Oh baby, it's Ramen Week at Serious Eats! Just think of all the drool christening keyboards right now. Actually, don't think about that. Instead think back to December 2011. Serious Eats Chicago was just a few months old, and one of the first major assignments I took on, along with editor Nick Kindelsperger, was to seek out the best ramen in town. Heady days, those were. "This year seemed to be the tipping point," we wrote at the time, "as a whole new group of restaurants popped up with a desire to do things right."
With Ramen Week upon us, it made sense to turn fresh eyes on Chicago's ramen landscape. And what I found was a lot of change. One of the spots that made our list back then has since closed its doors (Chizakaya). Another has opted to discontinue its ramen service (Takashi). Menus have been shuffled. Chefs have shuffled. A few places (Slurping Turtle, Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar) have taken the ambitious step to produce their own noodles in-house. Even Aviary, the lab-like cocktail lounge, got into the ramen game for a hot second. If there's anything consistent about the state of ramen in Chicago, it's that it's seemingly ever in flux.
Then we have the newcomers. Another awesome Japanese chain (Misoya) has landed in the suburbs, adding more credence to the argument that Chicago's best ramen isn't actually in Chicago. You can now get ramen on the fly at Streeterville's Arami Go! And a Korean chef is presenting an irreverent take on traditional ramen at Oiistar.
Before we dive in, it's also worth mentioning that the local ramen scene promises even more change in the near future. Brendan Sodikoff's Hogsalt restaurant group is poised to open a yet-unnamed ramen shop in the West Loop. Chef Nobuo Kotake's Strings Ramen Shop is coming soon to Chinatown. Today is a great time to be a ramen lover in Chicago, and tomorrow could be even better.
We awarded points for four different factors:
- The Noodles (10 points): The days of cheap packaged noodles are long gone. Instead, we looked for noodles with spring and bounce, but not necessarily bite. Above all, they should not be mushy. Nothing is worse than a limp noodle in a bowl of ramen.
- The Broth (10 points): Great broth is the soul of ramen. But trying to describe all the intricacies is surprisingly hard. We knew the broth should be clean but complex, with just enough fat to lend body. But the indescribable was also important.
- The Toppings (5 points): For the most part, it is all about the pork. The slices could come from the belly, cheek, or loin; regardless, they should be tender and luscious, not tough and stringy. Eggs are always a good idea, but they shouldn't completely overwhelm the bowl. A supremely runny yolk doesn't always work. The other toppings, usually bamboo shoots and scallions, should provide texture, while adding to whole experience.
- Overall Satisfaction (10 points): Service should be friendly and courteous. Though the flavor of the ramen is paramount, extra points were given to places that had an atmosphere that enhanced each bite.
Here's the lineup (in alphabetical order):
- Arami Go!'s Pork Belly Miso Ramen ($12)
- Cocoro's Miso Yasai Ramen ($12.75)
- Ginza Restaurant's Tonkotsu Ramen ($10.50)
- Juno's Duck Ramen ($14)
- Misoya's Kome Miso Cha-shu Ramen ($12.40)
- Noodles By Takashi's Mushroom Tofu Ramen ($9.95)
- Oiistar's Oiimen Ramen ($13.50)
- Santouka's Special Toroniku Shio Ramen (Small, $9.49)
- Slurping Turtle's Shoyu Wonton Ramen ($13)
- Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar's Spicy Pigtail Ramen ($13)
- Urban Belly's Urban Belly Ramen ($13)
- Wasabi's Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen ($12)
- Yusho's The Logan "Poser" Ramen ($13.00)
The recent arrival of an outpost of the Misoya ramen-shop chain, in a strip mall located in the Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect, sets a new benchmark for quality in the Chicago area. Every element is so well executed—from the rich, savory miso broth to the bright, fresh toppings—that you just want to dive in and demolish this ramen. It satisfies on that deep, visceral level that superb ramen should. The array of available toppings gives you the freedom to create a meal customized to your tastes, and even the most heavily garnished, cluttered-up bowl still manages to come off as harmonious. (I find that certain toppings, like kimchi, are best ordered on the side, so you can incorporate them yourself.)
If you live in the city and love ramen, right about now you're probably saying, "Mt. Prospect? Really?" Alas, this location, surely chosen to serve a local enclave of Japanese-Americans, is a good 20 miles from downtown Chicago. And so for many of us it falls into that category of destination ramen joints that includes Santouka, in the food court of the Mitsuwa Japanese market. All I can say is, make the pilgrimage if you can.
Here's hoping that despite it's far-flung location, Misoya serves as a rising ride that lifts all bowls—perhaps by compelling its peers to get more ambitious with their ramen programing, or by attracting more Japan-based chains to set up shop closer to downtown. For now, anybody want to set up a carpool?
For a full breakdown of the lineup, click through the slideshow above.