The ramen scene in the River North neighborhood of Chicago continues to up to ante. Last year, we got Slurping Turtle. About three months ago, another pork-laden shot in the arm came with the arrival of Dragon Ranch Moonshine & BBQ, the latest concept from the Rockit Ranch restaurant group. This spot, which mixes classic Southern American barbecue with Asian influences, serves an uber-meaty, pork- and chicken-broth-based tonkotsu ramen alongside the customary brisket and mac & cheese. Not only is the broth painstakingly made from scratch in-house, but so are the ramen noodles—no small undertaking to say the least. Then, just three weeks ago, word began to circulate that Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar also made the switch from commercial to housemade noodles for its three ramen offerings (spicy pigtail, vegetarian mushroom, and short rib, which recently replaced Union longstanding oxtail ramen). Intrigued by the sudden push toward housemade noodles, I had to investigate.
Thankfully the kitchen staffs at both restaurants were happy to oblige. Chef Worachai Thapthimkuna (Chef Chao) of Union and Sous Chef Shaun Connolly of Dragon Ranch graciously allowed me behind-the-scenes access to observe how they craft their ramen noodles from scratch, as well as how finished bowls of ramen are built to order. Interestingly, each chef has landed on different ingredients, tools, and techniques for making his ramen noodles, while of course sharing a similar dedication to the qualities that make a superior noodles.
Chao developed a recipe that includes three different flours and requires lots of refrigerated resting time. What's more, due its gluten and moisture content, the dough couldn't be properly cut into strands by the spaghetti attachment on a traditional hand-cranking pasta machine. But after attending a conference of Japanese and American chefs in Napa, California, Chao picked up a handy technique from the celebrated American-born and Tokyo-based ramen chef Ivan Orkin, which resulted in a slightly broader noodle.
Connolly's approach calls for extensive drying and chilling time, and the use of a dissolved alkaline salt made from baking soda that Connolly bakes himself. He spent years working at Italian restaurants making pasta, and has brought his expertise and quick hand to bear on this venture into ramen noodles. In speaking with both chefs, it was clear they shared a desire to bring as much of the preparation process of their ramens under their own control. The results are impressive—their noodles have the presence, resiliency, and bite that's hard, if not impossible, to coax out of the store-bought stuff.