Here's a confession. For years, the only thing that came to mind when someone mentioned Japanese ramen to me was the packaged stuff that you can buy by the palate at the grocery store. You know, the instant ramen with all the chemicals that will kill you in your sleep. That stuff is nearly as dangerous to human health and well-being as nuclear war or One Republic.
These are the things that have scarred me for most of my life, which use to make it impossible to appreciate, let alone enjoy, quality ramen. But the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and the second step is facing your fears. And eventually, I saw the sign. I opened up my eyes, I sawn the sign.
While a casual trip to Japan isn’t always in the cards, a casual trip to Chinatown is, where you'll find Strings Ramen Shop just off the Cermak red line stop. We recognize there are a lot of solid ramen joints in Chicago, but we’ve got a thing for Strings.
There are a few available rice bowls on the menu but don't get distracted - ramen is what you want. Strings offers up four traditional-ish broths with multiple fillers, including vegetables, pork belly, pork loin, duck, seafood, and turkey. No matter your choice in broth or add-ons, the fresh noodles are the star, thanks to the fact that they're made daily with a special dough and some mixer they imported from Japan, or so we're told. All we really care about is that they're really tasty, and not flavored with poison.
See how much I've learned?
Oden are a type of Japanese street food served on sticks and in a pot of water. You have a variety of choices, fish cakes, sausage, daikon, and squid. Don’t let the ingredients scare you away, because we promise they are all pretty plain and simple small bites. At the very least, try the daikon.
A Black boar bone broth (so many adjectives) with garlic oil, fresh crushed garlic, sesame seed, scallion, bamboo shoots, noodles, and option of pork (loin or belly), or pork and duck. This is both the heaviest of the broths and our favorite. We go pork belly and add the duck.
Chicken and turkey sea salt broth with scallion, ginger, and boiled egg. This comes with turkey in the bowl, and make sure to cap it off with a little chili oil on your table. Emphasis on only a little.
Probably the lightest broth of the bunch, clear, with soy sauce and bonito fish, served with bamboo shoots, nori, and bean sprouts. Unless you’re a vegetarian, go for the pork loin version that also comes with wasabi oil and a boiled egg.
Pork bone broth served with three types of miso, corn, scallion, bean sprout, sesame seed, chopped garlic, butter, and white pepper. Not as flavorful as it could be, but you can get the miso with snow crab, scallop, shrimp, and pork. Sometimes the addition of a little seafood trumps all.