Bowls of ramen are like snowflakes: no two are alike. At least that's what many owners and chefs of Chicago ramen-focused spots told me.
"We do these ramen battles at Yusho, and Abe [Conlon of Fat Rice] and Jason [Hammel of Lula Cafe and Nightwood] recently made two bowls where the only thing common about them were the noodles. Ramen is personality-driven," said Yusho owner Matthias Merges, who serves ramen topped with crispy pig tail and farmers market vegetables ($15). "Ramen is very personal," echoed Brendan Sodikoff, owner of upcoming restaurant High Five Ramen.
With three ramen-focused spots having opened since November and at least three more coming in the next few months, the idea of using ramen to communicate a chef's style, or at least the versatility of the dish, seems to be driving a ramen revolution in Chicago.
Then again, ramen has been around since the early 20th century when Chinese immigrants served noodle bowls in street food stalls in Japan. So why is it hot now? "People travel more these days, so they know what the real thing is like and they're demanding it," said Satoko Takeyama, owner of Wasabi in Logan Square and in-the-works restaurant Ramen Takeya in the West Loop.
Sodikoff said that though ramen isn't a new phenomenon, he does feel people are talking about it more. "There is just more chatter," he said. "I think the public is becoming increasingly more educated and excited about food as they become more connected through social media."
"People are used to having instant ramen at college and boarding school," said Arami executive chef Frederick Despres, a veteran of Takashi, where he helped pioneer the restaurant's Sunday noodles program. "It's a great cheap meal, but now that people have more money, they want an elevated version."
While these chefs and restaurant owners may not agree on whether the Chicago ramen boom is really a trend, they did agree on what makes a great bowl of ramen: the seasoning and texture of both the noodles and broth. Jeff Pikus, the chef behind Sodikoff's High Five Ramen (opening in the same building as sibling restaurant Green Street Smoked Meats), cites the flavor of the broth as well as thickness of the noodles as the keys to good ramen. "The stock is the most important," added Merges. "You have to use good pork bones … to get out all that collagen. And the noodles are really important too. When I was younger, I went to Japan and we saw these guys standing on the dough and kneading it with their feet [to develop the gluten] to get that right chew. Despres agreed that the broth is most important, but "the garnishes are also key," he said. "We do a house pickle that lightens the richness of the broth."
Keeping these criteria in mind, I sampled bowls from three of the newest ramen restaurants to see whether I could find a transcendent bowl with silky broth and springy noodles.
>>Read our tasting notes of ramen at Strings Ramen Shop, Ajida and Kameya.
>>Discover what ramen-centric restaurants are opening soon, including Lettuce Entertain You's Ramen-San and Brendan Sodikoff's High Five Ramen.
>>VIDEO: Watch Strings' noodle-making machine in action
Michael Nagrant is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyeeatdrink