#1: Slurping Turtle
Until a few years ago, ramen and Chicago didn't seem to get along very well. While New York and L.A. experienced a surge in joints dedicated to producing impeccable bowls of deeply flavored broth filled with bouncy noodles, the ramen in Chicago felt merely tacked on to sushi menus and—at best—unloved. That has slowly been changing, but this year seemed to be the tipping point, as a whole new group of restaurants popped up with a desire to do things right. It seemed like the perfect time to reevaluate the scene.
Plus, when is it ever a bad idea to go out and eat a bunch of ramen?
Even though we were filled with enthusiasm, we were surprised at the number of quality places. Some had definite room for improvement, but there certainly hasn't been a better time to eat ramen in Chicago than right now.
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.
What started as a list of 8 soon ballooned to 13, as we grew selfish and kept wanting to eat more ramen. (Can you blame us?) Part of that was due to the fact that the standard was surprisingly high. The noodles were especially consistent, with most serving up batches with a good amount of spring. The toppings were also pretty good all around, though we did run into a little runny egg issue. Still, the top joints were set apart by their broth. (The same factor came into play with SE New York's own ramen list.)
The final list featured a mix of old and new, along with three different places from Chicago's most famous ramen practitioner, Takashi Yagihashi. (Hey, he did write a whole book on the subject.) That includes the Slurping Turtle, which opened up a few weeks ago.
Here's the lineup (in alphabetical order):
- Arami's Arami Ramen ($15)
- Chizakaya's House Ramen ($12)
- Cocoro's Miso Yasai Ramen ($12.75)
- Ginza Restaurant's Tonkotsu Ramen ($10.50)
- Noodles By Takashi's Mushroom Tofu Ramen ($9.95)
- Roka Akor's Ramen Noodles in Master Stock with Prawns & Scallops ($15)
- Santouka's Special Toroniku Shio Ramen (Small, $9.49)
- Slurping Turtle's Tori Ramen ($13)
- Takashi's Shoyu Ramen ($13.00)
- Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar's Oxtail Ramen ($13)
- Urban Belly's Urban Belly Ramen ($13)
- Wasabi's Tonkotsu Ramen ($12)
- Yusho's The Logan "Poser" Ramen ($13.00)
Considering he had three places in the list, Takashi Yagihashi did have a good sporting chance at taking the top spot. But the Slurping Turtle was the unanimous winner for all the right reasons. Though the noodles aren't made in house, they are made from Yagihashi's own recipe, and they were the best of the bunch. The toppings were thoughtful and properly proportioned. But it was the incomparable broth that set it over the top. Stunningly complex and haunting, it was also never overbearing. We are sure that the other bowls at Slupring Turtle are probably just as good, but there was something remarkable about this one.
For a full breakdown of the lineup, click through the slideshow above.