Two of the city's most resourceful hospitality empires recently opened restaurants in response to the persistent ramen craze that's swept across the nation, beginning with David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City a decade ago. The fact that it's taken that long for the Melman family's Ramen-San and Brendan Sodikoff's High Five Ramen to open their doors hopefully says more about the value of patience than it does about hopping on the bandwagon. In the meantime, the often-invoked axiom that not one of Chicago's newer bowls of ramen is better than those served by two Japanese-owned chains in the suburbs—Santouka and Ramen Misoya—has continued to hold.
I've long argued that this is because the new guys fail to commit completely to the concept, instead offering a range of supplementary dishes that have no business sitting beside a bowl of noodle soup. It's simply a failure to focus.
While both Lettuce Entertain You (the Melmans) and Hogsalt Hospitality (Sodikoff) did their homework—sending research teams to Japan to study the masters—the former has stuck with this safer approach, offering a half-dozen appetizers, a trio of Changian meat-stuffed steamed buns, chicken wings, and salads, not to mention a half-dozen cocktails by Paul McGee and an impressive collection of Japanese whiskeys.
Under the direction of chief Lettuce chef Doug Psaltis, some of Ramen-San's dishes are quite good, like a pyramid of sesame- and togarashi-sprinkled cucumber slices dotted with blobs of sweet fresh uni, looking like something living in a tidal pool. Spicy Sichuan chicken wings are steroid-size and glazed with a lacquer of sesame-studded candied spice. Tight little shrimp-and-pork wontons are armored with an umami force field of seafood-powered XO sauce.
Oh, but did you want ramen? There are seven varieties, plus an occasional special from a kitchen hidden from the dining room—the former Studio Paris space, thumping with 90s-era hip-hop. These are built upon pork-based tonkotsu broth or soy-spiked chicken broth (there's also a shiitake-based broth for the vegetarians) and garnished with seaweed, fermented bamboo, scallions, and pickled ginger, plus various proteins, including the familiar chashu, in this case slabs of roasted pork belly, and hanjuku tamago, the molten soft-boiled eggs that are typically served warm in the soup—regrettably not the case at Ramen-San, where the eggs arrive chilled. Other, more unorthodox additions include kimchi and fried chicken in the tonkotsu broth and, in a black-garlic-dosed chicken broth, several slabs of smoked brisket from LEYE's Bub City down the street.
The inherent intensity of those ingredients does nothing to enhance what turns out to be one of the weakest bowls on the menu: egg, noodles, and brisket bobbing listlessly in a watery, tasteless broth that seemed to have arrived unseasoned—a blandness emblematic of a general timidity that inhabits these bowls. It's as if Ramen-San is mollycoddling the flavor-fearing folk of River North.
The basic shoyu ramen is better, a thin but discernibly chickeny soy-finished broth that's hard to complain about, perhaps because it's too difficult to remember. Ramen-San's tonkotsu broth is a bit better yet, appropriately milky, a bit lip-sticky with collagen, but only to the degree that leaves one wanting more. It's a decently porky-tasting broth that worked best in a special featuring a generous scoop of sweet crabmeat, with some textural variety contributed by a dash of yellow corn.
But even Ramen-San's most vigorous-appearing bowls lack backbone. The chile-oil-slicked spicy miso, based on a combination of tonkotsu and chicken broth, has a wonderful toasty aroma that rises above the bowl. Somehow, the flavor seems to escape with it, despite a healthy dose of ground pork.
The noodles are made by the respected Sun Noodle, which supplies customized formulations to ramen makers across the country from factories on both coasts and in Hawaii. Ramen-San went with very good long, firm, springy, and slightly wavy noodles that are far better than the soups they swim in.
High Five Ramen's equally good noodles come from Sun as well, but Sodikoff and company went with a shorter, fatter temomi noodle that has an imperceptibly irregular cut and a larger surface area that allow the broth to better cling to it—particularly the extraordinary tonkotsu broth, which is employed in four versions including a superspiced, potentially dangerous "Kanabo" variety that deploys ground ichimi chile and sansho, a relative of the Sichuan peppercorn that produces a tingly, numbing effect. There's also the signature High Five Ramen, which is plenty spicy in its own right, though also available with half the heat or none at all. It's characterized by a viscosity and coloration that in the basement dim approaches something you might see if you were to peer over the crater edge of an active volcano.
But the spicing is just one page of a deeper, more interesting story that started 20 hours earlier in a stockpot filled with marrow-packed and collagen-rich pork leg and pork neck bones, chicken backs, chicken feet, and water. That's how long of a roiling boil it takes for the bones to give up their treasure and alchemize the water into something truly special. According to Hogsalt's Jeff Pikus, whom I interviewed last year about his ramen research, the base broth is added to a wok with the spices, soy, salt, mirin, ground pork fatback, and miso to order, and whisked over high heat until it all emulsifies, becoming frothy and creamy. Then come the noodles, black-garlic oil, leeks, bean sprouts, slices of braised pork belly that nearly dissolve at the touch, and a perfectly warm soft-boiled egg. Spicy or not, there's a lot going on in this bowl. Thick, creamy, colored like a dark roux or hot chocolate, and saturated with sticky collagen, by the time you've reached the bottom it'll make you feel you've spelunked several miles below the earth to be rewarded with a bouquet of garlic.
High Five's signature ramen sets a new standard for tonkotsu in the city, but as much as I like it, I have to give higher praise to the much lighter shoyu ramen, which is built on a base of chicken broth cooked low and slow, then combined with a complex dashi that features dried sardines, kelp, and squid that bathe in cold water overnight before a short one-hour cook. After that, two kinds of bushi—smoked, dried, and shaved flakes of bonito and mackerel loin—are added to the broth before straining. The tare, or seasoning, for these bowls comprises three types of soy blended with the chashu's cooking liquid, and is infused with charred dried squid and more bonito flakes.
If the tonkotsu is coffee with cream, leached from the bones of terrestrial creatures, the shoyu ramen is black coffee, a dark but light-bodied broth from the depths of the sea. The same dashi is employed in High Five's sixth offering, combined with the cooking liquid from the fat Washington State clams that swim in it. It's the lightest of the soups available, there for anyone who's ever been traumatized by the pinguid excesses of other Hogsalt restaurants.
High Five is approached through an unassuming door on the way in to Green Street Smoked Meats. It leads to a short set of stairs that will be crowded with people minutes after opening, where they'll wait Doughnut Vault-style for the 16 stools below, set around the bar and wall in full view of the cooks assembling the bowls. It's a raw, unfinished concrete crypt, and when Spacemen 3 or Bauhaus are playing, you might regret not wearing your gothic Lolita ensemble. Like the ramen, there are a just a few choices for drinks: a pair of sweet, slushy cocktails, two canned sakes, a "Canzilla" of Asahi Super Dry lager, and a $3 shot of Old Grand-Dad.
It's that kind of stripped-down focus that makes High Five Ramen the most convincing approximation of an actual ramen-ya the city has seen to date. Sodikoff came up in the LEYE organization, so it's ironic that he's serving the best bowls within the city limits while his former employer is still playing in the sand.
Disclosure: On my first visit to High Five Ramen, the power went out, and everyone inside ate for free.