#1: Misoya (31/35) — Kome Miso Cha-shu Ramen ($12.40, not including additional toppings)
Noodles: 10/10 Unimpeachable. You simply cannot argue with their snap, thickness, and robust texture. The springy wobble of elasticity suggests the dough's gluten content has been honed to a razor-sharp precision. What's more, they just taste delicious—noticeably wheaty and impeccably fresh.
Broth: 9/10 As the name suggests, this ramen house specializes in miso broth, which, if all the literature taped up around the restaurant is to be believed, has a laundry list of health benefits. (Nullified by the monster helpings of pork, perhaps?) Hokkaido-style kome miso is one of three broth subcategories Misoya has to offer and is arguably the punchiest. Made with rice, Misoya's kome miso broth is intensely rich, powerfully salty, and mouthwateringly savory. Each indulgent slurp entices you toward the next.
Toppings: 4/5 In the vein of traditional Japanese ramen-ya, Misoya has an entire menu page devoted to toppings with which to garnish your ramen, from sweet corn to scallion to kimchi to miso-inoculated soft eggs. True to its name, this particular bowl includes slices of miso-flavored sliced pork (aka chashu) that is flash-grilled over fire right before being served, lending each bite a touch of char and smoky-sweetness. And were it not for the mushy wedges of potato that come standard with Misoya's ramen, this bowl would have easily aced the toppings test; all the other garnishes I tried tasted great.
Overall Satisfaction: 8/10 Service is cheerful and attentive, but not without...let's call it the minimalism of suburban fast-casual dining. There's not much by way of ambiance, but the same is true of countless ramen joints in Japan, where the Misoya chain originated. Besides, once your ramen arrives, what's in the bowl is going to monopolize your attention. The biggest disappointment is simply that this noodle gold mine, located in Mt. Prospect, is so darn far away from Chicago proper.
#2: Santouka at Mitsuwa Marketplace (30/35) — Special Toroniku Shio Ramen (Small, $9.49)
Our review from 2011:
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 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: Slurping Turtle (29/35 points) — Shoyu Wonton Ramen ($13)
Noodles: 10/10 When Slurping Turtle first opened, not too long before our first ramen round-up was published, chef Takashi Yagihashi was sourcing his noodles from a California supplier that was executing his recipe. Now they're made in the restaurant's basement to the chef's exacting specifications, leading to a fresher product with more wheat flavor (see the process here). The closeness and care pay dividends.
Broth: 7/10 Shoyu broth is typically on the more delicate side compared with, say, porky, lip-smacking tonkotsu broth, but I still think this one could use a little more oomph. Delicious nevertheless.
Toppings: 4/5 Love the wontons! Love the crunchy Chinese broccoli! Love the onsen egg!
Overall Satisfaction: 8/10 Slurping Turtle's tori ramen, which topped our list in 2011, has proven to be rather elusive. Sometimes it's available, sometimes not. In fact, the ramen offerings at ST change pretty often, it turns out, based on ingredients and seasonality. That's understandable but bothersome when you are stricken by a craving. That said, despite the unpredictability of the menu, Slurping Turtle is one of my most beloved, most reliable spots to get ramen in this town.
#4: Noodles By Takashi Yagihashi (28/35 points) — Mushroom Tofu Ramen ($9.95)
Our review from 2011:
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 N State St, Chicago, IL, (map)
#5: Oiistar (26/35) — Oiimen Ramen ($13.50)
Oiistar is one of the newcomers to the ramen scene in Chicago, opening its doors last December. I reviewed the ramen about a month after Oiistar opened and observed both signs of promise and a few disappointments. The noodles, in particular, were a letdown. "They're made in-house, which in and of itself is admirable, but there was something off about their flavor and texture," I wrote at the time. "There is a perceptible grittiness to their bite and a floury flatness to their flavor that keeps these noodles from being compelling." Upon revisiting Oiistar recently for this round-up, I'm happy to report a much-improved noodle, among other tasty traits.
Noodles: 8/10 Taut and wire-thin, Oiistar's noodles have become a pleasing bright spot of its ramen program. There's practically a snap to their bite, and no sign of mealy grit.
Broth: 8/10 The tonkotsu-style broth anchoring Oiistar's flagship ramen is very solid—meaty, rich, and velvety. It coats your insides the way a good tonkotsu should. It's not as earth-shakingly robust as a real heroic tonkotsu can be, but three's no question you're in flavor country. The menu promises a finishing touch of "spicy oil"; there was definitely a slick of oil atop the broth, but there just wasn't all that much heat there. When it comes to ramen, if you invoke spice, it had better be there! Points off.
Toppings: 3/5 Very tasty chashu. The bowl would be better served by more generous helpings of the scallion and mushroom, though.
Overall Satisfaction: 7/10 The music soundtrack remains as awesome as I remember it. The service is enthusiastic and warm. I like eating here.
#6 (tied): Juno (25/35) — Duck Ramen ($14)
The former chef of Arami, B.K. Park, opened Juno earlier this year and has brought his flair for noodles with him. Interestingly, Juno's ramen clocks in at #6 on this list, precisely where Park's ramen landed in our previous round-up (Arami's eponymous ramen scored a 26/35 in 2011).
Noodles: 7/10 While not standouts by any means, Juno's ramen noodles have presence and bite.
Broth: 7/10 Some critics have found fault in the duck ramen broth at Juno. It worked its charms on me. Granted, it lacked the heft and silky texture of a truly epic ramen broth, but the resonantly meaty flavor kept my interest all the way through.
Toppings: 4/5 I admittedly love duck, so I was so glad to really taste it in this bowl, where its telltale flavor comes through in the tender pieces of meat. The soft egg was amazingly soft. I'm sure there were other nice garnishes, but I don't much recall—I was transfixed on the generous portion of finely cooked fowl.
Overall Satisfaction: 7/10 The service staff at Juno seem very well-versed in the menu and offer sound advice in navigating it. The space feels somewhat under-designed but still comes off as fairly hip.
Juno Restaurant, 2638 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, IL, (map)
#6 (tied): Union Sushi + Barbeque Bar (25/35 points)--Spicy Pigtail Ramen ($13)
Noodles: 8/10 Since this citywide ramen examination was last performed, Union Sushi has taken the ambitious step to make all of its ramen noodles in-house, by hand, following a recipe that includes precise proportions of three different flours. The extra work pays off with thick, plump, light, extremely fresh-tasting noodles.
Broth: 7/10 Meaty, dark, and savory. Not terribly thick, but flavorful.
Toppings: 3/5 The poached egg and crisp fried onions make nice additions to this bowl.
Overall Satisfaction: 7/10 I was sad to see Union's oxtail ramen depart the menu (it ranked #7 in our 2011 round-up), but the spicy pigtail carries the torch well.
#7: Urban Belly (24/35) — Urban Belly Ramen ($13)
Our review from 2011:
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.
#8: Arami Go! (22/35) — Pork Belly Miso Ramen ($12)
This grab-and-go offshoot of the West Town sushi restaurant Arami opened last year in Streeterville, offering bento boxes, sashimi, and a few varieties of ramen "for home or office dining," says Go!'s website.
Noodles: 8/10 I really got down with the ramen noodles at Arami Go! Lots of bite there.
Broth: 6/10 The miso broth is very savory but fairly one-note.
Toppings: 2/5 The pork belly is super juicy and smoky from on-the-spot grilling. But consume your allotment of meat and there's hardly any garnish left with which to construct intricate spoonfuls—one of the joys of eating ramen. Some bits of kimchi swim around with fish cake and thinly sliced carrot (an odd choice if you ask me), but those don't feel like enough.
Overall Satisfaction: 6/10 Between the lack of decor and the fish-bowl lighting, I don't like eating at Arami Go! But I also wouldn't want to risk the noodle decay by getting ramen there to take home. Points off for creating this avoidable dilemma for ramen lovers.
#9: Ginza Restaurant (20/35 points) — Tonkotsu Ramen ($10.50)
Our review from 2011:
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, 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,19 E Ohio St (btwn State & Wabash), Chicago, IL, (map)
#10: Yusho (17/35) — The Logan "Poser" Ramen ($13.00)
We had mixed feelings about Yusho's lone ramen offering back in late 2011, as you can see in the scores and explanations reproduced below. At that time the Logan Square Japanese yakitori spot had only been open a short while. Although we did not re-review Yusho's ramen for this update, there are strong indications the restaurant has gotten more ambitious with its ramen program. Now every Sunday customers can partake in a special noodle-centric prix fixe menu that includes three varieties of ramen.
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.
#11: Wasabi (16/35 points) — Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen ($12)
Wasabi's tonkotsu ramen earned the #9 spot on our previous ramen round-up, back in 2011, with predominantly satisfactory components. I had hoped that upon returning to Wasabi, I'd encounter a kitchen that's taken its game to the next level in the interim. Disappointingly, this wasn't the case. The spicy garlic miso ramen is the current menu's standout bowl, but it doesn't compare favorably when stacked up against the tough competition on this list.
Noodles: 3/10 Sourced from a California supplier, Wasabi's ramen noodles arrived harshly overcooked on a recent visit. They lacked the spring, firmness, and bite one looks for in ramen noodles, and instead were mushy and clumpy in spots. Problematic to begin with or mishandled by the kitchen? Hard to say.
Broth: 6/10 A relative highlight, the garlic miso broth had a nice richness and tasty garlic flavor. I could see this broth feeling comforting and curative on a chilly day.
Toppings: 2/5 A decent soft egg comes with this bowl, but the other garnishes just don't have much presence here.
Overall Satisfaction: 5/10 The dining room is still as overly dim as it was in 2011. The service is pleasant enough, although I found it troubling when I alerted my server to the overcooked soba noodles in a bowl of Wasabi's vegan ramen, and her response was that that's just how soba noodles are.
#12: Cocoro (12/35 points) — Miso Yasai Ramen ($12.75)
Our review from 2011:
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.