AJISEN (332 Spadina, at Glen Baillie, 416-977-8080, ajisen.ca. Also: 5229 Yonge, at Finch, 416-223-0618; 7010 Warden, at Steeles East, 905-470-6318) Complete meals for $10 per person, including all taxes, tip and a weak green tea. Average main $8. Open daily 10:30 am to 11 pm. No reservations. Unlicensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN
Sichuan House isn't the only Spadina spot where you can enjoy the just-came-from-the-dentist effect of sichuan pepper. You'll also find it at Ajisen Ramen in the shakers of shichimi spice powder used to kick-start its bowls of prefab noodles. It's the tastiest stuff in the joint.
Based in Japan and with 120 outlets worldwide, Ajisen has just launched in Chinatown. You'll recognize it by the fibreglass mascot out front and the automatic lineup out the door. The room certainly has an energy, from the hot-pink banquettes and pop art mural of sumo wrestlers to the teenage staff in tight black T-shirts labelled "STAFF" quickly filling orders. Sappy J-pop gets beamed in by satellite, not the hip Pizzicato Five or Perfume one expects.
Unlike the artisanal version served at indie-owned Kenzo Ramen (138 Dundas West, at Elizabeth, 416-205-1155, kenzoramen.ca, rating: NNNN), Ajisen is fast food at its most basic. A lengthy illustrated menu describes its white pork bone soup base as "very excellent," to which we'll add "overwhelmingly salty" and "oddly metallic-tasting." Noodles lack the handmade bite of Kenzo's, and toppings - mushy "tenderous" pork ribs ($7.99), dry barbecued pork ($7.50), rubbery beef shank ($7.25) - appear processed.
Salad consists of frozen corn dressed with fake crab ($3.79), while chikuwa ($5.50) turns out to be deep-fried rubbery "bamboo" shoots fashioned from faux fish and stuffed with Velveeta-style cheese. When I ask my server if the suspiciously milky broth that comes with Ajisen's assorted vegetable ramen ($6.99) is vegetarian, she points at its picture on the menu. We'll take that as a no. Any multinational chain that can't spell the word "vegetable" correctly on its website hasn't grasped the concept.