A few years ago, most Chicagoans probably thought of ramen as the cheap microwave noodles they ate in college, but now the city is obsessed with the Japanese noodle-soup dish. The latest contender for best ramen bowl in the city is Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya in Wicker Park.
What separates Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya from the competition? In part: authenticity. Kizuki is a Japanese-based chain that’s now all over the West Coast and now coming to the Midwest. What’s also apparent from a pre-opening meal is that Kizuki Ramen offers more of a fine dining vibe than some of its Milwaukee Avenue competition.
Occupying what was once MAX’s Wine Dive, and Covo Gyro before it, Kizuki Ramen modernizes traditional Japanese art and design elements making it feel both hip and authentic. The warm woods, wall of paper lanterns, the shoji-esque dividers between booths, and open view of the kitchen give you the feeling of the homey ramen shop, yet features like the minimalist Japanese art, contrasting blacks, and the very high ceiling give it more style and personality. The bright lights, friendly staff, and affordable prices make Kizuki Ramen very inviting, while the restaurant still makes for a classy date.
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya plan to offer close to 30 different sakes. Like grape-based wine, there’s a tremendous variety of sakes out there. For instance, I sat down to a light, sweet, and fruity sake’ while later I tried one that less flavorful, but designed to cleanse the palette between bites of ramen. Don’t worry if you’re not a sake expert as Kizuki Ramen has trained staff to help you find the right one for you or your meal.
If rice wine isn’t your cup of tea, the restaurant has Japanese beers on tap and plans to offers cocktails with Japanese liquor. The latter should help them stand out from the rest of the ramen crowd.
We’ve focused primarily on ramen so far, but what about the second part of Kizuki Ramen’s name? An Izakaya is kind of like the Japanese equivalent to a pub or tavern. It’s a chill place where you can go after work to grab a tasty bite. The Izakaya options are very diverse and full of great picks for anyone who’s not a major ramen fan. Here were a few of my favorites:
- Chicken Karage: They also have chicken wings, but I preferred these pieces of fried dark chicken meat paired with a spicy mayo. Very rich, tender, and flavorful.
- Chilled Tofu: You can order fresh, cool tofu that’s light and refreshing with either soy or spicy dressing. Personally, I preferred the spicy kick.
- Takoyaki Octopus Dumplings: A fried octopus ball may not sound like everyone’s first choice, and takoyaki can be easy to screw up. However, Kizuki’s octopus dumplings were smooth and creamy with a little crispness and just the right amount of chewiness.
I visited on the first night of service, and the evening began with a short ‘class’ on how they prepare their ramen and broths. The old school method to preparing broths is to throw a meat bone right in the pot, but, as I learned, this can lead to a meaty smell that really turns some people away. Kizuki Ramen has a unique, time-consuming technique where the bone is first roasted and turned in an oven before being thrown in the pot. The entire process takes about a day, but retains the flavor while eliminating any odor (they also have a lighter, vegetarian broth).
After the broth comes the noodle, with the size of the noodle reflecting the heaviness of the broth. A thin noodle goes well with a lighter broth, a chewier wavy noodle does best in the normal meat-based broths, and the thickest flat noodles are meant to be dipped in broth. Personally, the thin noodles were my favorite, but I didn’t try the biggest, dipping noodle.
Lastly, various toppings are carefully selected to complement the broth and noodles. For example, bean sprouts are often put in as a palette cleanser, so your mouth doesn’t get too overwhelmed by flavor. Currently on the menu there are about a dozen ramen bowl options (ranging from $9 to $13), but the restaurant will offer customizable bowls allowing for dozens of combinations.
A waiter recommended I try the Garlic Tonkotsu Shuya Ramen, which I’m told is very popular at their other stores. Pork broth is enhanced with lots of garlic and soy sauce, the wavy noodles, pork belly, a soft-boiled egg, and some veggies. As you might expect, these are substantial bowls of food, so come hungry. The pork broth enriched the plentiful ramen noodles, as well as the tender pork belly. Though I’m no expert, this was exactly like the delicious ramen I ate when studying abroad in Japan during college.
Though the Chicago ramen competition is fierce, Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya offers the authenticity and proven success from its stores out west and in Japan. Their food is affordable and plentiful, the interior comfortable and stylish, and the staff friendly and knowledgeable. Give them a try, and you’re stomach will be very happy!
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya
1482 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622