Fast food isn't always bad food. Just because something arrives quickly on your plate doesn't mean a lot of time and care wasn't put into getting it there. Panchan, which appears almost the instant you take your seat at some Korean restaurants, consists of tidbits that have been long-marinated, fermented or pickled. The food in the steam tables at Super Cocina is briskly transferred onto your plate, yes, but many of those guisados were stewed and simmered for hours.
Similarly, food courts are not always so scary. Though the food courts at airports and malls repeat many of the same flavorless chains, the food-court offerings in ethnic markets are often righteous eating destinations themselves. The little eateries in Northgate Market and 99 Ranch are delicious, and the prospect of doing some good grocery shopping after your meal is an added bonus. When my time is short but I don't want to get the short-shift on taste, I go to Mitsuwa Marketplace, or, more specifically, Santouka, the ramen shop in Mitsuwa's food court.
A long-revered ramen outpost in Japan, Santouka's newer overseas noodle shops are mostly located in Mitsuwa Marketplaces. When I heard that our local market would be the next to get one, I got excited. It was already my regular spot for takeout sushi and unagi bento, a rich filet of sweetly glazed grilled eel atop a generous portion of sticky rice. I also like to browse the small Japanese import shops that line the periphery of the market, reliving my teenage years in the Hello Kitty store and marveling at the latest in toilet-seat technology.
Mitsuwa's food court is small, just two food stands and a partitioned corner of tables. Kayaba, Santouka's neighbor, serves some good dishes, including noodles like curry udon and cold zaru soba, but Santouka specializes in just ramen. Ramen is a college-student staple, of course, a symbol of spare change and late nights, but I can guarantee that your Top Ramen never tasted like this. And it's all ordered from a display case of precise plastic replicas of every dish, down to the very last garnish. When I was little, most girls wanted dolls, I wanted these replicas.
All the ramen here is based on a tonkotsu, or pork bone-based broth, to which a different seasoning, either salt, soy sauce or miso paste is added. Santouka's broth is legendary, simmered for hours until the pork bones give up all their richness to the soup, giving it body and an almost milky consistency. Dried seafood is also added for briny sweetness. My favorite is the shio, or salt ramen, which comes with the standard toppings, fresh wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots and green onions, plus an extra little pickled plum called umeboshi.
All of the ramen also include two slices of sesame-seed-sprinkled, buttery braised pork belly. If you're as pork-crazy as I am, you'll order another helping of the pork, called chashu, to augment your bowl or maybe go hog wild and get the special ramen, tokusen toroniku, which gives you a separate plate of an especially unctuous cut of pork to further enrich your soup. If you've had different types of fatty tuna, or toro, in a sushi bar, you'll understand this analogy: Chashu is to this cut what chutoro is to otoro. And we haven't even gotten to the noodle part yet. I sometimes ask for my noodles to be cooked hard, so that they soften in the broth to a perfectly yielding, yet still springy and chewy, texture. A small sized bowl is pretty filling, but should your appetite be greater, there are combos that include rice bowls, topped with salmon roe or pork, and a single, soy-sauce-boiled egg.
Santouka Ramen in Mitsuwa Marketplace, 4240 Kearny Mesa Road, Suite 119, Kearny Mesa 858-569-6699