In Japanese culture, the New Year is celebrated by eating certain foods thought to bring good luck in the coming year. Traditionally ozoni, a soup with mochi (rice cakes), is served first thing in the morning. My Japanese-American family celebrated by eating a feast of Japanese dishes cooked by my dad and his sisters (following my Grandma’s recipes). I don’t know if it was supposed to bring good luck, but it tasted good enough to make us feel lucky.
The past few years I’ve been traveling on New Year’s and unable to attend my family’s traditional feast. It felt weird to eat anything but Japanese food on New Year’s Day, so in solidarity with my family (and as an excellent hang-over cure, I might add), I’ve opted for a bowl of ramen. It was easy to find in Chicago in 2013 and Washington D.C. in 2014, but finding ramen in Vienna last year was a bit tougher (but I found duck ramen!).
Ramen-San mixes the modern aspect of the now-trendy ramen restaurant with the laid-back, community seating version of the ramen restaurants in Japan. Late 90s/early 2000s rap blares throughout the exposed brick space. The bar is ironically lined with anime figurines next to maneki neko statues waving their arms repeatedly at diners. A Hello Kitty is thrown in for good measure.
Ramen-San knows you’re here for a bowl of noodles, so their menu focuses on little else. They serve Japanese beer (Asahi is on draft for $7), several kinds of sake, sake bombs (it is River North, after all), and cocktails (including a random cilantro-lime margarita, $11). There are appetizers, mantou buns, wings and salads (which I wonder if anyone has ever actually ordered).
The fried chicken and pork belly mantou buns ($5 each) won me over on my first visit and it’s been really hard to break that habit. The fried chicken was surprisingly juicy, with a wonderful mix of crunch wrapped in the steamed bun. The pork belly is subtly spicy and, well, it’s pork belly so you really can’t go wrong with that.
The gyoza ($9) is served with Angel’s Wings, and before you ask what that is, let me first say the menu has a helpful list of terms on the backside, which describes it as “crispy goodness formed from the natural starches in our handmade gyoza.” It looks sketchy, but adds a really sharp crunch to the bottom of the otherwise softly steamed dumplings.
Other appetizers include those for sushi fans: smoked salmon nigiri ($9), raw tuna ($13) and hamachi sashimi ($14); shrimp and pork wontons ($9), and chicken wings (with spicy szechuan or sticky thai sauce, $9), all of which I’d love to try if I could ever bring myself not to order those pork buns.
Onto the real stuff: ramen. Ramen-San has seven types, plus sometimes one as a special. The most traditional, tonkotsu ($14), a pork-bone based broth with chashu pork and a gooey egg is what I order everywhere to gauge ramen.
The chashu was possibly the best I’ve ever had in ramen (which is saying a lot), with a nice char for flavor and a good balance of meat and fat. It reminded me of the chashu my Grandma made for New Year’s celebrations when I was younger. The broth was intensely flavorful, although a little on the greasy side, with chili oil to make it a bit spicy and garlic to make it, well, awesome.
The Shoyu (pictured above, $15) is a slightly spicy beef broth with braised short rib and enoki mushrooms. The saltier broth still had a lot of flavor to it, and the rib, braised in sake and hoisin, was a delicious addition.
If you can’t give up your pork in exchange for that braised rib, the Sumo Bowl ($18) has both, plus a spicy crushed egg and just about everything else possible, like seaweed (good), corn (ok), tomatoes (bad), bean sprouts (ok) and scallions (good). It was a lot of stuff. Some people like that, but I like my ramen in the “less is more” category.
A perfect example is the Fatty Ramen ($14), a special on New Year’s Day. It was the absolute end all, be all for me. It was the tonkotsu ramen “doubled” for more flavor (according to our server) and the richness was obvious. The flavor was somehow more intense, with a gravy-like mouthfeel and hints of garlic. The pork was fried crispy, adding texture but not as much flavor (the regular chashu would have been better), along with cabbage and scallions. Tons of flavor, not a ton of toppings — practically perfect in my book.
But wait, there’s more! They have desserts! Shaved ice ($7), ice cream cones ($3/each) and the holy grail of hot donuts ($5), cutely portrayed on a comic strip like menu. The beignet-like donuts are rolled in sugar and are amazing alone, but served with a miso caramel pastry cream makes them absolutely mind-blowing. I don’t care how full I am after downing half the menu, these are a must order.
Go to Ramen-San for :: obviously, ramen. But also for the mantou buns and don’t forget the donuts. Notes :: Open Monday – Friday 11 am – 12 am, Saturday 11 am – 1 am, Sunday 12 pm – 12 am, with express lunches during the week and late night fried rice after 10 pm. They also have a frequent diner program that I really wish I would have known about three visits ago! Reservations are accepted online here.
P.S. Random Acts of Kelliness has a new facebook page! I’d love it if you liked the page. Thank you, as always, for reading!