Food for Thought: Mitsuwa Marketplace

Santouka is a sort of food stand, inside a food hall … inside a grocery store. So this time is a bit different because I’m not reviewing a restaurant so much as a food destination. It may seem strange to hit up a grocery store for your lunch date, but bear with me.

When my boyfriend and I moved to Plano, we lost easy access to many of our favorite restaurants — one of which was an AMP-approved ramen shop called Monta. Delicious ramen that used to be five minutes away is now nearly 30-minute drive. Tragic. Fortunately, Plano is brimming with a variety of Asian food locations, so I began our search. We tried the nearby Sapporo, but we were not very impressed. Next on the list was Santouka, (or “the place that’s in the cool market I found” which is what I was referring to it as until I looked it up just now).

Located on Legacy and 75 in Plano, Santouka is a ramen shop hidden away inside a food hall within the Mitsuwa Marketplace.  My friend and I ended up in this marketplace because we were in search of a Japanese bookstore. Inside we found a grocery store, but also a smattering of shops including Kinokuniya, a bakery, a confectionary, and the food hall. After we were done with the bookstore, we went to look at the food.

It’s set up very much like a food court at a mall: food counters surrounding a central seating area. The difference is that it’s all Japanese food with a certain air of elegance that just isn’t found at a conventional mall. In addition to Santouka, there are two other dining places, Sutodon and Tonkatsu Kaneda, a rice-bowl and tempura plate place respectively. The last spot in the ring is a matcha tea cafe counter. All of the food counters have display cases that hold models of all of their dishes, something I appreciated. Overall the atmosphere is inviting and clean, and I didn’t feel out of place despite stepping into a slice of a different culture. I was excited to come back and try some of the food.

I’m telling you now that you should get ready to stop by the ATM before hitting up Santouka, because the first thing that catches your eye after the ceramic ramen case display is a handwritten sign that says CASH ONLY. I’m pretty sure some of the other food counters take cards, but you’ll have to dole out the cash for ramen. There’s no UTD discount — I wouldn’t consider it very close to campus — but it’s worth it for the convenience and just how dang yummy it was.

I prefer miso ramen, but Santouka has quite a few varieties. For those who don’t know, ramen is categorized by its broth flavor. The “traditional” ones are salt (shio), soy sauce (shoyu) and miso. They all come with noodles, veggies (onion, bean sprouts, mushrooms), two slices of pork (unless you get the extra pork bowl), and what I assumed was a hunk of tofu (Editor’s Note: she’s referring to narutomaki, a type of Japanese fish cake). They also have spicy versions for the spicier among us, and you can order each in “regular” or “large” sizes.

We ordered at the counter and received a number. There is no soda fountain, but there is a free water dispenser and cans of soda available for purchase. We received our food pretty quickly, but this was in the middle of the week on a Tuesday. I’ve been in there on a Sunday, and that food court was PACKED. You also need to bus the table and return the dishes to a receptacle near the counter. The regular size bowl was plenty big enough for me. The pricing is pretty standard, around eight bucks a bowl.

Once again, I’m no expert. I have much less experience with ramen restaurants than I do with Chinese take out, but Santouka is now at the top. The miso was very miso-y; I liked the addition of the tofu and the pork was really good. Having a chunk of pork slice in soup can be kind off putting if you aren’t used to it (the first time I had it at Monta I wasn’t a big fan). Eventually you grow to like it. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the pork was actually my favorite part of this ramen experience. It fell apart easily as I grabbed it with chopsticks, was soft, and had a great flavor. I was disappointed when I ran out before I was finished with the noodles.

So quick pros and cons wrap-up:

Pros: It’s good food, for a good price, and in a cool atmosphere. When you’re done eating you can stop at the bakery for red bean buns, drop by the confectionary for mochi, or just look around Kinokuniya. There is no pressure of a sit-down restaurant, and you don’t have to worry about tipping because you order at a counter.

Cons: The cash-only aspect is kind of inconvenient. Its non-centralized location may be off-putting for residents unfamiliar with the layout of the shopping center. Not having a soda fountain might be a con for some, but honestly that’s pretty common at Asian restaurants, and there’s free water anyway.

Thus ends my journey of finding a new ramen place. If you’re a fan of ramen, I would highly suggest a visit to Santouka. Regardless, I would urge anyone to go explore Mitsuwa Marketplace; there’s something there for anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese food or culture.