Before we go any further, let me just say that if you have never seen the movie Tampopo, do yourself a favor and rent it. But before you do, make sure one of the five places below are open, because you’re going to be jones-ing for a bowl of ramen immediately afterward. True, most of the restaurants in Chicago don’t make the noodles themselves, but the good ones either have someone make it for them, according to their recipe (Takashi) or just have a great source from Japan they buy from (Tampopo, Santouka). Like a great pho, the broth in a ramen is key: sometimes it contains rich, fatty slices of pork. If you want to really dive deep into the world of ramen, pick up David Chang’s Lucky Peach Vol. 1. and geek out.
1. Takashi (on Sundays only) 1952 N. Damen Ave., 773-772-6170
Takashi Yagihashi’s Sunday-only noodle menu contains lots of other great bites, including tempura and those fantastic little pork buns, but it’s his shoyu, the classic Tokyo-style ramen that brings me back so frequently. Topped with fatty slices of braised pork, a poached egg and marinated bamboo shoots, this is Sunday comfort food that, dare I say, rivals the matzo ball soup of my youth.
2. Urban Belly 3053 N. California Ave., 773-583-0500
Try the #12, the “Urbanbelly Ramen,” which Bill Kim takes liberties with, straddling the border between Japan and Vietnam. The noodles are slippery, curly little knobs of pleasure, hiding bits of shiitake mushroom and thinly-sliced radish, with tender slabs of pork belly draped over the top. But the real surprise comes from the aroma as you dip your head over the rim of the bowl: Kim (a Korean) uses a pho broth – I know, sacrilege to aficionados – but the warm, glowing scent of cinnamon, clove and pork broth is intoxicating. Dare you not to finish the bowl.
3. Tampopo 5665 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-561-2277
This is the point in our list where the haters will say, ‘hey, wait a sec. Daniel Choe is Korean. What does he know about a true Japanese icon?’ (see #2 above). Choe’s mom manages to concoct a broth that has a great depth of flavor – one of my favorite things to eat in the winter – and the pork belly and imported noodles do the trick. I’m sure part of the appeal is the personal service and cozy atmosphere, but no matter when I’ve visited, I’ve never left with anything remaining in the bowl.
4. Santouka* (technically not in Chicago, but rather, Arlington Heights) 100 E. Algonquin Rd. (in Mitsuwa Marketplace) 847-357-0286
All of the kiosks in the Mitsuwa Marketplace food court are tempting, but this ramen shop is really special. If you just take into consideration what is in the bowl: marinated bamboo, juicy pork, fish cakes and noodles, the ramen is joy to eat. Unfortunately, you’re eating it in a space reminiscent of the most average fast food cafeteria, complete with florescent lighting, noisy children and people giving you the evil eye if you spend too much time at a table when the food court is busy. But still, purists will shut out the extraneous distractions and clearly tune in to the joy within their bowls.
5. Slurping Turtle 116 W. Hubbard St., 312-464-0466
Takashi Yagihashi’s latest restaurant is much more casual than his namesake in Bucktown, and here, he’s able to serve noodles everyday, not just on Sundays. His shoyu ramen is pretty much the same as his Sunday version at Takashi (and not as salty as the ramen I’ve had at his noodle kiosk on the 7th floor of Macy’s) but the ramen that comes as a surprise is his tori ramen: loaded with egg noodles and grilled organic chicken, plus a soft-boiled egg, bok choy and snow peas. Clearly, not the ramen you’re probably expecting when you come here, but like many of the dishes at this casual izakaya, delicious nonetheless.
Yusho 2853 N. Kedzie, 773-904-8558
While very good, the version I had this week was pretty spicy, to the point of the heat obliterating the other flavors, but I’m sure it will improve over time; I was there on Day 3.