I was in the grocery store and I was in a rush.
I fished around in my pocket for a bank note of some denomination and extracted it along with my mobile phone.
I fumbled for half a second before the phone careened towards the floor. Sadly, it landed over-easy instead of sunny-side-up and the phone’s screen turned into a spider’s web of jagged glass. It still worked, but if I texted too long my thumb began to leave a sticky red trail between keys, greatly slowing down my message transmission time. At the Official Genius Store, whence the phone came, a clerk told me it would be cheaper to buy a new phone than to replace the glass and that the switchover could be completed in seconds . . . for $400.
Aghast, I instead spoke to a colleague of mine, who seems to make it his life’s work to game the system, and he put me onto a small shop downtown where a clever entrepreneurial type ran a cash-only screen replacement operation. I went to check it out and marvelled at how quickly my phone was restored to tip-top working order, for a trifling $70. More remarkable than this economical repair, however, was the guy’s shop, which was lined wall-to-wall with crates of instant ramen noodle bowls. I asked him if he ran a sideline in soup.
He looked at me like I was crazy and then explained that he ate two to three bowls of the stuff every day. If you’ve ever looked at the nutritional information on the side of one of these noodle bowls you’ll know this guy was severely impeding his retirement plans by consuming 500 per cent of his sodium intake on a daily basis.
The origins of ramen are heavily disputed, but unfortunately much of the world knows it today by the 99-cent Styrofoam cups of dehydrated, deep-fried strings of food-like substance that expands in salty broth with desiccated onion flakes. This mainstream perception does a disservice to true ramen, which is one of the world’s greatest culinary marvels and, when done right, is a dish of exceptional complexity that explodes with bold flavour.
Luckily for us, places like Workshop Vegetarian Café are here to represent craft ramen and remind us that noodles are things of beauty, especially when immersed in lovingly rendered broth. As its name suggests, however, Workshop doesn’t serve ramen in broth made with pork bone-based stock (one of the better known ramen styles, tonkotsu, has a characteristically thick, cloudy stock because of the rendered fat and collagen from the pork bones and is the style upon which the instant soups attempt to draw). No, Workshop is a strictly a veggie affair, but rest assured, the absence of roasted bone byproducts in no way compromises the depth of flavour of the dishes here.
At first blush, Workshop appears to be a bakery/grocer and indeed there is a robust inventory of in-house baked goods, which includes dense and nourishing yeast bread, cookies, cinnamon buns, carrot cake, muffins and trail mix made with matcha, as well as a carefully curated selection of local, organic and healthful vegetables and sundries for sale. The space is bright and almost stark, with light wooden floors and displays giving the venue a disarming and down-to-earth, DIY charm. All items on Workshop’s menu are organic, wherever possible, and raw goods come from responsibly produced suppliers.
Based on my recent visit, during which the space was packed with keen diners, I would suggest that the ramen, udon and rice noodle bowls are the stars here.
First among the dishes sampled was Organic Spicy Tan Tan Ramen, featuring the signature wheat noodles drowned in a miso broth (this is the traditional Hokkaido approach to ramen) thickened with butternut squash and accompanied by kale, a mushroom and nut medley and rayu oil (made with chillies and sesame). The broth was thick and cloudy, with a clear cashew presence that leant the dish a buttery richness.
Mushrooms gave the broth an earthy lift and the miso, as you’d expect, supplied a tangy, salty punch. The rayu oil was a lot tamer than I expected and I wouldn’t characterize this dish as spicy, for those put off by the promise of heat. A soft-boiled organic egg, a nice option available on all dishes for just $1.80, made the Tan Tan Ramen a filling, hearty option.
The second dish sampled was Rice Noodles with Organic Cashew Sauce, seasoned with exceptionally fragrant, citrusy yuzu oil. The dish was lovely in its bright colours (julienned cabbage, apple, scallion and carrots top the dish, along with toasted nuts) and light, fresh flavours. As with the ramen, the dish achieved its round creaminess from the silky cashew paste in the sauce. Along for the ride on this visit was my 21-month-old daughter, Baby N, who enjoyed an order of toasted, preservative-free, organic, house-made yeast bread with peanut butter and jam.
Judging from the volume of patrons alone, I would suggest Workshop has certainly tapped into the ever-emerging Vancouver meta-trend of vegetarian, ethically produced food served in an approachable space. I think they’ll do well, as long as people remember they’re down there on a largely industrial strip of Pemberton Avenue.
Two entrees and the order of toast, along with a latte, was $37.50 before gratuity. Workshop Vegetarian Café is located at 296 Pemberton Ave. 604-973-0163 theworkshopvegetariancafe.com
Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. North Shore News dining reviews are conducted anonymously and all meals are paid for by the newspaper.