Strings Ramen opened in Chicago about two years ago, and ever since then my roommate, a self-proclaimed Japanese enthusiast who travels to Japan at least once a year, has gone almost every week. According to him, Strings has the second best ramen anywhere outside of Japan (the best is the legendary Ichiran found in Hong Kong). From my own experience, I agree: Strings serves excellent ramen, easily the best in Chicago. However, over the past year Strings’s menu has grown tremendously from four humble bowls of ramen to include a variety of hit-or-miss items. Below I highlight three items that they do extremely well and are very much worth trying out.
1. Tonkotsu Ramen with Kurobota
If you’re a fan of ramen, this is a must. Tonkotsu refers to the pork bones used to make the rich, meaty, absolutely delicious broth that has a lovely roasted flavor. Yum. The noodles are also made in-house and have an excellent bite and texture. You will have two choices with the kurobota (roast pork) topping: a healthier alternative cut of pork loin or a decadently succulent piece of pork belly (yes, I always go with the latter).
Also, remember to order a lava egg (a Japanese soft-boiled egg) with your ramen. Enjoy it the traditional way: drop it into the bowl as soon as you get them, let the soup warm up the egg and enjoy the firmly set white and creamy yolk.
2. Sashimi Bowl (with 1,2 or 3 toppings depending on preference)
A mound of rice covered with a torn-up soft boiled egg and a generous helping of ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin), spicy scallops or any combination of the 3, this is a fantastic treat for all you seafood lovers out there. Mixing the egg in the the rice adds a lovely silkiness. This is a winning combination no matter what seafood you decide to add to your dish.
3. Hell Ramen
Although the name implies this dish is not for the faint of heart, you can totally customize the spiciness to your liking depending on how adventurous you feel. With 5 levels to choose from, these dishes range from fragrant and flavorful to fiery hot. Finishing a bowl of level 5 ramen under specific conditions will get you a cash prize, and according to store employees, a handful of people try each month (he did not reveal that not many of them succeed). The rest of us can happily enjoy levels 1-3 depending on our own spice tolerances (1 if you like spicy food occasionally, 2 if you’re like me and have a decent but not incredible tolerance, 3 if you’re known amongst your friends as the one who fiends for hot foods). The flavors and toppings used in this ramen resemble flavors from the Sichuan region of China more so than they do Japan, but if you’re looking for a spicy fix, these are an excellent choice.
A couple notes on the restaurant itself:
- The storefront is not large, and it doesn’t accept reservations, so it fills up really quickly on weekend nights. Try coming for lunch or at unconventional times to avoid waiting times that can last up to an hour. Or, you can do what I do and spend your waiting time at the bubble tea spot across the street!
- This place is moderately pricey (the bill will probably be around $20 per person), but it offers excellent value for the price and is definitely worth it as an occasional treat.