The Waiting is the Hardest Part

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Hello readers!!  I am finally back to having the option to post after two whole weekends without internet.  (GASP!)  I know I haven’t actually posted anything since March, but in the last two weeks I really wanted to.  Probably because I couldn’t.  Funny how that works.    Anyways, here’s another ramen bit from Otherhalf.  He actually wrote this in March, which really is only noticeable in the parts about how cold it still is.  Even though it has been an unseasonably cold spring, today it was actually in the 80s.  (I apologize to anyone who I may have blinded with my pasty white legs today, because this girl wore shorts!!)  

 

“Waiting on Wasabi”  by Otherhalf

So daily temps are finally approaching seasonal norms and what better way to celebrate than with a super tasty bowl of ramen? And so we traversed the mean streets of Chicago through inane waves of never ending traffic, red light camera traps, and pot holes that seemingly serve as gateways to hell and arrived at our vaunted destination, Wasabi, in Chicago’s hip and trendy Bucktown neighborhood. I’ve been to this restaurant a few times with some close friends and family and was very grateful to be back as it had been over a year since our previous visit.

We arrived at seven on a Friday night and were greeted by a full restaurant with happy customers slurping away over their bowls of ramen amidst delicious appetizers and BYOB bottles of wine and beer alike. This is always a sure sign of a good meal ahead. It’s also a sure sign of the wait you may have to endure as Wasabi does not take reservations and only does walk-up service. Now as part of a group of 4, you have to factor in a pretty decent wait time especially since it’s 7 on a Friday night, the restaurant is full, and every other party ahead of you in line seems to be a group of 4. Surprisingly, the supposed “wait time” was 30 to 35-minutes, which is not too shabby considering the conditions. But as it always seems to happen when you are enjoying a wonderful meal, you take your time, which is what everyone in the restaurant seemed to be doing. In all honesty, it’s hard to blame them. You’ve put your name in with the host or hostess, you’ve waited in line, and now you’ve finally been seated. Time to savor this meal!

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When you’re on the other side of the glass waiting though, all you can think about is why the hell can’t everyone inside eat faster?! At the promised 30 to 35-minute mark, it seemed that no one in front of us had moved. Now bear in mind, as much as temps have improved in Chicago lately, it was still only about 30 degrees or so, and after waiting this long, you start to feel it a little bit. Not only that but suddenly all you can hear are the conversations around you because you’ve used all your good material and can’t think of anything else except sitting down to eat because you haven’t eaten since a small snack earlier in the afternoon because you knew that you would do something Friday night but weren’t quite sure what so you didn’t want to ruin your potential appetite because you know you may be eating something or somewhere that had the potential to be awesome and once you’ve made the decision and you know where you’re going and what’s waiting for you when you’re finally seated, you’re thoughts become laser focused and that throbbing sound you hear is the repeated hammering of the word ramen, ramen, ramen as it is blazes across the depths of your mind. And then, your name (or phone in this case) is called and you and your group are now the chosen ones! Life is pretty sweet again.

Even though we waited over an hour to be seated, we were very grateful for it since it was placed near the back of the restaurant away from the riff raff that we were once a part of. In short, we didn’t have to worry about eating quickly and could enjoy a nice relaxing meal without any hint of guilt. Not that you should feel guilty about taking your time and enjoying a meal with friends and family anyways, but it’s always so much easier to do so in anonymity rather than in front of a large window affronted by groups of gawking, hungry strangers. It’s a comfort thing I guess. An added bonus was we got to sit in a booth instead of a table. All in all, the wait was worth it. The hostess was very gracious and apologetic about the wait, and the restaurant setting provided a feeling of warmth and comfort. Now… let’s eat.

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this is a view of the bar and food prep area from our cozy booth.

We started with some appetizers, which included pork belly buns (the light fluffy buns and crispy lettuce provided a great contrast to the wonderfully rich pork belly), skewered chicken meatballs (great chicken taste with a light grilled flavor finished with a brush of rich soy sauce), grilled asparagus skewer (good clean asparagus flavor with a light bitterness), chicken lollipops (fried chicken legs served with a wonderful creamy sauce), and a decadent piece of o-toro or fatty tuna belly, which was absolutely divine. In baseball terms, these appetizers loaded the bases full of runners for the vaunted clean-up hitter, ramen, to hit it out of the park and turn this dinner into a grand slam.

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these are the pork belly buns. and this photo is the reason there are no other food photos.

In this case the bowl of ramen was a tonkotsu style ramen. It’s a type of ramen that utilizes pork as one of its main flavoring agents, and boy did it shine through in spades. The ramen broth was opaque and somehow creamy, but without any fear of the ingredients in the broth settling, which to me is kind of remarkable. There seemed to be a density to the broth all its own that was packed chock full of a rich meaty flavor with a seeming tinge of seafood beyond that provided by the sliced nori topping, at least to my palate. In addition to pickled bamboo slices, the ramen was accompanied by braised pork belly that was absolutely majestic. Instead of being overly break apart tender, the braised pork had a wonderful chew and fatty marbling that provided a great companion to the ramen noodles. There was a very rich soy sauce and star anise like flavor to the braised pork that provided a savory almost barbeque type character. This flavor only served to fortify the rich flavor of the broth. It was a great combination. The noodles themselves were also really good. They weren’t too soft or overly firm. Overall, Wasabi is a great place to get a really good bowl of ramen.
While the wait wasn’t exactly fun, the resulting dinner was really wonderful. If you’d like a chance to experience some great Japanese fare that utilizes modern tricks and techniques to augment tried and traditional ways in addition to an absolute great bowl of ramen, give Wasabi a try. Don’t be disheartened by the wait, think instead of the great meal ahead.

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A not so common bowl of RAMEN

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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.

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Get out yer dictionaries! Otherhalf is in the haayouse!

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. 

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looks like good ramen weather to me!

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.

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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.

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Check out the marbling on this pork!

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. 

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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.

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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.

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Slurp worthy!

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.