But Benkei has been busy, and they've undergone some changes. Benkei has opened up a few more locations (which I haven't tried yet) and I was invited, along with other bloggers, to the grand opening of their newest shop on 5th Avenue in Vancouver and try out some ramen.
5th Avenue is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and it's probably the last place you'd expect to find a ramen shop.....which is good - less crowds, and probably more parking.
I haven't been to the other locations, but this one seemed to be decorated a lot better than the first one on Robson. There are no more cheap, made-in-China (or where ever they are made) Japanese swords hanging off the wall. As a student of Japanese sword arts, I take offense to those gaudy wall-hangers and their very existence. Nice improvement, Benkei, I really like the new look!
Not long after arriving, we were given a tour of the shop, as well as the kitchen in the back where they boil the broth - the backbone of every good bowl of ramen.
The head chef here is examining the thickness of the broth.
This is where they cook the chashu. Remember from my first post, I mentioned that their chashu was a hit and miss, sometimes it was just right (fat and salty), and other times it was off (lean and bland). I think they're cooking the chashu in one place, so all shops will have the exact same chashu. Benkei is definitely working hard on the consistency issue.
Ingredients for Gyoza.
The master chef showing us how it's done.
Kitchen looks clean and organized.
We were told this new 5th Avenue location will be responsible for training ramen chefs for all the other restaurants. More evidence that Benkei is serious about consistency.
So, of the five types of ramen on the menu, I decided to sample the first four.
Extra stuff is always nice, and I would love to have tried some but would have been too full to try all the different types of ramen. The next time, I will definitely order some extra toppings. Butter, corn, and boiled egg. Benkei's boiled egg was really good in that it was just a bit runny.....perfect with a bowl of ramen.
We got to sample two kinds of gyoza - shrimp, and pork. I liked the pork one. Haha, this picture only shows one because I ate it even before thinking about taking a picture.
The first type of ramen I tried was Shiro ramen. It's often sold out when I used to go to Benkei, so I never had a chance to try it. Now I know why it was sold it - it's awesome. It's like thinned out white sauce for pasta, nice and flavorful, buttery with lots of garlic, very rich - absolutely delicious. The only problem with Shiro ramen is you'll probably get "geri" after. I'd order it again for sure, but I doubt I could finish a full size bowl of Shiro ramen on my own (half-orders were offered on this day only so we had room to try different ramen).
Even as I'm writing this blog entry, I'm getting cravings for Shiro ramen from Benkei. When I have ramen, I'm not concerned for my health. Ramen is an indulgence, and I hate it when food is degraded for health reasons. If I want to eat healthy, I eat at home, when I want to indugle, I will go out to eat. Benkei, please do not change the recipe for this one!!! It's perfect the way it is!Next was Miso ramen, pretty much what I always order. The broth was still good, as I remember, but something was definitely different. It wasn't as fatty, and a bit less salty.
Looks like their chashu recipe has completely changed, and now it looks like the standardized Japanese interpretation of what BBQ pork should be. I think the cut has also been standardized (I remember one time, I got chopped up little bits of chashu - they may have run out and gave me end pieces). The chashu was leaner, and not as salty. I spoke to one of the reps about it and he said that people on the west coast are extremely health conscious and a "proper" bowl of ramen would not do well here. That's probably true......friggin' tree hugging, bunny loving, granola eaters - DAMN YOU! Well, they said that if I like a proper bowl of ramen, (fatty and salty), I could ask for it, and same goes for the chashu - they have fatty chashu on demand. I will try this next time.
Here's a comparison picture of what Benkei's Miso Ramen with extra chashu used to look like:
I much prefer this version of their chashu, with nice, glistening fatty layers, however, at the time, there was a lot of inconsistency so sometimes it would be this good, other times, it was not even close.
The Shoyu ramen was pretty good. I don't expect this one to be overly fatty or extremely salty. I'd say this one was my second favorite tasting next to the Shiro ramen.
The last one was Shio heavy tonkotsu ramen. I don't usually order this, but some people like it. If you like the taste of boiled pork, this is for you. You can really taste the "niku" in the broth. For me, it reminded me of the first boil when I make BBQ ribs. It's not my cup of tea, but some people really like it.
Chashu gohan.....some people like rice with their ramen....not me. However, that being said, it tasted really good. I don't think I'd ever order rice at a ramen shop, but some people do, I've even seen it in Japan.
Well, my opinion of Benkei Ramen has definitely improved. And again, I stress that that I did not dislike it before, it was just a bit of a pain to get to and the inconsistencies put me off a little. So, they've opened a shop outside of Downtown, which is a huge plus for me, and they've seemingly taken care of the consistency problem - one master chef overseeing all the recipes, as well as one single main kitchen responsible for distribution of a consistent recipe.
Before leaving, I got to meet Minako-san, one of the mangers responsible for inviting us, as well as the owner - Kenji-san, who seemed quite happy to have us all there. I'm happy for him that his business is doing well. Vancouver needs some healthy competition because that leads to good ramen.
I will definitely go back, and quite possibly order the Shiro ramen if it hasn't been sold out. If they are, I'll order the Miso ramen, with extra fat in the soup, extra fatty chashu, and definitely hang out with my buddy "geri" after.