It’s a very common misconception to equate a pack of instant noodles with authentic Japanese ramen. That would be equivalent to saying that eating a can of generic pasta is on par with enjoying fresh, authentic Italian pasta. There’s just no comparison. And just as we learned with Malaysian Laksa and Vietnamese Bun Bo Hue, terrific Japanese ramen can take on a number of different forms too, each with its own subtle nuance and flavour profile.

In our search for incredible ramen in Richmond, we visited three of the hottest spots in town. Each of these restaurants not only has an entirely different approach to the bowl of soup noodles, but also in the overall ambiance and feel of eating there.

G-Men, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

Located along the famed “Food Street,” G-Men Ramen Shop at NanChuu Japanese Izakaya (1160-8391 Alexandra Road) is consistently busy – and for good reason. When we arrived a few minutes before the restaurant opened for dinner service, there was already a small lineup of people waiting outside. Inside, you’ll find a dimly-lit, mostly wooden interior with cozy booths. While there are other items on the menu, ramen is the name of the game here.

And even then, you can veer a little off the beaten path with some less traditional offerings. The Red Chili Miso Pepper (RCMP – hah) ramen is great for people who like a bit of spice, while the Tantan Men features homemade spicy sesame and peanut paste reminiscent of Chinese dan dan noodles.

G-Men, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

On the more traditional front, the main ramen bowls at G-Men start with a rich tonkotsu broth. This makes for a richer, thicker soup base that’s decidedly hearty. The Tonkotsu Shio Ramen ($9.95) starts with the rich bone broth and is flavoured with house-made sea salt seasoning. The thick ramen noodles are served with nori, scallion, black wood ear mushroom, and a couple slices of chashu pork.

The lighter-coloured broth is wonderfully savoury with the perfect amount of salinity. The crunchy wood ear mushroom offers a great contrast to the bouncy noodles and softened nori.

G-Men, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

While the Tonkotsu Miso Ramen ($10.95) starts with the same “authentic rich pork bone broth” (tonkotsu), it is flavoured with a house-made miso paste that offers a subtle sweetness to contrast the rich saltiness. While both bowls get nori, scallions and pork, the miso ramen is accompanied with bean sprouts instead of wood ear mushrooms. You can always opt for additional toppings too, like corn or an egg.

G-Men, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

The ramen noodles were cooked to a beautiful al dente in both bowls. At the table, you’ll also find garlic, vinegar, chili oil, togarashi spice, and white pepper for additional seasoning. I find a nice spoonful of garlic really elevates the dish. If you’re looking for a heartier bowl of ramen with a thicker, fattier broth, G-Men certainly will not disappoint.

Sanpoutei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

Found toward the back of the newer Kam Do Plaza between Aberdeen Centre and Parker Place, Sanpoutei Ramen (160-4328 Number 3 Road) is perhaps the most modern and “trendy” of the three restaurants highlighted here. The spacious dining room features high ceilings and an open kitchen concept. The menu is also much more modern-looking with careful attention paid to detailed graphic design and multilingual item descriptions.

One of the two main types of soup bases used for ramen at Sanpoutei is Tori, which is chicken-based. This can be further enhanced with miso or as a spicy miso soup.

Sanpoutei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

The signature at Sanpoutei, though, is the Niigata Shoyu Ramen with Flavored Soft-Boiled Egg ($12.00). It comes with two slices of aburi chashu, dried seaweed (nori), bamboo shoot (menma) and spinach, along with a flavored soft-boiled egg. Alternatively, you can get it without the egg for $11.50, with extra aburi chashu for $13.00, or with “special full-topping” (which includes both the egg and the extra two slices of aburi chashu) for $14.50.

The portion size was smaller than what we had at G-Men and I found this thinner shoyu broth to be less flavourful as well. The bamboo shoots are offered as much thicker pieces than what I’m used to seeing in my ramen, making for a different textural experience. I did enjoy the added char on the pork, though, which brought out a wonderful smoky flavour.

Sanpoutei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

The noodles themselves, which are made in-house (with a machine), are also quite different. They’re flatter and thinner with an almost “wrinkly” shape and consistency to them. Oddly enough, this reminded me of the thinner hand-pulled noodles at Chef Hung, but with less of a natural springiness to them.

Sanpoutei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

If you’re looking for more of an open and airy dining room with more of a “clean” and modern take on Japanese ramen, then Sanpoutei might be a good choice for you. I personally found the experience much less satisfying, both in terms of portion size and complexity of flavour.

Shibuyatei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

One thing that really stood out on this Japanese ramen journey through Richmond was just how different the dining experiences could be. G-Men is darker, cozier, and perhaps more traditional. Sanpoutei is newer, roomier and perhaps more modern. And then you’ve got Shibuyatei Japanese Restaurant (125-2971 Sexsmith Road), located in the same building as a car wash, easily overlooked as a hole-in-the-wall that can be easily and justifiably ignored.

Shibuyatei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

As you walk inside, you’ll find only a small handful of tables, along with an overwhelming array of basic printed sheets of paper in plastic page protectors strewn in every which direction. The photos are probably helpful for the uninitiated and it doesn’t take you long to realize that Shibuyatei is a one-man show.

Another possible point of confusion is that you won’t find any “ramen” on the menu. Instead, it’s listed as “larmen,” which is actually the same thing. This is because what we think of as the letter R in English is pronounced somewhere between L and R when you transliterate a Japanese word.

For much of my childhood, I incorrectly pronounced the name Ryu (from the video game Street Fighter as “rye-yoo” when I should have been referring to the world warrior as “loo.” And so, Shibuyatei has larmen, not ramen.

Shibuyatei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

The Larmen Noodle Soup ($9.50) with your choice of soy sauce (shoyu) or salt (shio) flavouring is the favourite here. I opted for the salt. You can upgrade to a charsyumen with extra pork for $13.50. There’s also a version that swaps out the pork for clams, if you feel like something with seafood. This was served with corn, nori, bamboo shoots, scallions and some greens.

Pictures can be very deceiving. At first glance, you could easily mistake the broth here for your basic chicken or vegetable stock, the kind of stock that might be used for wonton noodle soup. However, there is a subtle complexity here with satisfying aromatics. It’s thin but flavourful. It should also be noted that he only serves about 20 bowls of larmen a day before he runs out of broth.

Shibuyatei, Image credit: Michael Kwan
Image credit: Michael Kwan

Shibuyatei epitomizes the authentic “hole in the wall.” Unapologetically, it is what it is: an oft-overlooked hidden gem with humble and honest food. The “larmen” here doesn’t reinvent the wheel and its execution appears effortless. Just make sure you get here before he runs out.

All this being said, my overall favourite of the bunch is still the Tonkotsu Shio Ramen from G-Men. It’s perfect for cold evenings when you want something rich and hearty to warm the soul. The noodles are spot on, making for a very satisfying bowl. If you want something lighter, then Shibuyatei is the way to go.