Groundbreaking white mapo tofu Credit: Anjali Pinto for chicago reader

A sickness had descended upon my home. The walls echoed with wheezes, hacks, and croaks like a chorus of spitting coffee makers, while a malevolent fog of viral particulates hung in the air. I could feel it making a home in my lungs. What started as a wispy, scratchy tickle began to sound more like an open chest wound.

I fled to the suburbs for relief, to a strip mall in Des Plaines where, between a vape shop and a nail salon, a new ramen-ya had opened. Chicago Ramen comes from a veteran chef who’d helped create a sensation in Los Angeles in 2011 with the opening of the first outpost of the lauded Tokyo-based Tsujita chain. For eight years prior to that, Kenta Ikehata, who attended the same Nagasaki junior high school as founder Takehiro Tsujita, had worked up from the bottom in the group and joined his senior classmate in introducing Angelenos to tsukemen (“skee-men”), a particular ramen variant of thick, cold noodles meant to be swabbed in a side bowl filled with an ultra-concentrated broth that the late critic Jonathan Gold described as a “syrup-dense dipping sauce porkier than pork itself.” Gold continued to heap praise on the various Tsujita satellites that opened over the years, and it became a powerhouse in the ramen capital of the western hemisphere.

Meanwhile, to a less satisfying degree, Chicago began to experience its own ramen deluge. There was a time when the only game in town was in the northern suburbs, meaning the milky bowls of tonkotsu ramen at Santouka in the Mitsuwa Marketplace food court in Arlington Heights, and later the miso-based noodle soups at Ramen Misoya in Mount Prospect. But in the city, chains and individual operators subsequently rode the tide of the national ramen obsession, and though some have distinguished themselves, it is still a bit of a challenge to find a well-constructed bowl among the generalists and dilettantes—or anything unique in the ocean of tonkotsu broth.

Chef Kenta Ikehata with <i>tsukemen</i> ramen
Chef Kenta Ikehata with tsukemen ramenCredit: Anjali Pinto for chicago reader

Last January, Ikehata broke away from the Tsujita group to open Tokyo Shokudo at Mitsuwa, serving homey dishes like dry maze-soba noodles, fried cutlets, and curry. Last month he struck again, opening Chicago Ramen, the first of what he says will be multiple north suburban outposts specializing in heretofore uncommon (in the midwest) ramen varieties.

Here that means his own version of tsukemen, the sauce based not on tonkotsu, but a chicken, vegetable, and pork broth emulsified with a blend of Ikehata’s red and white miso pastes.

There is a three-stage protocol to eating these noodles (sourced from the gold standard Sun Noodle). You’re first meant to squeeze a lime wedge over them, then mop them in the sauce and slurp them noisily in a manner that will make those sensitive to certain aural triggers see a conspiracy in the root word of misophonia. Next, alter the profile of the broth as you go along by adding dried chili (onikasu) and raw minced garlic. When your noodles are depleted, you can always order more, but the dense, nutty broth, dotted with tiny amorphous blobs of molten backfat, is as rich and sedating as any tonkotsu. You’re better off requesting a “soup wari,” and your bowl will be diluted with a dose of hot chicken broth. There’s little left to do after this but find a comfortable place to sleep it off.

<i>Tsukemen</i> ramen
Tsukemen ramenCredit: Anjali Pinto for chicago reader

Ikehata also offers red and white miso ramen, based on his individual pastes (which seem like a gauntlet thrown in front of nearby Ramen Misoya), in addition to a vegetable ramen and a limpid chicken ramen. But it’s a sixth variety that truly breaks ground here.

White mapo tofu ramen was born at Tsujita in LA, and it’s the White Walker of ramen varieties. A riff on the lava-colored Sichuan mapo tofu, it features a relatively light chicken broth, a thinner-bore Sun noodle, and a pile of soft, silky tofu nestled within. It looks as midwestern as hotdish, but for the blanket of black pepper on top and the Thai chilis lurking in its depths. You can customize the spice level, and if you’re battling a viral invader I recommend you push yourself to the limit.

Chicago Ramen is audaciously named for an outfit getting its start in the suburbs, but the suburbs have always been home to the kings of Chicago ramen anyway. Based on their social media feeds, local food writers are all over it right now. It’s possible the praise about to be heaped upon Ikehata will lead to a Tsujita-style obsession here, especially after he packs up his family in LA and begins to build his own empire.

For now the suburbs are home to a potent medicine. I loaded my tsukemen with raw garlic, slurped it down, went home and slept like the dead. The next morning my cough was much diminished, and I subdued it totally after downing the cup of wari I took home. At the very least Chicago Ramen should restore your faith in the idea that there’s nothing a really good bowl of ramen can’t fix. v