Hey y’all! In the midst of my winter-that-is-lasting-forever blogging slump, Otherhalf has decided he has some things to share. And so, without further ado, I present to you- my boo.
It’s always the little joys that keep us going. Some of these moments that make us want to skip with unadulterated ecstasy include the realization that the sun is finally up before 7 a.m. after a long bleak march through the throes of winter where daylight has been at a premium. Or while aimlessly browsing the internet, you come to find out that your favorite author has a new book coming out shortly; August 12, 2014 cannot come soon enough Mr. Haruki Murakami. And sometimes the little joys can be as simple as finding a maple seed pod when spring finally comes around and throwing it up in the air. You watch as it twirls and dances back to the ground, and remember late afternoon sunlight in the backyard running around with your brothers and sister in a different time. One of these joys for me lately is ramen.
It was only recently that I decided that I would search out and find the best bowls of ramen in Chicago and write about the experiences. This after having tried a few different places and watching several episodes of “Mind of a Chef” starring chef extraordinaire David Chang (definitely worth checking out if you have Amazon Prime) and subsequently purchasing his book. These posts are not meant to rank or rate which place has the best bowl, but instead, it is meant to just give me a means to share my little joys.
What is ramen? The uninitiated may say it’s an easy, cheap, and quick instant meal. And there is truth in this. There is no denying its versatility and worth as a source of sustenance and nourishment (whatever that may be). It’s the meal of choice for large families, sleep and money deprived students and minimum wage workers alike as I can attest to having been a person who has walked all 3 paths. Like many, ramen was known to me as a necessity and not necessarily as a source of pleasure. So it was to my amazement and surprise when I learned what ramen could be first hand.
The first time I had what I consider my first “real” bowl of ramen was at a Japanese supermarket called Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights, a nearby suburb of Chicago. So it seemed apropos that I should return to this special place as the subject of my first post. Mitsuwa is located about 45-minutes out of downtown Chicago by heading north on the Kennedy before bearing left and heading west on to the Jane Addams Tollway. Another couple of right turns off of the expressway and you’re in the parking lot of Mitsuwa about to have a great bowl of ramen. It’s well within the driving radius of Chicago without being terribly cumbersome.
At the time of writing this post, it’s snowing yet AGAIN in Chicago, and a hot steaming bowl of ramen seemed like it would hit the spot so my wife, brother, sister-in-law, and niece climbed into the car and headed west.
When we got to the supermarket, we expected a flurry of activity in the food court given its reputation as a place to get a great variety of Asian foods including the above mentioned ramen in addition to just the overall quality of food (not to mention all the cars in the parking lot) . To our surprise, the food court was relatively tame and many open tables were readily available. It wasn’t only that, but the usually long line at the ramen shop was virtually nonexistent! Could it get any better? Yes. Yes it could.
I quickly went to the cashier at Santouka Ramen within the food court of Mitsuwa and ordered a large bowl of the shoyu ramen with extra roast pork or chasu. Shoyu ramen utilizes soy sauce as one of the main tenets in composition of the broth but somehow seems less salty than the miso ramen. After getting a numbered ticket (#55), I waited about 5 minutes or so until my number was inevitably called. Needless to say an electric jolt of joy shot through my body as I heard “55” over the P.A. system and jumped to me feet to head to the counter. Once back at my table, I began to dissect my ramen.
The broth had a luxurious opaque quality with shimmering pools of pork fat dotting the top. The broth clung to the noodles beautifully and coated each bite with a burst of rich, meat flavor. Toppings included a slice of nori or dried seaweed, a slice of Naruto, which is a type of fish cake usually white with a pink swirl in the middle, pickled, julienned bamboo, 2 fantastically marbled slices of chasu, thinly sliced scallions, and sesame seeds.
The first taste of broth was absolutely marvelous. There were just enough pools of luxurious lipids to really help the broth coat your tongue and telegraph the delicious and rich flavor. The broth itself while opaque was extremely clean in the sense that there were no particulates swimming within it save for the sesame seeds that were served as a topping. The broth was pure liquid gold. After a minute or so, a sesame flavor slowly manifested itself but not in an overpowering fashion as sesame (especially sesame oil) is want to do when it is overused.
The nori added a slightly savory, fish flavor that blended seamlessly with the broth without overpowering it. It creates a really unique flavor combination. In addition to adding a wonderful visual element that is just as mesmerizing as the ramen is in taste (add Tim McCarver joke here), the Naruto slice also plays its role well as a teammate rather than captain. The two slices of chasu were beautifully and evenly marbled. However, there was no bite of the pork that ever felt like there was too much fat or not enough. The roasted pork was moist and tender with a well-rounded pork flavor. “What does that mean?” you might ask. Well, it means whatever you want it to mean. J For texture, the pickled bamboo shoots added a chewy but not giving bite, which helped to add a counterpoint to the more giving but equally chewy noodle.
Speaking of which, let’s talk noodle for a second. If the toppings are teammates, the co-captains are the broth and the noodle. While the broth packs a ton in terms of flavor and richness, the noodles act as the conduit that help to transport these characteristics while maintaining a unique character all their own. The noodles were slightly yellow in color but retained a chewiness and spring that were not unlike al dente pasta if only somewhat more giving in terms of bite. When eating ramen, there is no better way to eat them than to slurp the noodles. For some reason, the act of slurping somehow makes the ramen taste better. But maybe it’s just me.
All in all, the shoyu ramen at Santouka Ramen is a great bowl. Some of my friends (including my sister-in-law), who have grown up on ramen as children and adults in Japan, consider the ramen served at Santouka Ramen some of the best in the Chicagoland area. Go ahead and add me to the list of fans of this place as the ramen is indeed mighty fine and delicious. And if you get a chance, make sure to swing by and check out the ramen. It will be your initiation and open invitation to visit this wonderful place time and time again.