Ever since the ramen revolution swept through town and every third working chef starting channeling Tampopo, I along with the other Pharisees have felt compelled to charge most of them with blasphemy. I've become so tired of repeating the assertion that a dilettante's ramen can't hope to compete with the lush, porky goodness of the tonkotsu ramen at the Santouka kiosk in Mitsuwa Marketplace—chain ramen, for chrissakes!—that I was afraid it would lose all meaning.
I don't have to say it again. There's a new chain in the game. It's every bit as good as Santouka—in a couple ways better—and the only unfortunate thing about it is you still have to go to the suburbs for a good bowl of ramen.
Ramen Misoya opened in early July in the Mount Prospect strip-mall storefront that until recently housed the dearly departed izakaya Tori Shin. It's the third U.S. outpost of a rapidly expanding Chiba Prefecture-based chain that, apart from its many Japanese branches, has so far touched down in New York, the Silicon Valley, Bangkok, Montreal, and Sao Paulo. Unlike Santouka, which originated on the island of Hokkaido and specializes in milky, heavy-bodied, fat/bone/marrow-enriched tonkotsu ramen, Misoya concentrates on three regional varieties of miso-based ramen. In the chain's corporate boilerplate much is made of the healthful benefits of fermented soybean paste.
The two chains traffic in completely different styles (though Ramen Misoya features a Hokkaido-style miso ramen that is reminiscent of Santouka's). Which you prefer will be subjective in many ways, but in terms of overall dedication and execution, you'd have to go to New York or LA to find a better bowl.
One thing that sets Misoya apart from the entire field is that it's the Chicago region's first dedicated ramen-ya. When you step through the doors the chefs behind the bar will raise their heads from their tasks and welcome you with a spirited "Irasshaimase!" And when you sit among the overwhelmingly Japanese clientele and open your menu, you won't be asked to consider sushi, "tapas," portobello and avocado tempura, or anything else that might extort energy from the chefs' single-minded pursuit of gorgeously constructed bowls of ramen. (There are some appetizers, but these are for the most part doing double duty as add-ins for the ramen.)
The three distinct styles are built on house-made pork stock seasoned with miso imported from Japan. The tare, the seasoning of the aforementioned Hokkaido-style kome ramen, is a rice-and-soybean miso that produces the deepest, most full-bodied broth on the menu. This one might be closest to Santouka's shio ramen, though here the lip-sticking properties of pork collagen are nonexistent. It's deeply flavorful, but you won't need a defibrillator after you finish.
Each of the three bowls is customized with particular toppings, in addition to standard ones, which I'll get to in a bit. The kome ramen features perhaps the most unorthodox garnish in the bunch—three planks of fried potato. I can see the rapidly softening spuds presenting a challenge for some, and if that's the case I urge you to remove them lest they distract you from this otherwise wonderful bowl.
The Nagoya-style mame ramen is seasoned with a darker miso and topped with a crispy tempura shrimp. Though the menu claims this miso leaves a "bitter finish" I don't detect it at all, instead finding the saltiness of the deep brown broth tempered by a pronounced sweetness.
Finally, the Kyoto-style shiro miso is the lightest of the trio, topped with two small blocks of fried tofu, yet it's plenty substantial due in great part to the remainder of the bowl's contents.
None of the bowls, in fact, are in any way insubstantial, in no small part due to their commonalities—most importantly, their noodles. Shipped in from California, these dominate the bowl, thicker and chewier than most, and not at all soft (like those at Santouka ). They stand up admirably in the full-bodied broths.
You can customize each style in many ways, adding extra toppings for small surcharges, but for a maiden voyage I recommend ordering them with the cha shu, or the typical pork loin accompaniment, which at Misoya is hardly typical. Most ramen-ya simply braise the pork until it's fall-apart tender. Here, after braising, the slices are marinated in miso and then grilled, so they impart a slight smokiness to the broth.
You'll also want a miso-marinated hanjuku egg in your ramen. It'll be gently parboiled and split to reveal a luscious, warm, molten yolk whose two halves bob on the surface of your soup like twin suns.
Additionally, each bowl comes with a scoop of sweetish ground pork, bean sprouts, green onions, slices of fermented bamboo shoots (or menma), and kernels of crunchy yellow corn. As you progress, these flavors and textures mingle to complete a bowl unlike any other in town.
You can customize in other ways too. Add vegetables or spicy miso paste. The kome and shiro can be had with kimuchi (aka kimchi), and the mame can be topped with crispy nuggets of fried chicken. And you can double or triple the amount of any of the existing toppings, which also include pats of butter and sheets of seaweed.
Misoya isn't so rigidly standardized that it can't occasionally dabble in other styles. On a recent Friday night there was a spicy miso tonkotsu special offered, with a base of pork and chicken stock fattened with soy milk and swimming with baby clams, which is not uncommon in Hokkaido. It was fine, but no match for any of the miso ramen. When I want tonkotsu I'll stick to Santouka (or go for karaoke).
No matter how you order, you'll want to accompany your ramen with a tall glass of draft Sapporo, the only alcohol available and, frankly, the only one that makes sense under the circumstances.
The Mount Prospect Ramen Misoya was opened by manager Kohei Tomita, who arrived by way of the Santa Clara branch, and before that the shop in Makuhari, Chiba. I'm told that things are pretty standard from branch to branch—except Santa Clara is using Kurobuta pork for its cha shu, which may be implemented here later.
As a food culture we've come around to prizing individuality and disdaining this kind of standardization. And yet two of the best ramen makers in Chicago are links in very large Japanese chains. Some proud independent restaurants in Chicago have a lot to learn from them.
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that a Ramen Misoya branch is located in Santa Clara, not Santa Cruz.