Bowls of ramen are like snowflakes: no two are alike. At least that’s what many owners and chefs of Chicago ramen-focused spots told me.
“We do these ramen battles at Yusho, and Abe [Conlon of Fat Rice] and Jason [Hammel of Lula Cafe and Nightwood] recently made two bowls where the only thing common about them were the noodles. Ramen is personality-driven,” said Yusho owner Matthias Merges, who serves ramen topped with crispy pig tail and farmers market vegetables ($15). “Ramen is very personal,” echoed Brendan Sodikoff, owner of upcoming restaurant High Five Ramen.
With three ramen-focused spots having opened since November and at least three more coming in the next few months, the idea of using ramen to communicate a chef’s style, or at least the versatility of the dish, seems to be driving a ramen revolution in Chicago.
Then again, ramen has been around since the early 20th century when Chinese immigrants served noodle bowls in street food stalls in Japan. So why is it hot now? “People travel more these days, so they know what the real thing is like and they’re demanding it,” said Satoko Takeyama, owner of Wasabi in Logan Square and in-the-works restaurant Ramen Takeya in the West Loop.
Sodikoff said that though ramen isn’t a new phenomenon, he does feel people are talking about it more. “There is just more chatter,” he said. “I think the public is becoming increasingly more educated and excited about food as they become more connected through social media.”
“People are used to having instant ramen at college and boarding school,” said Aramiexecutive chef Frederick Despres, a veteran of Takashi, where he helped pioneer the restaurant’s Sunday noodles program. “It’s a great cheap meal, but now that people have more money, they want an elevated version.”
While these chefs and restaurant owners may not agree on whether the Chicago ramen boom is really a trend, they did agree on what makes a great bowl of ramen: the seasoning and texture of both the noodles and broth. Jeff Pikus, the chef behind Sodikoff’s High Five Ramen (opening in the same building as sibling restaurant Green Street Smoked Meats), cites the flavor of the broth as well as thickness of the noodles as the keys to good ramen. “The stock is the most important,” added Merges. “You have to use good pork bones … to get out all that collagen. And the noodles are really important too. When I was younger, I went to Japan and we saw these guys standing on the dough and kneading it with their feet [to develop the gluten] to get that right chew. Despres agreed that the broth is most important, but “the garnishes are also key,” he said. “We do a house pickle that lightens the richness of the broth.”
Keeping these criteria in mind, I sampled bowls from three of the newest ramen restaurants to see whether I could find a transcendent bowl with silky broth and springy noodles.
Strings Ramen Shop
2141 S. Archer Ave. 312-374-3450
Opened: January 2014
I’ve probably had more than two dozen bowls of ramen in Chicago over the last few years, but never a broth like the one on the kurobuta and kamo (duck and pork) tonkotsu ramen ($14.95) served here. At Strings, black Berkshire hog bones are boiled for 48 hours to create a rich broth so thick it almost quivers when you dip your spoon in. As I slurped, the soup left a trace of satisfying fat on my lips. Slivers of rare duck, tender (you can order your pork fatty or lean; I went with fatty) cutlets of pork and a runny golden-yolked egg add even more richness and heft. This was also the only bowl of ramen I tried that was garnished with a square of toasted nori, which offered a crunchy contrast to the soup. Strings’ oden ramen ($10.95) featured a clearer, lighter soy-flavored broth filled with diced pork belly, though the chewy garnish of wooden-skewered seafood cakes aren’t necessarily for everyone. Both bowls featured chewy, satisfying noodles. Though they’re machine-made on-site daily, Strings’ noodles tasted the closest to a hand-pulled noodle of all the ones I tried.
806 W. Webster Ave. 773-935-3474
Opened: November 2013
So many of Lincoln Park’s Japanese restaurants are pretty but mediocre, serving slightly better than instant ramen and grocery store-level raw fish. Kameya somehow transcends that. It is so tiny (when I was there, seven people sat at a table meant for four) that if you’re not comfortable bumping butts with people you don’t know, you might stay away. Those who don’t mind near-claustrophobic conditions will be rewarded with an excellent ramen ($13.99) featuring a light and smoky broth studded with caramelized bits of beef, a nest of scallions, planks of tender bamboo, scalloped-edged fishcakes and a hard-boiled egg.
201 N. Wells St. 312-332-6878
Opened: December 2013
A soul-sucking Loop workday requires a soul-satisfying bowl of ramen. Until recently, this was tough to find. That is until Ajida, which offers five different ramens, hopped on the scene in December. I tried the shoyu ramen ($13) which featured a clear, light broth dappled with spicy chili oil, but preferred the classic shiromaru ($13) with its garlicky broth, pink strands of pungent pickled ginger, lava-centered soft-boiled egg and chewy square noodles (made fresh daily, according to my server). The best part of the bowl was the chashu, or pork belly roulade, covered in a sweet soy glaze and broiled until the outside was crispy and the inside was melting. Of the six bowls I sampled for this article—and five of six contained some pork—there was no tastier pork garnish.
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.