. This place is the shizz, and everyone in town knows it. It is always packed and has been around forever. While it is tempting to go there every day, I try to support some of the other good cafes, such as The Dominion. Spread the cash. 

The Dominion
I live for kickass independent cafes. While this statement may seem hyperbolic, you must understand that one of my hobbies and true joys in life is finding and patronising independent coffeeshops. I love everything about them: drinking coffee, sitting, reading, surfing the web, consuming homemade baked goods, casually meeting with friends and acquaintances...everything good in life! Nelson has some great cafes, and Dominion meets many of my needs as a coffee-addicted cafe junky. The decor is domestic and warm, the coffee is wonderful, they offer a decent selection of muffins and cakes made in-house, and they are an independent business. If you have looked at any of my other reviews, you will know that two things really irritate me: poor customer service and establishments that do not accept plastic. The servers at Dominion are adequate but slightly inattentive, and the cafe is cash only. Seriously guys, pay the 0.02% service charge and get a darn-tootin' debit machine. This is the Nineties, man!

Nelson: Where You Can Grab a 
Coffee in Your PJ Bottoms

John Ward Fine Coffee
Located right in the centre of town, just up from Touchstones Museum on Baker, John Ward Coffee offers beverages that reflect the decor of the business. The interior has been decorated like a mid-century milk bar, with white-washed furniture, retro checkered flooring, and antique appointments. The layout is clean and uncluttered, and the items on offer are appropriately limited. John Ward focuses on creating classic coffee selections - cappuccino, espresso, macchiato - and does not offer fraps or chocolate-chip mint concoctions. They have fairly good baked goods, but they are overpriced, hence my three-star rating. I have tried their coconut chocolate cookies and a few squares, but it seems wrong paying the same amount for my cookie as my coffee. A solid cafe though, overall.

The Vienna
Is it a bad thing when you are in a cafe but it feels as though you are in a hippie's rumpus room from 1978? I don't know if it's a "bad" thing, but I do not actively seek the "hippie rumpus room" ambience when craving a bold cappuccino or a quiet space in which to read and concentrate. I don't really mind The Vienna, but only because I view this space as a bookstore with a cafe, rather than a coffeeshop located incestuously close to an autonomous book shop. With plastic tablecloths, dirty blue carpeting, and an incohesive layout, the decor of this cafe does not reflect the goods that they serve. Their coffee and baked goods are above average, but this is not a place that you would choose to spend a great deal of time in. You may sit down for a drink after buying a new book at the neighbour's shop (Packrat Annie's), but you would not select this business over Oso Negro or the Dominion, which is just across the road.

Rumpus Room or Respectable Business?

Keywords: "Alex Dawkins", "Nelson restaurants", "Oso Negro Nelson", "Kootenays attractions"