I have a colleague whose husband, Nelson, writes me every so often, always about ramen. These emails are impressive in their breadth of knowledge and grammatical flawlessness.
After I wrote about Wicker Park's Oiistar last year (which served my favorite tonkotsu-style ramen in Chicago), Nelson replied with a point-by-point rebuttal. The pork loin was "perfectly cooked, but a surprising amount of cinnamon, which leached into the broth over time." The noodles had "great texture," though he preferred them "quite a bit thicker." He complained the egg was close to overcooked, wasn't marinated with soy sauce and sake, and was sliced horizontally instead of vertically. It's admirable for a man to ponder matters of noodles on such high-minded levels; it also suggests his base line for acceptable ramen is much higher than mine.
So when Nelson wrote again 10 months later, this time in a note crammed with superlatives, my antennae sprang up. Among his blurbs: "Unambiguously better than any shop in town" … "king of noodle soups" … "(others) don't even come close."
Nelson was sending a lot of love to Wasabi in Logan Square.
When Wasabi opened on Milwaukee Avenue three years ago (it moved to more spacious confines down the street in September), the restaurant served hodgepodge Japanese with an emphasis on sushi. Six months in, owner/chef Satoko Takeyama made a course correction. She saw the burgeoning ramen craze and bet tonkotsu could be her calling card.
There aren't many dishes vaunted by food obsessives to pilgrimage status. Tonkotsu ramen is one. Entire blogs are devoted to the pursuit of tonkotsu, fastidiously documented from city to city with high-res photos and multiparagraphed treatises. They obsess because tonkotsu ramen, when it's on, is like biting into white truffles or the meltingly fat-streaked ham of jamon iberico de bellota or the seared rib-eye cap of Wagyu beef. There's a rich, full-bodied, dissolve-on-your-tongue buttery savor. Tonkotsu achieves this by steeping the collagen out of pork bones until the broth turns beige and vaguely creamy. In essence, it's pork-fat noodle soup, and it's terrible for your health, but in the most appealing way possible.
Tonkotsu ramen ($13) has become Wasabi's stock in trade, and it receives the best real estate and largest typeface on the printed menu. The lengths they go for one bowl of soup are Nelsonian.
The pork used is Berkshire heritage, pigs that live fatter, happier, less-claustrophobic lives than their stockyard relatives. These pork bones, plus jidori chickens (also a more delicious breed), are boiled for two days, then skimmed of oil and detritus until the broth resembles buttermilk. It looks so velvety that you're tempted to soak your dry hands in and turn on spa music.
The two times I visited Wasabi were on two of Chicago's coldest, grossest nights. This was fortuitous, because the crummier the weather, the more effective ramen is on the diner. The bowl that arrived was a terrific, 8.7 out of 10. I'm not ready to declare this equal to/greater than Oiistar's interpretation, but it satisfies my requirements: Consuming this makes you radiate a soothing glow, as if you're swathed in warm towels. You can also tell it's legit because its utter richness makes finishing an entire bowl difficult, albeit a righteous challenge.
With the broth, I still think Oiistar ekes out the win by a snout. Wasabi's tonkotsu broth is heavier, though not to the degree of flavor depth at Oiistar. But that's all relative; Wasabi's two-day Berkshire broth slays 99 percent of soups in the city, a heightened state of umami you can't achieve by cheating, and only through the passage of time.
Though I prefer remaining a tonkotsu purist, my dining partner thought Wasabi's spicy garlic miso ramen, using the same soup base, was superior. The roasted garlic had a mellow sweetness, minus the haunting lingering qualities of overabundance. Its spiciness is bona fide, tempered somewhat by the earthy miso flavors but still potent enough to kick-start the sniffles.
The noodles served in the tonkotsu are an interesting choice. One misconception is all ramen noodles are created alike. Not so. Most tonkotsu noodles are thinner and straighter than their counterparts in northern Japan. Oiistar's house-made noodles typify the Hakata style, the southern Japanese city where tonkotsu got famous. Wasabi's noodles (though not made in store) are eggier, thicker and curlier, more associated with Tokyo-style shoyu ramen. The benefit of this, if you buy into the theory, is the noodle's uneven texture picks up more soup with every slurp. If anything, it gives the bowl the heft it needs to match up with the heavy broth.
The egg's sunflower yolk is three-quarters congealed, marinated with soy and bisected vertically, exactly the way Nelson demands his ramen egg. The shards of scallions and bamboo shoots add respective bite and texture. But the breakout star is the charsiu, the slab of pork that's a 60-40 ratio of meat to fat. That sweet and unctuous pork, braised overnight with mirin and sugar, quivers on the chopsticks and dissolves in the mouth like jelly. I have found a legal drug.
The rest of the menu was more hit-and-miss. The hit was the chicken "lollipops" ($7), deep-fried to a lacy karaage-style crust, served with a roasted garlic dipping sauce. Mostly the misses were a casualty of underseasoning (pot stickers, any of the breaded skewers); a beef short rib was grilled perfectly on one visit but chewy and lukewarm another. Once, the server brought both bowls of ramen with his thumb cuticle deep in the soup. What bothered me most was the wracking guilt of indecision of whether to send the dish back. I was hungry, and I didn't. Still tasted delicious. The second time, though, the ramen arrived unsullied. And somehow, with the weather outside even uglier, it was twice as satisfying. My new friend Nelson is on to something.
2115 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Open: 5 p.m. to late Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Check average for two (without drinks): $45
Recommended: Tonkotsu and spicy garlic miso ramen, grilled shiitake mushroom skewers, grilled chicken skin skewers, fried chicken "lollipops"