By Miki Nomura
Ramen & Izakaya Ryoji is the first Okinawan-style Japanese restaurant in Toronto. On a cold January day this year, the owners opened its doors and Torontonians found a warm and welcoming atmosphere inside.
Okinawa, as you may know, is a group of islands located in the south part of Japan. Ryoji, which is a chain of restaurants, in Toronto is new, but the ‘Ryoji Family’ legacy has a long, old history.
In Okinawa, they have five Izakaya’s and six ramen restaurants in various locations. The oldest one amongst them is Izakaya Yaro Ryoji (‘Yaro’ means ‘a guy’) that opened in 1988 and celebrated its 25th anniversary this year.
By opening this Ryoji restaurant in Toronto, the Ryoji Family’s long cherished dream of opening a restaurant overseas has finally come true! Mr. Kota Uechi, the owner, tries to bring customers a taste of a different culture, separate from the mainland of Japan. By serving people traditional and creative Okinawa cuisine and ramen rooted he introduces them to Okinawa’s rich history.
We spoke to Uechi to find out more about Okinawan food, culture, and his restaurant.
Why did you choose Toronto to open your first chain of Ryoji restaurants?
“I came to Toronto ten years ago taking a working holiday. At that time, I really loved Toronto and had a strong desire to open a Ryoji restaurant here, so I came back. Thanks to the help from the president and everybody of Ryoji Family, we could set up the restaurant in here Little Italy.”
What do you do to create a welcoming atmosphere for customers?
“We create a friendliness and comfort that our customers feel when they step inside the restaurant. A close relationship between our staff is also leads to the warm atmosphere of the restaurant. There are basically only Japanese people in our kitchen, but the hall staff are composed of local people and Japanese because not only Japanese people love ramen. We would like more Canadians and various nationality people to feel free to come inside and enjoy our food. And also, we decorated our restaurant with Shisa (a symbol of a talisman in Okinawa), Okinawan-style red tiles and glass which I brought by ship directly from Okinawa.”
Ryoji’s ramen recreates the taste of the ramen restaurant in Okinawa, Ryukyu Ramen TANDOU (‘Ryukyu’ is another name of Okinawa). Ryukyu Ramen TANDOU was named after Tandou town, which was an entrance to the Ryukyu Islands and a lively crowded port town. Rich and flavourful pork bone broth ramen ‘Otoko-Aji (Boy’s flavour)’ and light and flavourful chicken and pork bone broth ‘Onna-Aji (Girl’s flavour)’ that TANDOU proudly serves has arrived in Toronto keeping the same taste. ‘Otoko-Aji’ has an amazing combination of the pork bone broth that is created by stewing the ingredients for 18 hours and noodle that is kneaded so that it is slightly stiff. ‘Onna-Aji’ has the chicken and pork bone broth that is created by mixing three different soups and noodle that is kneaded a little bit thin. Ryoji offers ‘Kaedama’, which is a system that you can order extra noodles so that you can put it into the soup after you have eaten the ramen and enjoy the taste once more again!
What is your pride and joy in Ryoji’s ramen?
“We use the fresh raw noodle and change the type of noodle depending on the soup so that the customers can enjoy the combination of soup and noodle the best. Besides, there are our unique menu, such as weekday’s lunch only and a little bit spicy ‘Red’, weekends only and started to serve in the early of May ‘Okinawa Noodle’, and ‘Vegetable Ramen.’”
What do you recommend besides ramen?
“Special lunch and the taste of a home-cooked meal ‘Curry’, weekday’s lunch only and combo ‘ramen and Taco Rice (ground beef served on the bed of rice).’”
What drinks would you recommend alongside these Okinawan dishes?
“That must be ‘Awamori’, which is a unique alcohol in Okinawa. It is similar to Shochu, but has characteristic smell and taste. Also, an original cocktail that our exclusive bartender makes is recommendable.”
You will open a stand serving Okinawa cuisine as Ryoji at “EISA – The Rhythms of Okinawa” at JCCC on July 31st. What will you prepare for them?
“Ryoji Family has a ‘Ryukyu Kaiseki (an elegant Japanese meal served in delicate courses)’ restaurant close to Ryukyu kingdom’s Shurijo castle in Okinawa and we are going to recreate the taste of it. Please enjoy the real taste of Okinawa.”
It has been 5 months since Ryoji opened in Toronto. What do you want to achieve as an only one Okinawa restaurant here?
“We’d like to make it a place which has a comfortable atmosphere and our customers feel like revisiting.”
The writer ate ‘Onna-Aji’ and ‘Red’ after the interview. One bite of them reminded me of Japan and made me want to visit Okinawa. There are going to be many Japanese festivals in Toronto this summer. Before that, why don’t you enjoy Japanese taste to your heart’s content at Ryoji.
Ramen & Izakaya Ryoji
690 College Street, Toronto, ON
Sunday – Thursday: 12 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Friday – Saturday: 12 p.m. – 2 a.m.
This article appeared in the June Issue of Nikkei Voice in the Japanese section of the paper. This is a translated version of that piece.