When we last visited Kizuki Ramen at the end of winter, it was their first night of service. Though Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya is a chain spanning from Japan to the Pacific Northwest, they were breaking in a new staff, trying to get the whole menu together, and concerned about opening their first Midwestern location. Even the bathroom doors, I was told, had been put up just hours earlier.
With the Wicker Park ramen competition continuing to be fierce’Urban Belly recently opened across from the Double Door on Damen’we wanted to check back in with Kizuki Ramen to see how they were doing and what was new.
Massive Drink Menu
When we were last here, we were treated to a tasting of different complimentary sakes based on the ramen ordered. Now the Kizuki drink menu is basically an encyclopedia of Japanese liquor. Beyond sake there’s a variety of Japanese beers, whiskey, shochu, and cocktails. And though it is lengthy, the menu descriptions provide plenty of advice in terms of pairings’ like the dry, crisp Eiko Fuji sake I tried that was good for cleansing the palette between bites of garlic ramen.
From their drink menu, I particularly loved their variety of Hitachino Nest beers. Marked by their distinct Owl mascot on the label, this line of Japanese beers are generally light enough to have with a meal yet full of distinct flavor. I sampled the Red Rice Ale, which mixes crisp sake notes with sweet strawberry to create a flavor combination that’s very distinct and unlike what you’ll find from most American breweries. If you’re very brave, try their Real Ginger Brew beer that really packs a palette punch.
An Izakaya is kind of the equivalent of a Japanese gastropub where you’re getting higher quality bar food. Believe it or not, not everyone likes ramen, but here you can find a variety of bites made with the same level of care. For this visit, we started with the chicken wings. Compared to American wings, these are crispier and come with a garlic citrus glaze that may surprise you.
For chicken fans, I’d recommend the chicken karaage (karaage is a Japanese deep-frying technique). Basically, they’re like dark meat nuggets served with a spicy mayo’very tender and they pack a bit of a punch.
Choosing Your Ramen
Kizuki Ramen has a large number of bowls available, but they make it easy to substitute and create what you want. Don’t want a heavy broth? There’s a low sodium option. Want the garlic ramen, but would like a little kick? Make it spicy. They go out of their way so you get exactly what you want and every bowl is packed full of noodles and toppings. Getting to the bottom of the bowl, but there’s a lot of broth left? Finish it off with a fresh order of noodles dropped right in.
On this visit, I tried the Garlic Tonkotsu Shoyu Ramen that I upgraded with pork belly that’s so tender it practically melts in your mouth. The broth has a very hearty, pure garlic flavor that’s not overwhelming or artificial. There’s a substantial amount of noodles in the bowl along with toppings like a rich boiled egg that after soaking in the broth tastes incredible.
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya vs. the Competition
Wicker Park, as a microcosm of Chicago, is now packed with ramen restaurants. If you’re looking for a hot bowl, where should you go?
Furious Spoon is very much like a traditional Japanese ramen-ya: it’s small with a very limited menu. When I was in Japan, this was a place where you’d go in, grab a seat by the kitchen, get your bowl in a couple minutes, and be on your way. No bells and whistles, just solid food. It’s a good place to stop if you’re coming home from the office and want a quick bite, but you may find yourself wanting a little more.
Kizuki Ramen is quite different. There’s a lot more variety on the menu from ramen to the Izakaya items like octopus balls and lots more alcohol. It’s a less casual restaurant that’s larger, more open, and a better place to go on a date. The restaurant is also filled with more ornate decorations that are modern while still giving you a classic Japanese vibe.
Urban Belly very quickly took over the space that was occupied for many years by Penny’s Noodle Shop next to the Damen Blue Line stop. It’s a fast casual, Asian fusion restaurant with a few locations in the Chicago. Although Urban Belly deserves a lot of the acclaim it gets, I found their ramen to be underwhelming. The noodle-to-broth ratio was quite low for the size of the bowl, the broth was kind of watery, and the pork belly was mostly chewy fat without a lot of flavor.
While I may have caught them on a bad day and the restaurant had just opened, in comparison, Kizuki Ramen’s noodle bowls are more sophisticated, heartier, and flavorful.
Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya
1482 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60622