I try to hit up Samurai Bowl at least once every time I visit Christchurch. My love of this place goes back years and years, to early on in my student days in when I was first exploring Christchurch eateries on my own, with a car, beyond the fish and chip shop near my grandma's house in Riccarton or the Chinese restaurant just up the road.
Back then, Japanese food in Wellington was still pretty limited (it still is, in many ways) and I was really, really excited to find a place serving cheap, authentic gyudon and ramen. Back then, it was just a dark and tiny hole in the wall on Gloucester St, walls covered in printed A4 sheets advertising menu items and specials. But it was good. (And did I mention it was cheap? Important during my student days.)
Over the years they expanded, taking over a bigger space next door to the original shop on Gloucester St, but continued to serve decent, authentic, affordable Japanese rice bowls, noodle soups and other bits and pieces. And every time I visited Christchurch I'd make sure to call in for some ramen or gyudon.
And then, and I almost don't even need to say this because you'll already know because it's in Christchurch, the earthquakes. If I'm not mistaken, I seem to recall Samurai Bowl was closed after the September 2010 earthquake and remained closed after the February 2011 ones which saw the old Samurai Bowl building eventually torn down. (I could be confusing this with Burgers and Beers, which was also closed from September 2010, but in any case the old Gloucester St Samurai Bowl is long gone.)
Finally, in September 2011, old Samurai Bowl reopened in a new spot on Colombo St, right near the South City shopping centre. I didn't find out, though, until I was down in Christchurch for Christmas, when I was driving along Colombo St and had to pull over when I saw the familiar old flags flapping out the front. You know that kind of emotional surprise-relief you get when you find something really dear to you that you thought you'd lost forever? Yeah, that.
The following is just a small selection of what's on offer at Samurai Bowl; what I've eaten during my last two visits to Christchurch. It's all been good. If you're in Christchurch, I highly recommend it for cheap Japanese eats, pretty close to how you'd get in Japan.
First of all: tonkotsu ramen. There is nowhere in Wellington that serves ramen like this: a deeply rich, salty, milky-thick pork bone broth with chewy, al dente noodles, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, pickled ginger and pork belly. The egg, boiled just so that the yolk's not quite solid, and soaked in a soy-based seasoning (I believe), is a dollar extra. Definitely worth it. For those who aren't so keen on the super-rich tonkotsu broth, there are other flavours: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso, spicy miso, curry, and their signature samurai ramen (tonkotsu and shoyu). All up, it'll cost you around ten bucks, more if you add extra toppings like the egg.
Not on the official menu, but really awesome and definitely worth trying if you're into ramen: tsukemen. If you've read the ramen issue (Issue 1) of David Chang's new-ish food quarterly, Lucky Peach, you'll know what I'm talking about. For everyone else, here's a quick rundown.
Ramen is usually served like the tonkotsu ramen above: noodles and toppings swimming in broth. If you break ramen down into all its parts, though, it consists of the noodles, the toppings, a concentrated flavour base (tare) and the broth. Tsukemen is where you get the noodles and toppings separately, and dip them into a bowl filled with the tare, which is super salty and intense - definitely a sauce for dipping, not something you'd drink. Apparently, though I've never been able to do this (too full by the time I've finished the noodles!) you can ask for the tare to be topped up with the broth once you've finished eating the noodles. Not sure if Samurai Bowl does this, but if you make it through the noodles, it's worth a shot.
Anyway, this is good. Really good. And quite possibly the only place in NZ that serves tsukemen. Let me know if I'm wrong...
In Japan, if you're at a typical ramen shop, you can almost guarantee they'll be serving gyoza too. Samurai Bowl's are great: with chewy, soft tops and crispy bottoms, they're cooked just the way I like them, the best of both the fried and steamed dumpling worlds.
And, what first made me fall in love with this place: gyudon. Your average gyudon consists of a bowl of rice topped with thinly sliced beef and onions simmered in a sweet soy sauce. It's pretty typical Japanese fast food, too; the Yoshinoya chain of gyudon shops is almost ubiquitous in Japan and is one of the few fast food chains I get excited about (hint: it's most excellent at 3am, and beats a greasy kebab/burger/slimy noodles hands down any day).
This time I went for the ontama-kimchi gyudon: gyudon topped with an onsen-tamago (really slow-cooked egg that's only just set) and kimchi. It may not be for everyone; you may want to stick with plain gyudon. But for me, this combination of toppings (pretty common in Japan) brings back lots of memories of gyudon-eating in Japan.
On a recent visit I took my dad and grandma along. Dad's choice: this vibrantly coloured avocado-maguro don. Perfect for summer, perfect for sushi-lovers: this was like a deconstructed sushi roll; the fish and avocado served atop sushi rice with nori, ginger and wasabi (add your own soy sauce to taste).
I feel like Samurai Bowl's karaage has been pretty hit and miss in the past, but the last couple times I've been (coincidentally, since they've reopened in the new location), this Japanese fried chicken has been great: really crispy, really flavourful, just perfect dipped in some Kewpie mayo.
On the specials menu the last time we visited: soy sauce-seasoned grilled scallops, really tasty and tender and, at $5, an easy little nibble to add to your meal.
I'm really glad Samurai Bowl has reopened and seems to be going strong in its new location. It's cheap, casual (grab a menu yourself and order at the counter), food arrives pretty fast, with friendly staff, Japanese beer on tap and a BYO license. Plus they have the best ramen in the South Island, maybe even in all of NZ (though I haven't been to any of the ramen shops in Auckland so I can't say for sure!).
Shop 5, 174 Colombo St
(03) 379 6752
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