There are two types of ramen restaurants: the traditionally tiny, bare-bones shops consisting of a cramped counter and a few scattered tables; and the modernly chic, large layout places with individual tables surrounded by swanky decor.
But Slurping Turtle in Chicago somehow manages to mesh the two together for a uniquely modern setting: high ceilings open the restaurant to booths throughout the space with a long communal counter running down the center surrounded by a minimal, all-white color scheme.
Slurping Turtle’s menu mimics its decor, with twists thrown in with the traditional. There is ramen, of course (unfortunately now only three kinds: tonkotsu, spicy and tofu), plus noodle bowls, rice bowls and flared up stir-fry dishes.
But you’ll also find duck fat fried chicken, bao buns, ceviche and hamachi tacos rounding out the non-traditional offerings. And while Slurping Turtle is primarily known for its ramen, the best way to experience the menu is by taking after the decor and mixing traditional with not-so-traditional and ordering some creative starters.
The Duck Fat Fried Chicken ($9) is one of my favorites. We all know it’s hard to go wrong with anything fried, but the extra umami from the duck fat and the subtle flavor from the chicken’s marinade (a combination of soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and garlic) take this fried dish to the next level. It’s now been promoted to my Must Order list. It comes with a side of not-your-average slaw, jacked up with chile paste, fish sauce and rice vinegar, but — trust me — you won’t even notice it.
Pork belly is another food I find hard to resist, and the Pork Belly Bao‘s soft buns display the lusciousness of the pork wonderfully. There’s also roasted chicken bao, shrimp tempura bao and vegetarian bao; order the trio ($11) to experience three kinds. (But the pork stands out as the best.) The Hamachi Tacos ($11) with truffle soy and a dab of fish egg in a taro root shell are more creative, with an excellent combination of flavor and texture, although I wish the taco shell didn’t fall apart so easily.
Once you’ve thoroughly eaten your way through the appetizers, like I always accidentally do, its time for ramen. The Tan Tan Men Ramen ($14), or spicy ramen, delivers as promised, with a good dose of kick in the red-tinted broth. Even though the flavors altogether work, the meatballs (with its prominent fennel taste) seem misplaced, like someone accidentally dropped Italian food into the bowl and decided to leave it. But for meat lovers, this is your best bet — in addition to the meatballs, there’s also slices of pork, plus all the regular fixins.
The Tonkatsu ($14) is my go-to at most ramen restaurants, and at Slurping Turtle it’s my default. It’s a hearty bowl of traditional pork slices, bok choy, green onion slices, fish cake, a marinated egg and sprouts in pork-based broth. Yeah, Slurping Turtle definitely gets the toppings right, which deserves a nod or two. The broth can be a little inconsistent, ranging from thin and oily (meh) to thick and heavy (yay) but when the broth is creamy, it’s a pretty good bowl of ramen.
There’s a meat- and gluten-free option, too. The Shoyu Tofu Mushroom ramen ($14) is loaded with vegetables and tofu in a vegetable broth. Often, a fourth type of ramen is available as a special (like Shoyu ramen), which is a little disappointing considering that a few years ago five types of ramen were available daily.
Slurping Turtle’s dessert menu strays from the Japanese side of things, with macarons, ice cream ($3/each) and cream puffs ($4/each). (Anmitsu, $6, is the only Japanese dessert.) If macarons seem too out of place, it’s worth noting that the Japanese are obsessed with French pastries and I visited more than one French patisserie while in Japan. Nevertheless, macarons after ramen always throws me off but that doesn’t mean I don’t order them. They come in fun flavors like raspberry wasabi, yuzu, chocolate sesame, kaffir lime and caramel soy ($2.25/each, 3 for $6 or 5 for $9) and are deliciously satisfying as far as macarons go.
Slurping Turtle may not have the best ramen in Chicago, but the appetizers more than make up for it. Not to mention the cool space is a fun atmosphere and the sake list (including several versions of sake flights) is enough to keep me coming back.
Go to Slurping Turtle for :: a bowl of ramen and some creative appetizers, like the duck fat fried chicken. Notes :: Slurping Turtle is open Sunday-Thursday 11:30 am – 10 pm and Friday-Saturday 11:30 am – 11 pm, with happy hour specials from 3-6 pm on weekdays. Reservations are only available for groups of 6 or more. Oh yeah, and they deliver for $3.99, too.