#1: Slurping Turtle (31/35 points)—Tori Ramen ($13):
Noodles: 9/10 Yaghashi's noodles are custom-made following his own recipe exclusively for his restaurants. It shows. Showing superb texture and resiliency, they also absorb hints of flavor from the broth, making them extra scrumptious.
Broth: 9/10 The balance and depth of flavor of the shio-style (salt) broth was incredibly satisfying, just as a truly excellent bowl of ramen should be. Savory but not overly salty, the chicken flavor is rich, well pronounced, and delicious.
Toppings: 4/5 The standard toppings on the Tori Ramen include slices of white-meat chicken, whole heads of baby bok choy, green onion, snow peas, and a soft-poached egg. All were excellent except the poached egg, which arrived with a slightly overcooked yolk. Instead of oozing yellow goodness when punctured, the egg yielded a seized—but nevertheless delicious—orangey center.
Overall Satisfaction: 9/10 Slurping Turtle is a handsome, modern space with great service and a menu that goes well beyond ramen…not that you have to stray far from the main event to have an epic, rattle-to-you-core meal.
#2: Santouka at Mitsuwa Marketplace (30/35)—Special Toroniku Shio Ramen (Small, $9.49)
Noodles: 9/10 Showcasing just the right amount of bounce, these bright yellow noodles were able to hold their own against the strongly flavored pork.
Broth: 9/10 Their shio broth is astonishingly complex, with a slightly creamy consistency and seemingly endless depth. Though it is referred to as salt broth on the translated menu, it's only mildly salty. Simply outstanding.
Toppings: 4/5 toppings The regular bowl features pork belly, but an upgrade for toroniku is an absolute must. Featuring supremely tender sliced pork cheek, this is one of the most flavorful toppings encountered during the search. When ordered, the toppings are also served on the side, so you can add in as much or as little as you'd like.
Overall Satisfaction: 8/10 Located inside the very busy Japanese grocery store, Mitsuwa Marketplace, this food court is a total immersion into another culture. While fun, it's also still a food court, and it can be hard to track down a place to sit on a busy Saturday.
#3: Takashi (29/35)—Shoyu Ramen ($13.00)
Noodles: 7/10 Featuring the same specimens as Takashi's Slurping Turtle, these noodles are usually some of the best around. But on this visit, they were slightly overcooked.
Broth: 9/10 This is where Takashi truly shines. The soy sauce broth is clean and complex, with just a few fat bubbles speckled on top to give it some body. It's as refined as anyone could or should want their ramen. Don't be surprised if your done with the broth before anything else.
Toppings: 4/5 Too often the pork sampled on this quest was tender but bland, but not here. The barbecued pork is rich, just slightly sweet, and still toothsome. The egg also had the perfect balance of runny yolk and firm white.
Overall Satisfaction: 9/10 Though it's slightly annoying that the noodles are only available on Sundays, the service is impeccable and the setting is tranquil. There may be no better room in Chicago to slurp ramen in.
#4: Noodles By Takashi Yagihashi (28/35 points)—Mushroom Tofu Ramen ($9.95)
Noodles: 7/10 Springy and wavy, the noodles in this bowl have a nice bounce and arrive nearly perfectly cooked. Unfortunately, in a bowl dominated by toppings and accoutrement, it would have been nice to have a noodle with slightly more oomph, more presence.
Broth: 9/10 This shoyu (soy) broth is all kinds of good. It dances between bursts of spice, saltiness, and umami, delivering a rich and complex flavor profile, while remaining light and properly salted. For a vegetarian soup, that's impressive. With a bit less oil, this broth would be all but flawless.
Toppings: 4/5 Silky tofu cubes, diced Japanese eggplant, shiitake and trumpet royal mushrooms, bamboo shoots, minced scallion, and sliced bok choy round out the toppings of this hearty, rustic ramen. Although that may sound like too much of a mouthful, each element is a unique treat lending its own texture and flavor. It works. We suspect the veggies and mushrooms are stir-fried beforehand, which ensures that they're tender, juicy, and just a tad caramelized when they hit the broth.
Overall Satisfaction: 8/10 Much of the ramenized world is accustomed to slurping their noodles in massive food courts, and the Macy's food court sure does have a great view. But what can we say, we prefer at least a modicum of intimacy and ambiance when I belly up to a bowl. Convenient, fast, and inexpensive, yes. Quiet, clean and welcoming, no.
Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi, 111 North State Street, 7th Floor, Chicago, IL 60686 (map); 312-781-4483
#5: Roka Akor (28/35 points)—Ramen Noodles in Master Stock with Prawns & Scallops ($15)
Noodles: 9/10 Roka Akor's generous tangle of thin, wavy noodles were shockingly good and easily bore the best "spring" of any we ate—robust, yet not weighty or dense. By virtue of the presentation (high noodle-to-broth ratio), we suspect the chefs realize the strong suit of this dish and have chosen to flaunt it.
Broth: 7/10 Really, the broth is playing a supporting role to the noodles and toppings in this bowl. Tasty, but no fireworks to speak of.
Toppings: 5/5 Kind of an embarrassment-of-riches situation. In the bowl: grilled shrimp and scallop and earthy shitake mushrooms; on a side plate: barbecued pork garnished with thinly sliced jalapeño, and cubed tofu with pickled ginger. The seafood was fresh and well seasoned, the mushrooms were earthy and meaty. The tofu was the only misstep—it was bland and cut too large—but it hardly mattered with everything else to indulge in.
Overall Satisfaction: 7/10 Roka Akor only serves its ramen at lunch when the clientele is sparse and the dining room feels big and empty. But, figuring in the miso soup and nicely dressed salad, this lunch offering is a surprising value at $15.
#6: Arami (26/35)—Arami Ramen ($15)
Noodles: 7/10 Featuring a decent amount of spring in each bite, if not nearly as much as others, these were still perfectly solid.
Broth: 8/10 Deep and rich, this was one of the most soul-satisfying broths encountered. Unfortunately, when the runny yolk was mixed in, it became a little too rich.
Toppings: 3/5 This is the only place that used beef instead of pork, and it totally worked. The meat was tender, but not too fatty. Though the egg was perfectly cooked, once the yolk mixed in with everything else, the flavors seemed dulled. Poached eggs are pretty much always delicious, but this is a bowl that didn't need any more richness.
Overall Satisfaction: 8/10 The backroom is charming and comfortable, and the service is responsive.
#7: Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar (27/35 points)—Oxtail Ramen ($13)
Noodles: 5/10 Union opts for a flat, wide noodle for its Oxtail Ramen. They're a little bit heavy, a little bit starchy, and a little bit limp.
Broth: 8/10 From the taste of it, Union's ramen broth has a tomato base, not unlike some traditional Western oxtail soup recipes. It's unexpected, and we happened to like it a lot. Is it really a ramen broth? Well, that's up for debate.
Toppings: 4/5 We have onion, pickle chili, mushrooms, crispy tofu, Napa cabbage, ginger, grilled tomato, and parmesan. Oh, and a sizable amount of slow-cooked, fallen-off-the-bone oxtail meat. A nice melody of diverse textures and big flavors.
Overall Satisfaction: 8/10 We like the dining room at Union. The graffiti-colored walls, the floor-to-ceiling photos of Japan's urban landscape—it puts us in the mood to eat copious amounts of street food. And for the most part, the kitchen doesn't disappoint.
#8: Urban Belly (24/35)—Urban Belly Ramen ($13)
Noodles: 7/10 These wavy-style noodles are totally respectable and have a good spring to them.
Broth: 8/10 Totally unlike any other broths in the roundup, and that's the point. Bill Kim instead uses a phở-like base here, which brings in all kinds of other spices and aromas. This may not please the traditionalists, but works in every other capacity. It's also light and vibrant—a perfect bowl when its warmer outside.
Toppings: 2/5 The pork belly is incredibly tender, but it's also kind of boring. Also, the mushrooms and radish look good, but get kind of lost in the mix.
Overall Satisfaction: 7/10 Considering it is located in a strip mall, Urban Belly is strangely serene and peaceful during lunch, while becoming convivial and packed at night.
#9: Wasabi (23/35)—Tonkotsu Ramen ($12)
Noodles: 7/10 Another batch of acceptable, if unexceptional, noodles. The standard here is surprisingly high.
Broth: 7/10 Rather than earth-shattering, this Tonkotsu broth is comforting and a little one dimensional. More complexity would have been appreciated, but it definitely warms you up.
Toppings: 3/5 Though not as mind-blowingly awesome as Santouka's own version, the pork cheek served here is tender and flavorful. We wish the rest of the toppings were given as much care.
Overall Satisfaction: 6/10 Wasabi's menu is all over the place, and the room borders on too dimly lit. Service is good, though.
#10: Ginza Restaurant (20/35 points)—Tonkotsu Ramen ($10.50)
Noodles: 5/10 Simply described as "yellow" on the menu, the noodles in Ginza's Tonkotsu Ramen are, like pretty much everything else making up this bowl, pretty standard issue. Good but not great, in other words. More al dente than firm, they lack any discernible personality.
Broth: 6/10 Tonkotsu is one of a handful of mother ramen broths, typically made from pork bones and fat. Ginza's is a respectable example—if slightly salty—with a thick cloudiness and a strong kick of picked ginger.
Toppings: 2/5 This bowl comes dressed with fishcake (which I could always do without), slices of pork, seaweed, pickled ginger, scallion and sesame seeds. The real loser here is the pork, which lacks any boldness or memorable depth of flavor.
Overall Satisfaction: 7/10 Ginza is old and tired, with algae-fogged fishtanks and vinyl-upholstered chairs straight out of an '80s catering hall. But it's also awesome for all the same reasons. And the staff couldn't be nicer.
Ginza Restaurant, 19 East Ohio Street, Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 312-222-0600
#11: Chizakaya (19/35)—House Ramen ($12)
Noodles: 7/10 Like a lot of places on this list, the noodles were surprisingly good, if not transcendent.
Broth: 5/10 Very fatty, and also a touch spicy, the broth was great at first. But it's a little too aggressive, and then becomes totally out of whack when the egg yolk is mixed in.
Toppings: 2/5 Once again, the pork belly was tender but not very exciting. And the aforementioned egg was well cooked, but that yolk kind of messes with the balance of everything else.
Overall Satisfaction: 5/10 Though always lively, this is more of a place to get little fatty things on skewers. The ramen, while very good, isn't as much fun.
#12: Yusho (17/35)—The Logan "Poser" Ramen ($13.00)
Noodles: 4/10 Considering the majority of places served perfectly decent noodles, it was a real disappointment to find this bowl filled with overcooked noodles that lacked texture.
Broth: 7/10 The noodles were especially frustrating since the broth was so good. Features loads of bonito flakes, it was warming and satisfying. That was, until we broke the egg...
Toppings: 1/5 The crispy pig tail balls on top were stunning. But the duck egg came nearly undercooked. Normally, we're cool with nearly raw eggs, but not when they mess up our bowl of ramen. Since duck eggs are even richer than chicken eggs, the yolk steamrolled over every other flavor in the bowl.
Overall Satisfaction: 5/10 Yusho is one of the most exciting new restaurants to open this year, but that's mostly due to the grilled items. Stick with them for now.
#13: Cocoro (12/35 points)—Miso Yasai Ramen ($12.75)
Noodles: 2/10 The biggest disappointment of the ramen journey took place at Cocoro, where we've had good ramen in the past. But on a recent visit, we were served a daunting amount of increasingly mushy, overcooked noodles.
Broth: 3/10 A bowl of ramen is a living, changing entity, with noodles continuing to cook in hot broth as the bowl sits composed. In this case, the bland miso broth slowly took on the characteristics of bitter, funky, unappetizing cabbage soup.
Toppings: 2/5 Cocoro is very generous with the toppings in its Miso Yasai (vegetable) Ramen: bean sprouts, julienne carrot, grilled cabbage, onion, and sesame seed. And the sesame add a nice nutty flavor in the mix. But the overall effect of the toppings is to clutter the bowl and turn off the diner.
Overall Satisfaction: 5/10 Like that of any good cozy neighborhood establishment, the service at Cocoro is friendly and attentive. But you get the sense that they're going through the motions.
The Best Ramen in Chicago
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.