by Ilana Shabanov
I’ve had a life-long love-affair with Asian food. It might be due in part to being Jewish. As a people, we seem to have a strong predisposition. To borrow from Jo in Little Women - Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Chinese food. It’s true. But I am not bound to Chinese food alone, but rather all of the cuisines that Asia has to offer. I’m what one might call a Noodle Slut. There, I’ve said it. Whew.
It’s an ongoing joke in our house that when the crippling question of what to get for dinner arises, I will always offer up Thai or Japanese. My husband has simply stopped asking because he knows the answer and can’t take it anymore. As two trained cooks (he is still a working chef, I am very much not), going out to eat can become a harrowing process, that if we’re not careful, can end in sandwiches. Jimmy John’s is a sad excuse for Nabe Yaki Udon.
In support of my Noodle Sluthood, I have been in search of the perfect bowl of ramen. Countless crunchy packages of good old Maruchan left an unfulfilled fire in my belly. Don’t start none, won’t be none, Maruchan, what can I say. There are plenty of more traditional Japanese restaurants in Chicago, serving perfectly lovely udon and ramen, but I wasn’t entirely satisfied. I wanted....more. Something had to give, and that something came in the form of Chizakaya.
“We’re going here. You will like it. This is happening.” I informed the husband of this a few Saturdays ago when I found Chizakaya on my silly phone app, Foodspotting. It was about 80 degrees outside and I was in no way deterred from shoving my face in a piping hot bowl of soup.
Chizakaya is kind of modern rendering of a traditional izakaya, which is a Japanese bar and grill if you will, that specializes in simple but delicious working-class food and lots of beer and sake. It’s everything that is right in the world under one roof - skewers of funky bits of meat and brimming bowls of kitchen-sink style ramen. Chizakaya is one of the only of it’s kind in Chicago right now, other attempts failing almost out of the gate. The chef/owner Harold Jurado comes from a pedigreed background that includes Japonais and is supported by a kitchen staff that has worked at the likes of Guy Savoy and L20. Yowzers.
The menu is a well-considered collection of small to somewhat larger plates which are perfect for sharing, which is what we did. And how. Hamachi with silky bone marrow and ume boshi (pickled plums) was kind of magical, as well as the congee with crab and corn. However, the one that made me swoon was the Okonomi-yaki - a savory pancake studded with bacon, squid, shrimp and ginger and drizzled with spicy and sweet sauces and smokey bonito flakes. This was amazing perfectly sober, but I could absolutely understand how this would be the perfect remedy to a stunning case of the drunks. I would like to hire the person responsible for making these on retainer.
So, ramen - they have that, about five variations that change slightly with the season. In my visits to Chizakaya, I’ve tried three different kinds. My first was the house ramen which has braised pork belly, homemade fish balls (hee hee) and a slow-poached egg ($12). The broth is super-rich and the whole deal is very autumnal and earthy. It is solidly tasty, if not a bit murky. The husband got the seafood curry ramen ($15) with scallops, huge head-on prawns and fingerling potatoes. He won that round, hands down. It was spicy and savory and briney, just as it should be. What really surprised me was upon a second trip, I went with the chicken ramen ($12), which seemed initially like a total novice thing to do. I was so wrong. The broth was spot- on, unbelievably chickeny with a salty edge, with braised/confit chicken thigh meat, handmade chicken dumplings, a soft boiled egg and sweet corn. There was something wonderfully familiar about it. When I reheated the rest the next day for lunch, I squealed with glee to find the soup had set into a chicken soup jello. Their broths are so gelatinous and rich the husband and I sat jiggling our chilled leftovers in food-geek awe. Stock like that takes time and patience. Little things like that are the stuff of inspiration.
What they are doing at Chizakaya is a labor of love. There is no sushi to be found there, no miso soup or seaweed salad, but there is undoubtedly tradition rooted in each plate. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there is an audience for something a little less familiar, because it would be a shame if they didn’t weather the storm. With the temperature cooling down, it is prime ramen season, and seriously, my noodle addiction isn’t going to serve itself.