Since launching in 2008, business had been good for the sushi bar entrepreneur Harumi Tabata owned and operated in the Sobeys Urban Fresh location in downtown Edmonton. But the store closed six years later, taking the sushi stand with it. As Tabata pondered her next career move, her husband offered a suggestion.
“My husband always said he wanted to open a ramen noodle shop, so I thought why not?” says Tabata, who turned that suggestion into the Ninja Club, her new Whyte Avenue digs. The Ninja Club serves soups featuring the curly Japanese staple.
In the United States, ramen is all the rage and, in Canada, appetites are following suit, putting it on the verge of hitting the popularity boiling point. While New York-based celebrity chef David Chang is frequently credited with bringing ramen to the mainstream via his Momofuku noodle bars, Tabata also credits word-of-mouth and social media for its impact on these shores.
“I think tourists who went to Japan really liked ramen dishes,” says Tabata, who recalled an online poll among visitors to Japan that placed ramen on top of a list of most-liked meals – above tempura and even sushi. “The media and people on the Internet also liked it.”
So far, in Edmonton, the ramen trend is more like a ripple than a wave, with the Ninja Club only a year old, and only a handful of Japanese restaurants serving the nascent noodle; most still opt for thicker udon noodles in their soups. Ramen-based pop-up enterprise Prairie Noodle Shop is slated to open a permanent storefront on 124th Street before 2016; but, in Edmonton, the dish still has a long way before it catches up to pho, a soup staple that came across the Pacific in the ’70s with refugees from war-torn Vietnam.
At first glance, it’s hard to tell the noodles apart, but it’s in how the soup is created where the difference truly lies. Ramen is wheat-based and is usually boiled with pork bones to produce a rich, dark and cloudy broth, with a poached egg and a wide variety of pickled vegetables thrown in. Pho noodles are made from rice and simmered with either chicken or beef, resulting in a much clearer broth, with additional ingredients that include Thai basil, ginger, star anise, cinnamon, bean sprouts, jalapenos and lime.
While ramen aficionados love the soup for its heartiness, pho fans prefer the herb-based spiciness of the dish and aren’t going away anytime soon.
“People really like it,” says Breanna Kittson, who works at Delicious Pho. “We have people come in here who can absolutely demolish a large. It’s incomprehensible how people can eat so much soup.”
But with the ramen wave showing no sides of slowing down across the continent, Tabata believes it won’t be long before the noodle catches on in Edmonton.