The best ramen in Chicago

As college students step into adulthood this time of year, we're pushing for them to leave those Maruchan ramen noodle packets behind on the hot plate and study the city's more elevated ramen scene.

Photograph: Martha Williams, Photo illustration: Jamie Divecchio Ramsay

Ginza Japanese Restaurant
19 E Ohio St, 312-222-0600
In the bowl Hidden in plain sight in bustling River North, Ginza has served Japanese cuisine dependably through the decades. The curtained, wood-paneled room offers a dose of quiet tradition hard to find in most places. The shoyu ramen ($8.50, pictured) boasts a mild soy broth, well-cooked noodles with spinach, scallions and a firm but not overdone serving of roasted pork. A small piece of nori as an aromatic garnish made perfect sense, and a soft-boiled egg rounded out the dish.
Know before you go For a full immersion in tradition, treat yourself to a gargantuan bottle of Japanese beer and relish the swift, ninja-like service.

Urban Belly
3053 N California Ave, 773-583-0500
In the bowl This hot spot with a well-known chef (Bill Kim, formerly of Le Lan) draws legions for bowls like the “pho ramen” ($13), which walks a fine line between tradition and fusion. The chocolate-brown broth is beautifully fragrant with cloves, star anise and black pepper, flecked with bright green herbs. The half-dozen slices of buttery pork belly were rich with layers of fat and soft enough to be cut with a spoon, and the shiitake were sparse but welcome. But is it really ramen? Doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, it’s damn good.
Know before you go Save a bit of room for the deliciously spicy ginger candy served after your meal, and try early on weeknights to avoid a wait.

Tokyo Marina
5058 N Clark St, 773-878-2900
In the bowl Ramen is by nature a pretty blue-collar meal, and the Tokyo Marina version ($8.50) (listed simply as “ramen” on the menu) is appropriately minimalistic. Slightly gummy noodles are served in an umami-rich miso broth, with a few slices of thickly sliced pork loin. Broccoli, mushrooms, onion, bean sprouts, scallions, spinach and a slightly cool hard-boiled egg round out the dish. It may not be the most refined ramen in town, but it’s certainly the least pretentious.
Know before you go Hot tea and a simple green salad with ginger dressing come free with every order.

Hiro’s Cafe
2936 N Broadway, 773-477-8510
In the bowl With green noodles and a deep green broth, the tea flavor of Hiro’s green-tea ramen ($9.95) is an interesting infusion. Think of green-tea ice cream, in which the tea flavor doesn’t dominate, but you’re definitely aware of it. With broccoli, onion and bits of red pepper, it’s certainly not what you’d expect from ramen, but it’s surprisingly decent when you want to switch things up.
Know before you go If you’ve OD’d on ramen, you can stuff yourself on its $15.95 daily sushi buffet.

Cocoro East
668 N Wells St, 312-943-2220
In the bowl The three traditional styles of ramen (salt, miso, soy) all have a home at Cocoro, and the shio (salt) ramen ($11.75), with a lightly salted but not overpowering broth, is passable but pricey. For your money you get a bowl of noodles with a few bamboo shoots, some scallions, a soft-boiled egg, a palmful of sesame seeds and one piece of dramatically oversalted pork.
Know before you go The bowl is served with a huge wooden spoon, far superior to the standard porcelain soup spoons everywhere else, and necessary for getting every penny’s worth of sustenance.

BEST BOWL Santouka Ramen
100 E Algonquin Rd, Arlington Heights, 847-357-0286
In the bowl Located in Mitsuwa Marketplace’s food court, the cash-only Santouka makes ramen just about any way you can imagine, as long as it’s traditional and involves pork. The gargantuan menu has three different sizes of multiple ramen types—the #33 Toroniku spicy miso ramen ($10.49) with “special pork” (a terribly tasty and tender pork cheek) comes DIY-style with the rich, salty broth and perfectly cooked noodles in one bowl and the meat, bamboo shoots and scallions on a separate plate.
Know before you go You might be tempted to grab a bottle of sake from Mitsuwa’s liquor store, but pour it on the DL—the food court is alcohol-free.

Tampopo
5665 N Lincoln Ave, 773-561-2277
In the bowl A nod to the area’s Korean roots means little plates of banchan (pickled and/or fermented vegetables), which are a nice extra to munch on while waiting for your noodles. The basic bowl of “tanmen” ramen ($9.50) is heaped high with perfectly cooked noodles, tons of bean sprouts, carrots and scallions, plus fistfuls of cabbage (so much that it almost overwhelms the big picture). Don’t bother with the $1 upcharge to the “gomoku” bowl—one shrimp and one little fish cake aren’t worth it.
Know before you go On Wednesday and Thursday, Tampopo is BYOB with no corkage fee. Time your ramen cravings appropriately.

Shinobu
1131 W Bryn Mawr Ave, 773-334-9062
In the bowl After bowl upon bowl of ramen with braised pork, roasted pork, pork belly and so on, a switch to fish can be tempting. Unfortunately, Shinobu’s salmon ramen ($10) came with a filet that was so tough it was nearly impossible to pick apart with chopsticks. With only wilted spinach and a bit of scallion to garnish, the broth was bland, and the noodles were overcooked and oily.
Know before you go Unless you’ve got a pescatarian in your party who’s hell-bent on ramen, you’re better off skipping Shinobu.

Noodles by Takashi
111 N State St, seventh floor, 312-781-4483
In the bowl The namesake noodles are properly cooked, and the popular shoyu (soy) ramen ($8.95) has a decently flavorful broth, but definitely benefits from a shot of chile oil. The “braised” pork, however, was boiled beyond recognition and proved too tough to handle with chopsticks alone. Bamboo shoots add a necessary bit of crunch to the bowl, but a huge sheet of nori (dried seaweed) is too big to do anything but get in the way.
Know before you go From the seats in the north-facing window, you can voyeuristically stare down on the Joffrey Ballet practice space next door.

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