Ramen available 24 hours a day. How good does that sound? Shujinko, in Melbourne’s CBD, is an affirmation that other people think it’s a great idea too. Following a late plane arrival (after 2300), it was one of the few places guaranteed to still be serving food. After dropping our luggage off, we headed out into the cool winter night in anticipation of a rich, hearty tonkotsu ramen.
On Russell Street, near stalwart relatively late night chinese eatery Nam Loong (open until 11pm, which is still pretty good compared to the standard), and 24 hour food institution Stalactites, is Shujinko. There is what seems to be a false first front to the restaurant, but as it turns out, it is actually a little alcove where at busy times people waiting in line can take shelter from the weather outside.
Once through the door, it was like stepping into another world. Even at 1 am, it was abuzz. Granted, it was a weekend night, but there were surprisingly many people there, and even when people finished their food and left, more soon replaced them in those seats.
There are sloped wooden panels on the ceiling, and more wooden panels along the walls, that make you feel like you’re dining in the town hall of a rural village. There is plenty of seating squeezed into a not that large space. We were given a couple of counter seats, which run along the outside of the kitchen. The kitchen is actually raised though, so that diners can’t actually see over the counter unless they’re standing. The unfortunate thing about being at the counter seats was that the space between them and the tables on the other side was so limited that the waitstaff bumped our chairs every time they went by. Which was very frequently, as food came out from the kitchen at the pass just next to us. One plus point about the counter seats though, is that there are actually charging points on the wall for patrons who need power for their devices (who doesn’t need to charge their phone?).
There were bright yellow lights above the counter seats, reminiscent of the lighting at night markets. There was Japanese pop music with a dance beat playing rather too loudly, like what you might hear at a pachinko parlour, though to their credit, at a less deafening volume.
There are fewer condiments available at the table here than in other ramen places, with only a squeeze bottle of sesame seeds and a pepper grinder. Perhaps they want customers to have just what they serve, unadulterated.
On the walls are stuck paper meant to look like rice paper, with recommended specials written up on them. The standard menus are a large laminated sheet, listing ramen options and Appetisers, or snack dishes.
We both had the Shujinko Ramen, it being listed as their signature ramen, and a serve of the handmade dumplings.
The ramen arrived in a distinctly conical bowl, which, while seeming like a regular-sized serve on top, winds up being less than you get elsewhere when you factor in the abrupt taper. The spoons for eating with were rather large, ladle-like utensils. While I have encountered these in other noodle restaurants, they mark a triumph of form over function, and are unwieldy as eating appliances. They are too wide across to actually fit into your mouth, so you’re forced to sip from the edges. They are quite flat, so don’t hold much broth despite their size. There is a reason why they aren’t everywhere..
A good ramen comes down to the broth, and the noodles. Simple, and yet complex in term of flavours delivered. Here, they make their own noodles in-house. You can see the noodle making machine in a little room of its own at the back of the restaurant. They serve thin noodles with the Shujinko Ramen, which hold the broth well between them. There was a clump of them still stuck together and not properly cooked in my bowl though.
The broth, sadly, was a let down. It was salty, and that was about all that came through. It was meant to be a pork tonkotsu broth, but wasn’t porky or garlicky, or particularly rich. The char siu slices with it had a smoky aroma, but were significantly more fat than meat. The yolk of the half egg, instead of being gooey, was overcooked.
The dumplings (gyoza), on the other hand, were not bad. They had a thin skin, and a crispy base. The filling was juicy.
Service was alright. We weren’t waiting too long for anything. Staff were dressed in happi with neko and similar motifs on them. There were the familiar parting phrases shouted out by all the staff when patrons left.
Overall, the main thing Shujinko seems to have going for it is that it is open to cater to hungry patrons at times when few other places are. Its ramen, unfortunately, wasn’t delicious. Perhaps at other times the broth has been better cooked, or stewed for the right number of hours. Not this time, however.
Price point: Ramen $12.80 to $14.50 per bowl. Dumplings $5.80 for five. Other starters $8.80 to $12.80.
Address: 225 Russell St, Melbourne CBD
Phone: 03 9654 0989