A couple weeks ago I wrote a review on Yelp about Benkei Ramen on Robson St. which is their original location. Last week, I received an invitation via Yelp from the Service Manager for the Benkei group to attend a pre-opening event at their newest location on E 5th Ave. Its hidden among a bunch of random warehouses and business buildings.
I arrived early, but they were fine with that. After a couple more people arrived, they took us into the kitchen for a mini tour and to meet the head chef, Kotarosan. They showed us how they made the broth and the chashu. It smelled so delicious in there. There was also someone making gyoza. They offered to let us make some and then cook it for us, but no one stepped up and tried.
The first Benkei Ramen restaurant was on Robson, but they are building this 5th Ave store to become the headquarters. The head chef will be cooking at this location. During the summer, he will be experimenting with different broths to expand their current menu. Those giving us the tour, assured us that the 5th Ave location is the place to be if you want to try the newest broths. To ensure the end product is the same at all locations, guaranteeing quality and consistency, the broths are made at this location and is sent out twice a day to the other locations. I find the business side of this pretty fascinating – its no different than what McDonalds or Starbucks does with their food, just on a much smaller scale.
Benkei Ramen was originally from Japan and had two partners. Due to differing expansion visions, they split. The other partner is now in L.A. All stores hire those that can speak both Japanese and English – often Japanese students here on a working vacation or those learning English. At each restaurant, there is a light box decorated with paper art. These are made by the owner of the restaurant.
Following the tour, came the tasting. They presented us with the menu that they have at the other locations. After playing up the different broth possibilities, I was half expecting to be able to try something new. They made half orders so we would have an opportunity to try them all. At my previous visit to the Robson restaurant, I had the Shio. We tried all the different types. Each had their own distinctive taste. I don’t like the noodles they used. I much prefer the Chinese version of ramen noodles. These were too chewy and had a weird texture. You can order side dishes to add more veggies to your ramen, but we chose not to.
Shoyu – Light Soy with green onion, bamboo shoots, chashu, nori, spinach in a chicken and pork soup broth. They claim this is the best soy sauce ramen. This was okay. Nothing spectacular, but nothing really wrong with it either.
Shio – Heavy Tonkotsu with green onion, bamboo shoots, chashu and bean sprouts. Its apparently good for your skin and bones and popular with women. How random – its printed on their menu. I think of them all, I still probably like this one the most.
Miso – Mid Combination with green onion, bamboo shoots, chashu and bean sprouts (seeing a pattern yet?). The broth is a mix of their chicken and tonkotsu soup with their Miso sauce. This had a strong miso flavour. It was okay.
Shiro – Creamy Tonkotsu with chicken, spinach, butter, herbs, corn, garlic and milk. They used ingredients commonly found in Canada to make a new flavour. I did not like this one. It was creamy and savoury, but not like a pasta. It was too liquidly. [In my haste to eat, I completely forgot to take a photo of this one]
Akaoni – Spicy Miso with green onions, bamboo shoots, minced pork, burned garlic sesame oil and roasted sesame. This dish’s spicy ingredients along with the garlic oil, makes it famous. I actually really liked this one, but I think if I were to eat the whole bowl, it would be too spicy.
They also gave us some chashu rice and gyoza (shrimp and pork). I wasn’t a fan of either of them. I’ve had their chashu rice ball before and that was delicious, but this rice wasn’t anything like it. The gyoza I found was very dry and overwhelmed by green onion. I don’t like a strong green onion taste, so maybe that is why. In any case, I felt I could make better gyoza’s at home.
All in all, it was a cool experience to see the behind the scenes of a restaurant. Learning about their business vision and decisions was particularly interesting. Despite this, I’m still pretty indifferent to the food they provide. They have good broths, but I can’t get past the noodles. Its good value for money though, particularly if you’re a student as they offer extra noodles for 50 cents with a valid student card. Maybe if during the summer I’m craving some new ramen broths, I’ll go back and check it out.