How did something that we all used to eat from $1 packets become today’s hottest, most argued-over food trend? As with flamewar bait like pizza or donuts, all it takes is a food that’s so simple that everyone feels qualified to judge what perfection is. Well, we judged (mostly by tonkotsu ramen, with thick, porky broth), and we’re sure we’re right: here are the 15 best bowls of ramen in the Chicago area, in ascending order toward ramen nirvana.
15. Joong Boo Market
The tiny food stand in the back of this Korean grocery serves ramyun, Korea’s version of ramen, which doesn’t have true Japanese depth of broth but makes up for it with kimchi spiciness. Be sure to spring for the extra dollar to get a bunch of slices of springy rice cake. Best bowl of ramen in town? No, but best $5 bowl of ramen? Yeah.
The West Loop’s first dedicated ramen spot offers a break from sandwich and salad shops, but it’s more "good for the Loop" than great. The broth isn’t bad, but could be richer, and the noodles could be firmer/toothier. The best thing in the bowl is the chashu, a really tasty roulade of pork with a sweet glaze.
Downtown’s great-authentic-Japanese-restaurant-in-a-scary-flophouse, Ginza, is gone now, which leaves this River North spot as the kind-of-chic, kind-of-homey place that Japanese businessmen and tourists go to eat their comfort food. The ramen is soothing like Grandma’s chicken soup -- nothing profound, but as a lunchtime Japanese getaway from the office, this is a hidden gem.
12. Itto Sushi
This is another homey, old-school Japanese spot, where regulars line the bar and the sushi chefs are usually watching baseball as they cut your fish. The shoyu ramen is a comfy bowl of soy-based broth with good, chewy noodles.
11. Slurping Turtle
The star at Takashi Yagihashi’s ramen joint is Tokyo-style shoyu ramen, with a soy and chicken-based broth. The noodles, made to his specs in California and shipped here, are excellent, and the accompaniments are gorgeous (though the broth is on the salty side, thus, 11).
Soup has always been one of Bill Kim’s strong points, and though Urbanbelly's are mainly Korean-flavored, this is a pretty traditional and well-made Japanese bowl, lighter on spice than it looks from the red oil on top. The only thing is, it’s curiously sweet for ramen, which you’ll either like, or not. The crinkly, toothy noodles are very good, and as you might expect from the name, so are the bacon-y slices of pork belly.
9. Four Belly
This Lakeview “Asian street food” spot has several types of ramen, starting with a pretty tasty pork tonkotsu broth and chewy noodles in a nice, if slightly smallish, bowl. While it may not win the prize for Best Ramen, it could take what’s arguably an even more important title: Best Ramen Grub Hub That Will Deliver in Lakeview.
Logan Square/North Center
A few years ago this might have been the best and most authentic bowl of ramen in the city. It looks the part (we especially like the gooey egg), but the broth doesn’t quite have the unctuous porkiness of the best places that have sprung up in the last couple of years. Still, give it props for being a traditional, no-funny-business bowl.
There are various modernist takes on ramen on the menu here, but the traditional Oiimen is a great classic bowl with lots of deep porky flavor -- which unfortunately is immediately masked by the presence of a pungent garlic oil they sprinkle on top. Get them to leave it off, or at least use a light hand, because this is a pretty fine bowl without it.
6. Sozai Banzai
Arlington Heights, IL
Hidden in a half-empty strip mall (the sign actually says “Sushi & Grill”), this tiny spot features very little English and does a variety of authentic Japanese lunch dishes like grilled mackerel, as well as a nice bowl of ramen with cloudy, porky broth, toothsome noodles, and a really fresh-tasting garnish of green onions and shaved radish. And at $9.75, it takes the “Best Ramen Under $10” prize on this list.
Arlington Heights, IL
When this Japanese ramen chain opened an outpost at the Mitsuwa Market in this Northwest burb, it was hailed as the most authentic ramen to hit Chicago to date. After that hype, we expect a deep, almost gelatinous broth, but it isn’t quite that -- it’s a fast-food bowl at heart. It’s very good, but to get to great, you’ll definitely want to spring for the $3 add-on of the incredibly velvety and supple pork cheek -- sheer piggy magic.
Avondale, Hyde Park
Yusho’s Logan Poser Ramen was one of the first signs of the hipster ramen explosion to hit Chicago, and remains the star of their Sunday ramen brunch. To be honest, though, the ways it broke with tradition (like the meats on a stick that came with it) were tastier than the ramen itself. Now labeled Logan Poser Ramen #2, it’s been refined with a richer, porkier broth (under a spicy sesame oil slick), and the pork/fish ball that comes with it is fantastic, making it one of the best unorthodox bowls around.
With two-hour lines out the door every night, Brendan Sodikoff's tiny 16-seater, beneath his Green Street Smoked Meats, has become the epitome of hipster ramen trendiness. But damnit, once again his restaurants live up to their hype -- the tonkotsu is dark and funky -- a lowdown, dirty broth (if a little too salty), and the noodles are fantastically chewy, almost wiry. Note that spicy is the order of the day -- a half-spice bowl is plenty hot, and the spicy is reputed to be genuinely punishing.
2. Ramen Misoya
Mount Prospect, IL
Located in a modest strip mall on a nowhere stretch of a Northwestern suburb, Misoya looks like the ramen version of a diner -- but don’t let the lack of pretension trick you. If ramen-mania is starting to bug you, the no-bull way this place dishes out its different types of ramen -- tied to different parts of Japan (from Hokkaido chashu to spicy Tokyo), each impeccable for its own category -- is the antidote to excess ramen attitude. You’re going to take a picture of soup? You’re going to get into a screaming match about broth? It’s hot and it’s good for you. Shut up and eat.
Chinatown’s first dedicated ramen shop imported a Japanese noodle-making machine, and the noodles that result are the best in town -- dense with a soul-satisfying mouthfeel. But the tonkotsu broth, from Berkshire pork bones boiled for 48 hours, is equally satisfying; as thick and tasty as a pork milkshake, you feel like you could stand your chopsticks up in it. This terrific bowl proves that great ramen is simple to make -- all it takes is doing everything perfectly.
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1. Joong Boo Market3333 N Kimball Ave, Chicago
2. Ajida201 N Wells St Unit C, Chicago
3. Cocoro668 N Wells St, Chicago
4. Itto Sushi2616 N Halsted St, Chicago
5. Slurping Turtle116 W Hubbard St, Chicago
6. Urban Belly1400 W Randolph St, Chicago
7. Four Belly3227 N Clark St, Chicago
8. Wasabi2539 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
9. Oiistar1385 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago
10. Sozai Banzai1089 E Golf Rd, Arlington Heights
11. Yusho2853 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago
12. Santouka100 E Algonquin Rd, Arlington Heights
13. High Five Ramen112 N Green St, Chicago
14. Ramen Misoya1584 S Busse Rd, Mount Prospect
15. Strings Ramen Shop2141 S Archer Ave, Chicago
This hot spot is one part supermarket, one part fast-food Korean restaurant. The Avondale market is packed floor-to-ceiling with the all of the best Korean products, including housewares and kitchen utensils. Come to shop, and stay for the chicken wings and pork wang dumplings, served in the back of the market. For years, it’s been one of Chicago’s best kept secrets for good, inexpensive eats.
The West Loop’s first dedicated ramen spot offers a break from sandwich and salad shops, with a traditional menu featuring classic Japanese salads, skewers, ramen & udon, and more.
Cocoro offers traditional izakaya-style cuisine in River North, including Kushikatsu (deep-fried pork skewers), Ika maru-yaki (grilled squid), and Shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef boiled in water at your table).
This old-school Japanese spot, has some great ramen. Try the shoyu ramen -- a comfy bowl of soy-based broth with good chewy noodles.
The celebrated chef of Bucktown's Takashi is recreating childhood memories of noisy noodle bowls and other Japanese comfort food in ST's open kitchen, which overlooks a 30-seat communal wooden table hovered over by a mezzanine. We think that Slurping Turtle is one of the best restaurants in Chicago.
Simple Asian street food is revolutionized with gourmet flavor combos, such as lamb & brandy dumplings and bay scallop soba.
Four Belly is an Asian street food-inspired grub hub in Lakeview.
From two children of the Rising Sun bent on dropping their homeland flavor on Chicago, Wasabi fits a rustic tavern vibe into linear, high-ceilinged digs, with dark wood columns running up the exposed brick walls, a weathered beam ceiling sporting a wrought iron chandelier, and seductively glowing lantern fixtures over the sushi bar, setting the perfect vibe for you to get your mackerel on.
This vibrant bar features a projection screen playing vintage cartoons, thumping music echoing off the birchwood walls, and RAMEN. The homemade noodles are served on daily-made broths that take 18 hours to prepare, and include various flavor schemes (pork belly, poached egg, mushrooms, etc.).
Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall is some of Chicago's best ramen -- Sozai Banzai is your destination for authentic Japanese dishes on the cheap.
Because apparently not everything in Japan gets lost in translation, former Charlie Trotter's exec chef Matthias Merges drew on the energy and community he discovered in the country's street food scene when conceiving Yusho. His architect wife channeled his vision into an eclectic space with a bar made from century-old wood beams and a skylit back room projecting anime. Crunch on salmon and chicken skins while you sip a boozy soda or one of the formidable offerings of Japanese and domestic beers. Then share a bowl of mentaiko carbonara, a seaside leaning take on the Italian pasta with spicy cod roe and bucatini from sister restaurant A10.
This well-loved ramen chain lives in the back of the Mitsuwa Marketplace, offering up consistently tasty bowls of noodles and broth.
Brought to you by Brendan Sodikoff, this West Loop resto is a cozy, dimly-lit space offering a concise menu featuring both traditional and modern ramen offerings, eye-popping “canzillas” of Asahi beer, and boozy slushies to temper the heat of the noodles.
Found in a nondescript strip mall out in the suburbs, Ramen Misoya is a hidden noodle treasure that is well worth the journey to get there -- quality ingredients and respect for tradition result in a no-bull, delicious ramen experience.
Using a Japanese noodle-making machine, Strings churns out some of the best bowls of ramen in town. Thick, flavorful pork broth and perfectly textured noodles bring this place to the next level of slurpy goodness.