Lunch in the Loop

Reviews of restaurants in the Loop.

Lunch in the Loop: Ramen and Skewers at Ajida

Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.

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[Photographs: Dennis Lee]

While the onslaught of new ramen restaurants seems to have died down a bit lately, Ajida opened up quietly on Wells just over a month ago. I'm used to ramen stands being a little beat up and homey looking, but that's probably just the Asian romantic in me. Mostly because I am, in fact, Asian. But Ajida is pretty and sleek, with a menu that focuses mostly on ramen, a few standard Japanese-American appetizers, and grilled skewers.

The idea of a hot bowl of ramen for lunch is appealing since this winter will not stop punching us in the private parts. My boots have seriously not seen this much use since I was a kid in snowpants. I wish I still had snowpants, though. I'd probably look fantastic in them. Or I'd look like an overgrown child who likes to eat a lot of food before rolling around in all those dirty snowheaps around the city.

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If you want to start off your meal with a few small bites, check out the kushi yakimono and kushi age mono section of the menu. When I asked the waiter about what the cheese yakitori ($2.50) were like (chicken and cheese skewers), he raised an eyebrow and said, "You've never had chicken and cheese before?" I looked sheepishly down at the table while he and Mr. Editor Nick shared a good laugh. I have, in fact, had chicken and cheese before, thank you very much.

The chicken is nicely charred and juicy, despite the fact that the bits are all white meat, and the cheese on top is mild, while not adding a whole lot of flavor. If anything, the chicken is somewhat underseasoned, but if you're not looking for a flavor-punch, they'll work for you. The sweet potato kushi age mono ($2.50) are skewers of sweet potato medallions that have been deep fried in panko breadcrumbs, and they're what you'd imagine—starchy sweet potato with a crunchy breading that is a touch oily. The sweet potato is a tad bit undercooked; they'd fare a lot better if they were par-cooked before they took their hot oil bath.

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And now onto the stars of the show: the bowls of ramen. The shiromaru classic ramen is tonkatsu (pork-broth) based, topped with mushrooms, fish cake, ginger, green onions, and a soft-boiled egg. You have your choice of meat, and what better to pair a pork broth with than pork?

If you look carefully, the broth is fairly clear, meaning it doesn't have a lot of the gelatin you get from simmering bones and protein for a long time. It's thin and not particularly flavorful. As to the noodles, they seem a little soft and don't have that springy chew you typically expect from ramen.

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The other bowl suggested by our server was the shoyu ramen ($13), which is a soy sauce and pork broth based soup. You also get a choice of protein with this bowl, including pork, beef, chick, or snow crab. I picked the snow crab, because, hey, how often do you get to have snow crab for an affordable lunch? The broth also suffers the same unfortunate flatness, but there's a little mound of spicy chili mixture you can blend into your broth, giving it some much needed pep. Between the two, I recommend this one; and while you get two whole crab legs that you have to pick at by hand, it's not a problem since they're split for easy digging. I do have to say, though, both bowls are presented beautifully.

Another tip: From 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., you can get a killer deal: two bowls of ramen for the price of one. If you're tired after work or you're on a budget, you can stop in and get two take-out orders for $13. Even if the bowls aren't perfect, you can't waggle your finger at a good deal. You can, however, waggle your finger at me, while I'm in my snowpants and boots, stomping in slush puddles around the city.

About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.

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