In preparation for writing this article, I tried to find out what exactly caused Chicago’s “let’s open a bunch of ramen restaurants” movement, and I gave up after about 10 minutes of Googling. I know ramen became popular in Chicago a couple years ago (that’s when websites and newspapers such as the Redeye started ranking all the “best bowls” of ramen in the city), but if anyone knows what sparked the whole thing, I would love to be enlightened.
Despite not knowing the cause behind the fad, I was still eager to hop on the bandwagon (albeit a bit late to the party). Although I wish a bowl of ramen downtown cost less than 50 cents like the packages at Walmart, I’m willing to pay the price for the fresh ingredients and big flavors that are hard to replicate at home. That’s why I headed to Slurping Turtle (116 W. Hubbard St.), just a few blocks from the Grand Red Line stop.
The door to the restaurant is modern in an intimidating way (the kind of door that doesn’t actually look like a door, with a giant metal beam instead of a doorknob), and once you get inside you’re in a long cement hallway. If I hadn’t been with someone who had been there before, I would’ve struggled to get past this point and into the actual restaurant. But once you get past the intimidating exterior, the restaurant’s space is sleek with lots of bright overhead lighting and booths lining the walls. The fancy atmosphere is broken up by two huge portraits on the wall, which I can only assume are of a very young Takashi Yagihashi, the world renowned Japanese chef who created Slurping Turtle to showcase the foods of his childhood.
The front of the menu is broken up into “snacks” (various Asian-inspired tapas, perfect as an appetizer) and “slurps” (three different kinds of ramen). The back features a long list of sake, wine, beer and cocktails.
When we arrived at 6:15 p.m., the restaurant was half full and the service was prompt. As time passed throughout our dinner, the restaurant filled up and service slowed, but it was never unsatisfactory.
We ordered two “snacks” to start off our meal — fried brussel sprouts ($6) and duck fat fried chicken ($9).
I had never tried brussel sprouts, and at first bite I wasn’t sure I liked them. Some of the leaves were burnt and tasted bitter, but the ones that were golden brown were delicious. Topped with fried shallots and a salty sauce, the little bites were addicting and I kept going back to them throughout the meal.
The duck fat fried chicken was also a good way to start the meal. You get about six pieces that are bigger than wings but smaller than drumsticks, which I thought was a good deal. Being a lover of fried chicken skin (even though that seems a bit weird when I actually type it out), these were heavenly. The skin was as crunchy as a fried wonton, but the meat was still juicy. The small side salad that comes with the chicken was also a great palate-cleanser after such a fatty dish.
For our “slurps,” we got one bowl of Tonkotsu ramen ($14) and one bowl of Tan Tan Men ramen ($14).
The Tonkotsu is a traditional-style ramen with noodles made in house, pork broth, pork chashu (marinated, braised pork belly), bok choy, a soft-boiled egg and chili oil. The Tan Tan Men is spicier, with the same housemade ramen noodles, three different types of pork, bok choy and bean sprouts.
I’m usually a wimp with spice, but the Tan Tan Men was mild enough that I could still enjoy the flavors. My favorite part of that bowl was the pork meatballs, which were packed with a fresh herb flavor but still had a kick of heat from the broth.
I preferred the Tonkotsu of the two, though. The broth was heavier than the Tan Tan Men’s and a bit on the salty side, but that’s why I liked it. With a little of the extra seasoning they placed on the table (no idea what it is, but it had a red cap), I finished the whole bowl — even after the appetizers.
For dessert, we decided to try one of the unique ice cream flavors. We tried black sesame ($3), but sea salt and red bean were also options. The flavor wasn’t bad per se, but I couldn’t get past the odd texture. I would skip the ice cream in the future and try a different dessert like a macaron or cream puff.
Verdict: Slurping Turtle isn’t perfect, but it’s still worth a visit. It’s a good place to catch up with a friend and try a new dish. The lively space filled with communal tables gives off a relaxed atmosphere that anyone could enjoy.