Ramen is the hipster food of the moment. Go on and despise any trend you like, but a well-made bowl of ramen is a wonderful thing. While Japanese food is known for being delicate and subtly flavored, this discussion will be confined to a glaring exception to the rule: tonkotsu ramen. Ask for that, and you can expect a heavy pile of house-made noodles nestled within a rich, thick, fatty pork bone soup stock, topped with roasted pork belly and a soft-boiled egg. Health food this is not.
One would hope that by this point in your life you would know this, but just in case you’re naïve: Instant ramen and restaurant ramen are as far apart as, say, a can Spaghetti-O’s and an Italian grandmother’s handmade pasta.
Another important note: People, if you don’t already know how, learn to use chopsticks. It’s not that hard. Practice at home with salad or popcorn. Using chopsticks instead of trying to wrestle slippery noodles with a fork will keep you from getting soup driblets all over the front of your shirt.
My favorite ramen place ever? Ippudo, in central Tokyo. But that’s a story for another day.
Near West Side
112 N. Green St.
Yes, this is hipster food, but these hipsters actually care about the food. This tiny, dimly-lit basement restaurant has enough atmosphere that you could subsist on just that alone, but we came for the ramen, and High Five serves nothing but. The soft-boiled eggs are perfect, the noodles have great texture and just the right bit of chewiness, and the belly is pretty good too. Where High Five falls short is with the broth, which is a bit thin and disappointing in the flavor department. A nice place to visit, but not to visit regularly.
3227 N Clark St.
If you have to dine with someone you hate, do it here, because the food will help concentrate and direct your hatred. This place is the sticky residue under the bottom of the barrel, and is a prime example of why I don’t trust places that try to cram Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean foods all onto one menu. No one restaurant can possibly do all of that well. Of this you can be certain: Four Belly does nothing well. My friend ordered the fried caterpillars for fun, but they weren’t even interesting enough to be disgusting. The ramen was no different. Avoid this place at all costs.
1571 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Furious Spoon is the best ramen I’ve had in Chicago, and it reflects the chef’s personal passions: traditional Japanese cooking and old-school hip-hop. The music thumps unapologetically as you dig in. The broth is bold and flavorful, the noodles chewy and plentiful, and the pork belly is outstanding. I prefer a fairly firm egg, and Furious Spoon’s egg is a bit too soft for my taste, but everything else is so great that I don’t really mind.
The menu is mostly traditional old-school Japanese food. The only embellishment is the sauce added to the signature Furious Ramen: A hot sauce made of green apples and habanero chiles. Oddly enough, this brilliantly orange condiment makes delicious sense, adding a touch of sweetness and a pleasant warmth that complements the pork broth well.
116 W Hubbard St.
The only reason I can find that Slurping Turtle is so popular is its location in River North, which is full of the sort of trendy, well-dressed beautiful people who have too much time on their hands and money to spend. Like Four Belly, Slurping Turtle suffers from an identity crisis, offering up not only ramen, but tapas hailing from Japan, Korea, and China, which, as we all know, are nations renowned for their tapas.
Slurping Turtle serves up dumbed-down ramen for those who cannot abide too much flavor at one time. Inoffensive at best, the bland broth tastes like it was made for people who, for health reasons, can’t have any salt at all in their diet. Really, there’s no reason for you to subject yourself to this restaurant
2141 S Archer Ave.
1629 N Halsted St.
Dumb name, great ramen. Despite the name, I like this place a lot. They get extra brownie points for putting a pitcher of ice water on every table, but then you really need it because the broth is a bit salty. I find that the noodles are a little thicker than in other places, but then, this is a hearty meal, not rabbit food. In terms of food and decor, the two locations are essentially identical, and both can get busy, so be prepared to wait in line. It’s worth the wait.
919 W. Belmont Ave
This is a last-minute addition to the ramen roster. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than Four Belly, but I was wrong. I have a lot of problems with this Ramenster, and the horrible quality of the food is just the beginning.
It all started as I was walking down Belmont on a cool Saturday night, looking for something to sup on, when lo and behold, the bright, spare interior of a brand-new ramen restaurant beckoned to me. What luck, I thought. I checked the menu in the window, and there it was: tonkotsu. It turns out that it was their first day serving the public, and every meal had a 50 percent discount. Later I’d still feel ripped off.
I ordered my ramen and waited. A while later — way longer than soup and noodles should take — the bowl arrived. It was notably not steaming hot, and the pork belly looked somehow wrong. I stared at it for a while and realized why: Rather than a rich, meaty brown, it was white. I picked up a slice with my chopsticks and bit down, but couldn’t bite through. The meat and fat should have been soft and malleable, but instead it was rubbery and tough. I had to hold it in my teeth and pull with my fingers to get through it. Not an auspicious beginning.
I sat back and sighed, calling the server over. “I’m not eating this pork,” I said. “It’s tough. I can’t even bite through it.”
She apologized and said, “It’s our first day,” then promised to bring me something to replace the misbegotten meat.
I turned to the noodles. They were perfectly uniform, with little waves in them. Ramenster is clearly not making its own noodles — n fact, they looked and tasted suspiciously like Maruchan Fresh Ramen, a mass-produced product which is not all that far off from dried instant ramen.
Just when I thought my disappointment could not get any more profound, I picked up my spoon and sampled the broth. Though their website claims they use “18 hour pork bone broth,” it tasted like it came from the foil packet that comes with the noodles.
The server returned, bearing two small plates. On one plate were two small slices of cooked fish drizzled with Sriracha. On the other plate were two slices of pork belly, slightly less rubbery than before, also drizzled with Sriracha.
This nearly pushed me over the edge, because Sriracha really is nothing more than the new ketchup. Nutritionally, the two are nearly identical: Look it up and see for yourself. I despise the habit that some people have for dousing crap food in Sriracha and proclaiming that it has magically transformed into something delicious. Besides, we know that if you pour ketchup on anything you’re a culinary Neanderthal; but if you drizzle some Sriracha you are at the vanguard of a foodie revolution.
I finished my ramen like a good boy and left, feeling far less than satisfied. But my adventure did not end there. In the course of writing of this article, I decided to look at Ramenster’s website, ramenster.com/, and was patently dismayed. The first photograph on the site features an authentic ramen restaurant, kitchen in full swing. Of course, it’s a photo of a real place, but it’s not located in Chicago: It’s in Hachioji, on the western fringes of Tokyo.
Scroll down a bit. Look at those noodles, hot out of the boiling water! But those are not ramen noodles. They’re spaghetti.
Keep scrolling and you’ll see the well-known anime hero Naruto. This drawing seems to be a well-traveled bit of fan art. But Naruto is perched atop a container of instant ramen, so maybe it’s appropriate.
Finally, there’s a photograph of the exterior of a ramen shop, but again, not in Chicago. It’s in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a mere 9,266 miles as the crow flies.
The Japanese character on the RAMENSTER homepage is “senpai,” which translates to something like “mentor” or “master,” which prompts the question: Master of what? Not ramen, that’s for certain.
Cynical attempts to cash in on trends are not new or unusual. What’s so awful about this attempt is how deeply cynical it is, and how poorly executed it is, and how dumb the people behind Ramenster think the dining public is.