Unlike say, barbecue joints, the growing abundance of new ramen spots around town is a seemingly unstoppable restaurant trend I’ve started to get behind. Gone are the days when the conventional wisdom held that Santouka in Arlington Heights’s Mitsuwa Marketplace food court was the only acceptable bowl in the region, if not the midwest. With some notable exceptions it seems independent operators and Japanese chains alike have insinuated themselves in the city, mastered the delicate art of the gooey hanjuku egg, the springy tensile noodle, and above all nailed the broth, whether it’s an austere shio, a glutamically intense paitan, or a cloudy tonkotsu, creamy with pork fat. I would almost describe it as a golden age if more ramen-ya actually opened in a wider and more diverse collection of neighborhoods (h/t Futatsuki).
Right now Chicago’s ground zero for ramen is Wicker Park, which after Oiistar and Furious Spoon certainly didn’t need another outpost. And yet Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya landed right in between the two, less than a quarter mile away from each. Kizuki is the 30th outpost of a Japanese chain, formerly named Kukai, which rebranded to avoid confusion with a similarly named French fashion label. If we’ve learned anything from the Japanese invasion, it’s that the chains defy the conventional wisdom that they necessarily traffic in a soulless, substandard product. Kizuki defies that logic too.
Kizuki isn’t a specialist in any one style either (which should also give one pause). It offers some 11 different varieties from basic salt, soy, miso, and chicken broths to yuzu-kelp, vegetable, and the relatively rare tsukemen, which is a dry plate of noodles served with a concentrated dipping broth to the side. There are about 15 of the usual toppings and additions available too, plus a conventional array of snacky drinking foods and rice bowls. But my baseline when confronted with this situation, unless a specialty is touted, is to go tonkotsu, in this case garlic tonkotsu, beaded with deposits of black garlic oil and pork fat. It has a decent degree of lipsticky collagen unctuousness (though I’d be pleased with more), nice slabs of roasted pork chashu, crisp green onions and bean sprouts, crackly seaweed, tangy fermented bamboo, a pinch of dried chili, and a warm molten egg. At the risk of vexing the Gods, I’ll say that in the face of such a well-executed, if textbook, bowl the noodles are almost irrelevant, but the thick, slightly wavy tendrils are ordinarily good too.
If we as a people deserved nice things, there’d be a ramen-ya of this level of dependability in every neighborhood. Here’s to a more equitable distribution.
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya, 1482 N. Milwaukee, 773-270-4150, kizuki.com