Downtown Chicago continues to grow busier and to help serve the workers, tourists, and locals Kyuramen has opened on the corner of Illinois and Hubbard. The space presents a bold and unique design and Tony Hu, the Chinese restaurateur who helped bring the Japanese chain to Chicago says the ramen’s strength is its authenticity. Is it worth a visit? Read on to find out.
Below is a slightly edited transcript of a Slack conversation between Eater Chicago Editor Ashok Selvam and Reporter Naomi Waxman about the Chicago location of Kyuramen.
Naomi: A lot of Chicago diners were sad to see the closure of Imperial Lamian in 2020, including me, as it was a go-to Christmas Eve spot for my family for several years running. So the news that Kyuramen’s first Chicago location would take over the vacant Downtown space came as an especially welcome development on my end. Do you think it’s a worthy follow-up after such a notable predecessor?
Ashok: I wish Lamian found a way to stick around because they brought a top-notch Chinese restaurant to Downtown Chicago. It represented a giant leap forward compared to the cookie-cutter tourist traps in River North. In that aspect, it’s great to see Kyuramen fill the space. The design alone breaks new ground. It’s fun but doesn’t feel like a cheap amusement park like a lot of spots along Hubbard Street.
Naomi: The space does have a little theatrical flare with sliding screens and stacked honeycomb-shaped booths, but it’s not EPCOT and definitely stands out from other chain ramen restaurants around the city. I could see diners coming in several times to try out different vantage points — and, of course, menu items.
I liked that we got to sit in a cozy little niche room with its own curtain (in Japanese, noren), but we didn’t get to look around the space or people-watch while we ate.
Ashok: I remember, you were immediately taken aback by how “Japanese” it felt to you. I’ve never been there, but it felt more like some of the Japanese restaurants in the Northwest Suburbs, like Sushi Station in Rolling Meadows, that are geared more toward Japanese diners. Why did Kyuramen feel Japanese to you, and how many times have you visited Japan?
Naomi: I am extremely fortunate to have visited twice — once for a year when I was little for my dad’s work, and again for a month in 2015. My mom was raised in Tokyo (it’s a long story) with her sisters so my family has always had a connection to the country, though we are in no way Japanese.
I think what struck me on sight about Kyuramen was the smart use of blond wood and lighting design that gives the whole place a warm glow. It’s a dramatic shift from Imperial Lamian, which was a much darker space. That said, it’s much larger than any ramen-ya I’ve seen in Japan, but that makes sense given the neighborhood and prominent location.
Ashok: I thought it was very clever the way they stacked booths on top of each other, it was a way to pack more seating in a smaller space. But Chicago’s zoning laws don’t allow for small stalls. For instance, there’s the bathroom requirement, which stops a lot of would-be restaurateurs from opening a smaller Tokyo-style stall. But I digress. The design stands out because it’s a departure from American design and the restaurants that copy each other. It’s why Tzuco in River North also stands out. Carlos Gaytán used a Mexican designer.
I really dug the little touches on the table including the call button!
Naomi: I liked that too. There are USB outlets all over the place, which was another good idea. Also, on the table, I was pleased to discover a little pot of spicy, pungent paste. It was never explained but its presence suggested that it could go with, well, almost anything. I’d say it’s certainly worth a try for diners who want to add a big kick to their bowl.
Ashok: That was the Sauerkraut Pepper! I felt the name was a referendum on Americans and what their ideal fermented condiment would be. But yes: let’s get this out of the way, Kyuramen is about more than soup. The tempura shrimp was well executed. Now, was it the best I’ve ever had? No. Hawai’i still is the leader. But for Chicago, it was very solid. And the Sauerkraut Pepper paste was nice.
Naomi: Pulling off great tempura is a tall order. Kymen’s version is solid, delivered hot and fresh, and I’d order it again. I was excited about the agedashi tofu, but this take ultimately didn’t resonate with me. It’s deconstructed with fried squares of tofu lined up on a long plate alongside a tiny pitcher of thick, concentrated tsuyu. In my experience, it’s typically served all together in a bowl so the tofu can soak up all that delicious flavor from the broth.
Ashok: Maybe some happy hour specials with those appetizers will pop up in the summer with more tourists and more workers returning to work downtown. But let’s talk about the ramen. I originally intended to order the signature Mega Ramen, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. It was a crummy rainy day, so the body wanted garlic. I was quite pleased with the tonkotsu shio. But also, I’m not sure if there was anything in this bowl that was a cut above other top-notch ramen spots in Chicago. What was your read?
Naomi: The weather was also doing a number on my mood, so I opted for the Sapporo miso ramen. Something about miso gives me cozy feelings and my medium-spicy bowl scratched exactly the itch I was looking for. The broth had the kind of depth one expects from a reputable ramen restaurant, and the toppings were balanced in proportion to the soup and springy noodles. I was pleasantly surprised by one omission — wood ear mushrooms. I’m not opposed to them in general but they have a habit of occupying quite a bit of bowl real estate at some Chicago ramen spots.
As in any genre of cuisine, some renditions are more challenging than others to diners. Kyuramen aims to please a crowd and seems to do so with gusto.
Ashok: Kyuramen wins because it increases the accessibility to a quality bowl of ramen for folks in Downtown Chicago. I’m going back to try the egg and rice dishes. But also, it’s the whole package. I hate to be the guy: but this is an experience. Except they’re not selling it that way, the way certain Instagram influencers try to force the label. Kyuramen is a good restaurant that happens to be an experience.
Naomi: Ramen aficionados can be a tough crowd, but the restaurant is most certainly a win for city dwellers who can’t always make the trip out to, say, Des Plains. I’ll be taking my parents to Kyuramen shortly, so in my world, that’s a solid endorsement.