Characterized by its meat- or fish-based broth served with wheat noodles and assorted accoutrements like onions, seaweed, egg, and sliced meat, ramen hails from the East and has grown enormously popular in the West.
While the exact origins of ramen are unclear, it’s believed to be either a Chinese dish introduced to Japan in the late 1800s or a Japanese invention from the early 1900s. Today, Earthlings everywhere can enjoy a steaming bowl of instant ramen anytime they like. However, why not try one of these Chicago hot spots?
High Five Ramen
Restaurant, Ramen, $$$
In the heart of West Loop’s restaurant row, near Michelin-star recipient Avec and Chicago-favorite Little Goat, is High Five Ramen. This dark and cozy basement joint is perfect for hunkering down over a steaming, late-night bowl of ramen. Owned and operated by the same people who brought Chicago Au Cheval and 3 Greens, High Five is famous for the heat of its broth (the full spice version may “cause pain, sweating … and deep regret” according to the menu).
Diners can choose between three different intensity levels. All broths served are tonkotsu style, which means they’re slightly creamy; High Five makes its version with miso, sesame, nori, and assorted spices. The broth cooks steadily for 18 hours before serving, so you know it’s full of rich flavor. No matter how spicy you end up ordering, wash your dish down with a Coconut Painkiller or Matcha Lemonade cocktail slushie.
Full disclosure: Ramen-San is a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, which means it’s part of a group that owns and operates 120 restaurants of all cuisines in several states. Don’t let that fool you into thinking this place is a cookie-cutter type. It’s not.
Located in bustling River North, Ramen-San is a hip joint, consistently full of customers enjoying both awesome food and outstanding cocktails. The modern wooden décor and sleek lines throughout the space give it a very chic, yet homey vibe. Choose from shiro (classic, clear), tonkotsu (hearty, creamy), mushroom (shiitake), or veggie miso (made with 13 vegetables) broth for your ramen dish. There are nine different toppings you can add to your ramen as well. Appetizers include mantou buns, dumplings, and chicken wings. Plus, Ramen-San offers late-night fried rice after 10 pm. What’s not to love?
This Bucktown ramen spot devotes 45 hours to its creamy broth, boiling the tonkotsu-style concoction with 100% Heritage Berkshire pork bones meticulously to achieve optimal flavor. Since 2010, chef and co-owner Satoko Takeyama has been cooking up both traditional Japanese cuisine and modernized versions of Japan’s most popular dishes at Ramen Wasabi.
Patrons choose from several exquisite ramen dishes (including a vegan option) and a slew of items on the menu, such as katsu sliders, poke bowls, and sashimi. For $2, you can add a boost of spicy umami flavor to your ramen; $3 gets you a kimchi or bok choy addition. Ramen Wasabi also offers Japanese whiskey and sake options, along with an extensive signature cocktail list. There are too many reasons to visit this Japanese-owned establishment to pick just one, so don’t limit yourself once you arrive.
This restaurant offers diners one of the most expansive—and detailed—ramen menus around. At Strings, diners can choose between shoyu, tonkotsu, miso, or the infamous jigoku ramen. Jigoku means “hell,” and the jigoku dishes range from pretty spicy to insanely spicy (daredevils who finish an entire serving of the spiciest version of jigoku ramen in 20 minutes receive a $50 gift certificate and a comped meal). There are also rice dishes available for anyone looking for something without broth.
Executive Chef Katie Dong has earned Strings tons of acclaim both locally and nationally. In Chicago, the restaurants, complete with a stylish and inviting ambiance, (there are two locations, one in Lakeview and one in Chinatown) have been voted one of the top three ramen restaurants in the city. It’s also appeared on top 15 lists for the country in publications like Thrillist and Timeout. In short, eat at Strings, but don’t order the jigoku if you’re not ready.
The Slurping Turtle got its start in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and expanded to Chicago after experiencing great success in that college town. The name of the restaurant comes from the fact that loudly slurping ramen broth is a sign of appreciation and enjoyment—the bigger the slurp, the more delicious the meal. Turtles are also considered good luck in Japan, which could be one reason why Slurping Turtle was recently ranked No. 8 on MSN’s list of the best ramen spots in America. But, with nine different versions of the dish available to slurpers, including two featuring curry as a main ingredient, this ramen restaurant likely earned national attention all on its own.
Aside from ramen, patrons can also order bao buns stuffed with various ingredients, maki rolls, and vegetable dishes. As one of the first ramen spots in River North, Slurping Turtle is a hugely popular spot for authentic Japanese cuisine that cannot be skipped.
As a sister restaurant to the wildly popular Ramen Wasabi, this West Loop eatery serves up similar dishes with its own individual take. The signature dish at Ramen Takeya is chicken paitan ramen—this means the cage-free chicken-based broth is lighter and clearer than traditional broth. It’s also made with a specific spice blend unique to the restaurant. Diners can sit at a bar with a view of the kitchen to get a glimpse of the magic behind the scenes. While chicken is the star ingredient even in the appetizers (Japanese chicken nuggets, anyone?), vegan ramen, made with mushroom and seaweed broth, is available as well, as is shoyu, shio, and miso broth dishes.
The atmosphere is designed to emulate the vibes of Japanese cities: intimate, yet vast, concrete jungles. So, get ready for an extraordinarily authentic ramen experience here. And don’t forget to finish your meal off with some Mochi ice cream.
This unique ramen restaurant takes inspiration from French and Italian cuisine for its dishes—a fairly unexpected take in the ramen world. Oiistar’s chef, Sunny Yim, prepares his pork bone broth over 18 hours. The noodles used in the ramen are also handmade, a trade Yim learned by visiting Japan often over the course of many years. There are vegetarian ramen options in addition to Oiistar’s more popular pork-based broth.
Diners can also choose from a variety of delectable appetizers and bao buns, not to mention the many shareable dishes, including pan-seared portobello mushrooms and tuna carpaccio. One area in which the European influence is strongly displayed is the dessert menu; crème brulée and poached pears with chantilly cream are perfect for diners ready to end the evening with a little extra culinary flair.