Monster Ramen, the new noodle bar from an alum of Strings — one of Chicago’s most beloved ramen spots — has overcome months of delays to finally open with rich and fragrant bowls of ramen in regional varieties rarely seen in Chicago.
Already open for a few weeks at 3435 W. Fullerton Avenue, chef and owner Katie Dong guides Monster’s kitchen. A self-professed noodle obsessive, Dong is ready to show off her knowledge. “I spend all my free time researching and reading about food and culture, and I’m working at my dream job so I never get tired of it,” she says.
After years of making ramen around town, Dong — a self-taught ramen chef who in 2014 opened Strings’ first location in Chinatown — is finally making ramen on her own terms by crafting noodles on site with a machine from famed manufacturer Sanuki Menki (the process takes more than 24 hours) while serving tori chintan (chicken stock) and gyukotsu-style (bison bone stock) ramen. The latter, a regional style that originates in southern Japan, is particularly hard to find in America, and patrons can taste it in the shio house ramen, (beef jam, yuzu, and shio tare), and miso wagyu ramen, (corn, beef chashu, and garlic miso tare). Vegetarians may opt for the kombu-based miso yasai ramen or mapo men (a popular riff on mapo tofu available with or without meat).
The menu is dotted with appetizers and sides such as tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and pan-fried or poached gyoza. Dong says she carefully chose lighter items and eschewed fried foods to avoid detracting from the main event: ramen. “I want your stomach to be saved 100 percent for ramen,” she says, laughing. “I just think that’s too much work for your body. If you are ready for a real bowl of ramen, just go ahead!”
The proof is in the bottom of Monster Ramen’s empty bowls — so far, customers tend to finish the whole serving without leftovers, she says. That cuts down on food waste for the restaurant overall and leaves room for Dong and her team to focus on perfecting technique and concocting new creations. These include an experimental ramen with giardiniera, the classic Chicago condiment most often associated with Italian beef. Dong is still honing the recipe, which she feels is a representation of her American Chinese culinary journey. “I’ve lived in Chicago for 30 years,” she says. “This is my home city, aside from where I was born in [Nanjing], China. If I can make this dish, it will be awesome and truly represent me.”
Monster Ramen’s narrow, 1,500 square-foot space channels the close quarters of cozy ramen dens found in the underground mall at Japan’s Tokyo Station, but manages to maintain an airy quality thanks to large windows that fill the bar with natural light. The dining room seats 38 and Dong hopes to add a backyard beer garden by summer 2023.
Monster Ramen, 3435 W. Fullerton Avenue, Open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday.