Where to: Santouka, a new ramen shop in Harvard Square. It is a branch of a popular chain from Hokkaido, Japan.
What for: Santouka specializes in tonkotsu broth, made from pork bones. But this ramen is very different from the super-sized, gloriously porky jiro-style bowls at nearby Yume Wo Katare in Porter Square. It is a more refined version that leaves you sated but not stuffed.
The scene: Classy and crowded. “Irrashaimase,” yell the staffers, welcoming customers. The room is decorated in gray, with a comfortable lounge area at the front for those inevitably waiting for a seat. Large-scale, Japan-themed photos hang on the walls, and jazz plays. At a communal table, a Japanese woman slurps delicately beside a man with a silver walrus mustache and beard, attempting to guide his noodles through all the shrubbery. At smaller tables, couples, groups of students, and families commune over steaming bowls. A little boy dissects the pickled plum that came atop his noodles. A woman in a batwing shirt keeps dipping her sleeves in her soup. People converse in Mandarin, Italian, and Japanese. At one table, international types wear cotton, Shaker-stitch sweaters in beige and pewter and navy. It’s like being inside a culinary Muji. A tot in green pants attempts his first steps on the concrete floor. A group of guests bundles up, again, in winter layers. “Arigato gozaimashita,” the hostess calls out, thanking them as they depart.
What you’re eating: Start simple with the tonkotsu shio ramen, a silky, salty broth served with chewy, fine noodles, pieces of tender pork, crinkly black mushrooms, and pink-swirled slices of fish paste (pictured above). Then branch out to broth enhanced with soy, miso, or hot pepper. Add-ons include marinated, soft-boiled eggs and corn and butter. Bowls come in small, regular, and large.
Care for a drink? You won’t find cold beer or sake. You come to Santouka for the noodles. If you want something more than water, there is soda, iced tea, and hot tea served in pretty, delicate china cups.
Overheard: Conversation about the merits of various ramen shops, interpersonal drama, and the winter that wouldn’t quit. “Oh, look,” coos a woman eyeing an impossibly adorable child inhaling ramen. “There’s a tiny-tiny eating noodles!” A man orders his bowl. “Do you want to add an egg?” the server asks. “Oh, I’ll add an egg,” he replies with Seinfeldian inflection. A young woman enters wearing sheepskin moccasins. “It weirds me out when I see people wearing my slippers as shoes,” one customer whispers to another. “She’s so pretty but she’s too self-centered,” opines one woman to a table of friends nodding supportively. A woman in a floor-length down coat enters majestically, embracing a waiting companion at length. “It is so good to see you,” she says. “Harvard Square has changed so much, but there are still the same people wearing, like, bowties and orange socks.”
1 Bow St., Harvard Square,
Cambridge, 617-945-1460, www.santouka-usa.com.