March is National Noodle Month, but in Chicago, most residents slurp them up throughout the year. And why not? The Windy City boasts some of the most innovative ramen shops around, whether one is looking for an authentic experience amped with unique ingredients or a contemporary alternative with attitude.
If you’re craving noodles during lunchtime and you work downtown, you’ll want to slip inside Ajida, a tiny, unassuming storefront that also happens to be family-owned. Diners get to choose from seven varieties of ramen, three types of noodles (thin, thick, or udon), and five proteins (beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, snow crab). One of the best bets is the curry age mono ramen–dry hot noodles topped with Japanese curry sauce and red ginger. 201 N. Wells St., 312-332-6878
Since opening several years ago, Arami has had three different executive chefs, each of whom has made the menu his own. One thing, however, is certain: They will never, ever take away the signature Arami ramen. It may look like standard fare (housemade noodles, pork belly, braised beef), but it’s also brimming with a secret tangy sauce as well as fresh pieces of naruto (cured fish), grilled enoki (mushrooms), and house tsukemono (Japanese vegetables). And you’ve got to admit, naruto, enoki, and tsukemono are fun words to say when you’re out with your pals. 1829 W. Chicago Ave., 312-243-1535
Not too far away from Arami is Enso. It’s best known for sushi, but there’s a seafood noodle dish that you’d probably want to keep a secret after the first slurp. The tempura udon has assorted veggies, white fish, and shrimp in a deliciously light dashi-soy broth. 1613 N. Damen Ave., 773-878-8998
Furious Spoon owner Shin Thompson opened this shop to pay homage to his Japanese roots and grandfather's original recipes. Furious Spoon's a late-night eatery that's a welcome respite for those crawling the Wicker Park pub scene. Diners choose from four different bowls and then top them with the likes of poached egg, roasted garlic and marinated mushrooms. 1571 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-687-8445
Hidden under the bustling Green Street Smoked Meats is High Five Ramen, a diminutive den cranking out rare, groovy hip-hop jams as diners delight in some of the spiciest noodles in town. The good thing is that you can opt to have yours made with “hints of sweet miso” to tame the heat, but that wouldn’t be fun. Compromise and ask for “half the spice,” which comes with sliced pork belly, alkaline noodles, a seasoned egg, and locally grown bean sprouts. Regardless of what you order, you’re certain to have a great experience as the bones have been cooked for several hours to produce a legit tonkotsu-style broth.
112 N. Green St., 312-754-0431
The Slurping Turtle‘s already spectacular ramen offerings are amplified with the addition of toppings like pork chashu (Japanese braised pork), roasted chicken, or a spicy “volcano paste.” It’s especially rad to be able to get noodles from Michelin-starred chef Takashi Yagihashi every night of the week. 116 W. Hubbard St., 312-464-0466