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Monday, February 24, 2014

Chinatown's Strings Ramen is the city's most dedicated ramen shop

Posted By on 02.24.14 at 02:36 PM

tonkotsu ramen, Strings Ramen Shop

I can't help but beat my head against the truth that the current wave of ramen slingers who do a million other things besides ramen will never make a bowl as good as the ones I slurped at Ramen Misoya, the Japanese chain that opened last summer in Mount Prospect. It's a belief I have to smother in the service of objectivity every time I try a new bowl at a place that also happens to make sushi, or whatever filler they use to pad the menu for people who can't deal with a restaurant that doesn't have 180 options.

So I was perhaps unreasonably excited about Strings Ramen in Chinatown, which opened earlier this month with a relatively focused menu of four ramen styles, a few rice bowls, some sides, and oden, the winter snack made of various skewered bits of fish cakes, sausage, boiled eggs, and other things, bathing in a slow-simmering dashi broth. More on that later.

Strings has behind it peripatetic Chinatown restaurant designer and occasional chef Kee Chan (last seen at Lure Izakaya) and a few other lesser-known principals like American-born chef de cuisine Matt Nakano.

What's most remarkable about Strings are the noodles, which, unlike those at most spots in town, are made fresh daily with an imported Japanese mixer and noodle maker. They are thin, firm, and have a fresh, almost floury taste that stands up well in any broth you choose. These include a turkey-and-salt-based shio ramen with pickled ginger, fish cake, and boiled egg; a light, clear, soy-based shoyu ramen with added smokiness from bonito; a miso-and-pork-based broth with corn, garlic, sesame, and white pepper; and, finally, the big daddy, tonkotsu, made with a 48-hour Kurobuta (aka Berkshire) pork-bone boil.

The latter two broths are nearly indistinguishable. They're both pleasingly sticky with rendered collagen and just a hint of animal funk—the miso ramen perhaps a bit more so—and both offer the chance to upgrade the pork quotient with pieces of grilled Kurobuta chashu. Yet despite that 48-hour bone bath, the broth in each is surprisingly flat, missing depth and body. This is a noble effort, but it's lacking the character even of Wicker Park's Oiistar, where the depthless broth is ruined by overseasoning.

oden, Strings Ramen Shop

The oden was sad too. This winter snack, which can be found in convenience stores all over Japan, takes on the flavor of its skewered components the longer it simmers, but it should also have hints of sweetness and saltiness from mirin and soy. The dashi broth in Strings' oden tastes like hot dog water, thanks, I'm guessing, to the mini Kurobuta weenies simmering the brew—but not much else.
chazuke duck, Strings Ramen

The real winner at Strings, however, is the chazuke, or rice tea bowl, available with chicken, chicken and pork, salmon roe, scallops, or duck. The duck chazuke features a fan of pink sliced duck breast with scallions and pink pickled ginger bedded on firm white rice. Hot tea is poured over the top, which cooks the duck just slightly and is absorbed into the rice, making a simple, clean bowl that trumps the clumsiness of the others.
Strings Ramen

Strings Ramen Shop, 2141 S. Archer, 312-374-3450, ramenchicago.com

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