Cambridge’s new ramen shop serves diverse community—and Chef Taka Igo’s challenge to renowned NYC Chef David Chang
By Sonia Su
CAMBRIDGE—College students’ obsession with ramen sounds like old news, but Harvard Square’s new ramen shop does not sell your typical Cup Noodle variety. Instead, boasting long lines every day, Santouka has helped to prove the ramen shop concept as the first of more to come in Cambridge.
The popular chain from Hokkaido, Japan, opened its second U.S. franchise after Seattle in Cambridge on Feb. 11, said Nao White, tenant representative for Santouka from White and Pelissier Consulting Group. Two more ramen shops are now scheduled to open nearby, with a second Santouka in the Seaport District.
“Cambridge offers so much diversity,” White said. “And Santouka will welcome the competition.”
To distinguish itself from competition, however, Santouka hopes to extend its reach even farther with its initiative to donate to a different charity every month. This month, Santouka celebrates April’s Autism Awareness Month with Boston’s Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization. So far, the shop has donated about $1,200 to a local homeless shelter, White said.
With such attention to both its customers and the community, it’s no wonder Santouka already has a loyal fanbase.
“The other day, I had to force myself to stop eating and bring some back for my husband,” said Robyn Culbertson, executive director of the Cambridge Office for Tourism. “Rarely am I that obsessed about a new restaurant.”
Two days before opening—when Santouka had planned to host about 80 friends and family to a pre-launch event, including international guests—Gov. Charlie Baker had declared a state of emergency. Despite opening in the middle of Boston’s relentless snowstorms, about 70 people showed up to the restaurant that seats 59 and enjoyed a private sake ceremony, which involves opening a barrel of sake together, White said. But Santouka does not and will not serve alcohol.
“If you want to enjoy some beers and some cocktails, there are tons of places to enjoy [them],” White said. “Santouka focuses on just noodles.”
“Rarely am I that obsessed about a new restaurant.”
Diana Janec, marketing coordinator of the Cambridge Office for Tourism, visited Santouka recently after her colleague Culbertson returned with “raving reviews,” she said.
“Harvard Square really needed something unique like this, and for them to come from Tokyo … was a cool addition, and there’s nothing quite like it [here],” Janec said.
But what explains the unfettered demand for restaurant-quality ramen? Chef Taka Igo, 29, contrasts the demographic of Greater Boston to that of Seattle, where he had been manager of the Santouka there for 10 months before moving to Cambridge.
“It’s much more urban and city-like here,” Igo said, with White adding that college students and international visitors help add to the diversity of customers.
Denise Jillson, the executive director for the Harvard Square Business Association, said that the area’s businesses have always represented its diverse community, regardless of age, race or socioeconomic background.
The square boasts more than 100 eateries, whose cuisines range from Venezuelan to Middle Eastern, and the various additions have been organic and up to the property owners to decide, Jillson said.
In fact, Santouka has the community’s positive response to its three-day pop-up event on Newbury Street last March to thank. White said that the landlords, having “never had noodles” before, were shocked to see long lines at the event. As a result—also due to nearly every customer suggesting Harvard Square—the landlords at the former Dunkin’ Donuts space on 1 Bow St. chose Santouka over several other competitors.
“The square is an authentic, urban place and has always been diverse,” Jillson said. “People come from all over the place. When you walk in the streets, you see people from everywhere and languages spoken from every corner of the globe. While there are a lot of students, there are also a lot of visiting professors, business people and tourists.”
Seven to 10 million people visit Harvard Square every year, with a greater influx of tourists over the years, Jillson said. Harvard University is the main draw.
Even though the percentage of Asian or Pacific Islander residents in Cambridge nearly doubled from 8 to 15.1 percent from 1990 to 2010, according to the U. S. Bureau of the Census, it’s more about the non-permanent population.
“Lots of people visit, and they come here for the university,” Jillson said. “We expect that to continue, and we value the tradition of Harvard.”
Culbertson said she invited to Santouka people from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, who, having visited Japan’s local ramen shops, praised Santouka’s authenticity.
“It’s extremely good,” Culbertson said. “[The representative from GBCVB] was floored, saying that if I close my eyes, I would feel like I was Japan, and even if I open my eyes, I would see Japan.”
“The square is an authentic, urban place and has always been diverse.”
“[Chang] is not a ramen master,” Igo said in the interview. “For him, making ramen is about being creative and thinking about food in new ways. That’s very different from how we treat food in Japan.”
But when asked to explain, Igo said it should not be taken in a negative way. Chang focuses on mastering creativity, whereas Igo sticks to mastering consistency.
“He’s not trying to dishonor or disrespect him,” White said. “They’re a similar age.”
But even at 29, Igo, who said he’s “getting old,” is looking for more young people to start training to become ramen masters. People ages 35 and up may find it harder to absorb the techniques and skills, whereas younger people tend to appreciate the tradition and methods more, White said.
In this way, fans of the Netflix documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” may find that training for ramen is not unlike training for sushi.
With Santouka “packed for lunch every day,” Culbertson said the shop owes its popularity to the quality of food and “very friendly” service, which has made her return every week.
“It’s very chic,” she said. “I think people who come to Cambridge love that it’s unique. These shops are booming in the West Coast and in Japan but this is the first East Coast opening, and I think whenever anyone hears that, they like to try something they can’t get unless they come [here].”
By the way, David Chang, Chef Igo challenges you to a competition—creativity versus authenticity. Hope you’re not too intimidated.
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