Ramen Mania Rages on in Wicker Park
If the ramen craze in Wicker Park is going to balloon, winter is a good time to do so. Last February, customers lined up down the street during a polar vortex for an early slurp of red-hot Furious Spoon. A bit further down Milwaukee, customers cozy up to bowls filled with contemporary ramen creations like chicken masala-based "Tikkamen" at Oiistar. And pretty soon, the trendy neighborhood will soon add two more to its brothy portfolio. Here's the scoop on Wicker Park's ever-growing ramen scene:
Oiistar was the earliest progenitor of the neighborhood's ramen boom. The restaurant adapted a somewhat more formal approach than many casual, fast-paced noodle nooks around town, opting for a dark, woody space with full-service and tables designed for lingering. The menu skews modern, with a myriad of buns, seasonal items, shareable plates, and even bao doughnuts for dessert. But it's the ramen that made a name for Oiistar, available in four different varieties. These varieties veer away from traditional Japanese flavors in favor of eclectic offerings inspired by different countries. Take for example the "Pozolmen," a bowl of Mexican-Japanese fusion filled with pork loin, jalapeno, red onion, and tomato. Or the "Musclemen" with mussels, chilies, scallions, and bonito miso. Or the aforementioned "Tikkamen," which bridges the gap between Japan and India via chicken masala, bean sprouts, nori, and sesame.
While Oiistar is more leisurely, Furious Spoon captures the frenetic essence of a fast-paced Tokyo noodle den, complete with a long open kitchen, refrigerators filled with Japanese beer, and tight communal seating options where patrons cozy up to strangers. Presided over by deft chef Shin Thompson, who rose to acclaim at Bonsoiree and Kabocha. Here, he's honed in on one of the dishes he became best known for. His ramen speaks for itself, available in varieties like a white pepper chicken shio ramen, shoyu ramen with tonkotsu broth and chashu pork belly, and the namesake furious ramen brimming with spicy miso, chashu pork belly, white pepper chicken, poached egg, marinated mushrooms, garlic relish, and "fury" sauce. As salacious as the ramen options are here, the narrow space and hyper vibe is a large part of the fun, setting the scene for an authentic and delicious slurping experience in Wicker Park. In the year that it's been open, Furious Spoon has set a new bar for ramen not only in Wicker Park, but the city of Chicago at large. Coming soon, the Furious team branches out to Logan Square with an expanded space, a rooftop, and a fully developed bar program.
In terms of newcomers, Kukai Ramen & Izakaya is set to fill the space vacated by Max's Wine Dive a bit south of Furious Spoon on Milwaukee Avenue. Kukai is a Japanese based chain of ramen outlets, with locations in Washington state and Oregon. With roots in Japan, the homeland of ramen, this one promises to be pretty legit. Look for menu options like garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen, shoyu ramen with Japanese pork, chicken chashu ramen, chile-laden spicy ramen, yuzu shio ramen with Japanese citrons, and more.
Then there's Urbanbelly, the ramen restaurant created and perfected by Bill Kim. After originally opening in Avondale, the restaurant quickly caught on and single-handedly ignited the ramen craze in Chicago. Kim has since uprooted and moved his restaurant to the West Loop, and he recently announced a second location for the Penny's Noodle Shop space in Wicker Park. The prime space, positioned right next to the Damen Blue Line amidst a flurry of fan-favorite dining and drinking spots, the new Urbanbelly promises to be a huge boon for the neighborhood's noodle scene.
Look for both Kukai and Urbanbelly to open before too long in 2016.
- Matt Kirouac