From corner sushi shops to chef-driven splurges, there’s no shortage of steaming, noodle-filled bowls in the Windy City. What’s happened in the last couple of years is nothing short of a ramen renaissance in Chicago.
Once associated with cheap college fare in North America – recall those curly mops of dried noodles found in crinkly cellophane wrappers with tiny foil seasoning packets? – ramen has exploded onto the restaurant scene in the United States, Canada and beyond, proving itself worthy of the world outside the university residence.
Invented in China, the ramen now reaching North America is for the most part prepared in the Japanese style. Real ramen is a hearty, salty noodle soup. It relies on the decadently opaque broth, which is usually the product of pork bones stewed for hours on end. Finally, ramen wouldn’t be complete without being topped with a few extras, which typically include slices of pork and soft-boiled egg (vegetarian, vegan and beef versions exist, too).
Still trying to wrap your head around the idea of ramen as a fine food? Here are a few places to be persuaded.
This small neighbourhood joint in Lakeview, known for its Asian street food, cranks out huge bowls of six different types of rich ramen, including a vegan version and one with Korean kimchi. If you’re feeling adventurous, this is also the spot to order a serving of fried silk caterpillars or crispy octopus balls (known as takoyaki, these are the addictive signature street food of Osaka).
3227 N. Clark St., 773-661-6182
This elegant Japanese restaurant is well worth the splurge. Expect a gorgeous dining room and remarkable attention to detail in every dish. For a meal you won’t find elsewhere, opt for the Windy City-inspired “Chitown ramen,” with Italian beef ribeye and house-made giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables, popular in Chicago). Visit on Wednesdays and you can get any of the five noodle bowls – there’s a vegetarian soba option – with a Japanese beer or glass of sake for $15. Save room for the takoyaki, a specialty here (described as “octopus beignets” on the menu).
3056 N. Lincoln Ave., 872-206-8553
Comfort food reaches a new level in the so-rich-it’s-opaque bowl of tonkotsu ramen at Logan Square’s Wasabi. That colour is the result of nearly 45 hours of cooking Berkshire pork, which is known in Japan as “kurobuta” (and tender kurobuta is to pork what kobe is to beef). Wasabi is decidedly casual, but the ramen, sushi and other dishes are plated so beautifully it could be fine dining. Bonus: Wasabi has a BYOB licence, so you can create your own ramen-and-drink pairing.
2115 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-227-8180
Japanese meets Italian, French and Indian at Oiistar, a cozy Wicker Park favourite where the ramen flavours are as unique as they come. Top billing goes to the “tikkamen,” a Pangaea of chicken, masala, bean sprout, nori and roasted sesame; “spicy veggimen,” with mixed greens, tofu, peppers, mushroom, avocado; and the “musclemen” with mussels, onion, chili pepper, scallion and bonito miso. Save room for dessert, which is just as inspired: the crème brûlée is topped with “espresso caviar” and the cinnamon-sugar bao donut is one for the ages.
1385 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-360-8791
Furious Spoon Ramen Shop
Ramen is in the genes for Michelin-starred chef Shin Thompson, whose grandfather ran a ramen shop in Japan in the 1960s. Thompson carries on that tradition today in Wicker Park, where diners slurp furiously – hence the name – on cold and hot ramen, which are the only entrée options on the menu. Diners do get a choice about which toppings to add, and these include white pepper chicken, poached egg, cabbage, garlic relish and more. Open late, it’s casual (order at the front, grab a number and grab a stool or bench) and perpetually energetic – traits that make this ramen spot a siren song to the post-bar crowd.
1571 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773.687.8445
Chef Bill Kim, who made a name for himself working with Chicago greats such as Charlie Trotter, has spiced up the Chicago culinary scene with Urbanbelly (and his other restaurants, Belly Shack and BellyQ), located in the trendy West Loop. There’s just one ramen on the menu, a house version with braised pork belly, mushrooms, egg and a light, pho-like broth spiced with cinnamon. This one heaping bowl makes Urbanbelly entirely worth the trip.
1400 W. Randolph St., 773.583.0500
CLICK TO ENLARGE
1. Four Belly; 2. Ani; 3. Wasabi; 4. Oiistar; 5. Furious Spoon; 6. Urbanbelly.