Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Noodles by Takashi/Ramova Grill

I'm in the process of training to become a volunteer Chicago greeter. I won't bore everyone right now with the comprehensive details of what this means exactly, but suffice it to say that in addition to giving me the opportunity to preach the gospel of how great a city Chicago is to out-of-town visitors, I will also hopefully be able to expand my foodie scouting reach into neighborhoods that I might not have otherwise explored. As part of my greeter training, I've been shadowing seasoned volunteers as they wander through the Loop sharing their knowledge of the local landmarks to small groups of tourists. Often, these tours are occurring around the noontime hour, leaving me with a rumbly stomach and wild thoughts of places to scamper to for lunch when my session has ended. It just so happens that the Chicago Cultural Center (where the tours originate) is only a block or so away from Macy's State Street location, which has a not-your-run-of-the-mill food court on the 7th floor featuring (among more standard offerings) Frontera Fresco (Rick Bayless), M Burger (Marcus Samuelsson), and Noodles by Takashi.

This past Friday, I decided to made my way up to the Macy's food court hungry for lunch following one of my training trips. But which stand to choose? Frontera resembled all of Chef Bayless's other properties in town; that is, a long line of diners waiting to indulge. M Burger (the only one of the three biggies that I'd previously tried) was also crowded and I wasn't really in a burger mood. This left Noodles by Takashi, a ramen noodle stand operated by local chef Takashi Yagihasi, whose other two restaurants in Chicago (Takashi in Wicker Park and Slurping Turtle in River North) are well-regarded. At this point, a bowl of sloppy noodles sounded pretty good to me, so I sauntered over to check it out. There weren't a lot of ramen options (about 4); however, I liked what I saw in the description of the miso ramen and decided to order one up. Miso ramen is more of a northern Japanese dish, invented in Sapporo in the 1950s when a customer at a famous noodle house (Aji no Sanpei) asked for noodles to be added to his miso/pork soup (all of this information is provided courtesy of Lucky Peach's inaugural issue last fall, which had about 60 pages of ramen coverage). Takashi's bowl of miso ramen contained the traditional ingredients of roast pork, slices of pink/white fish cake, scallions, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, ginger, garlic, butter, and corn (an ingredient closely associated with Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese islands, since that's the only place in the country that has enough farmland to grow it), along with an ample fistful of thin, wavy noodles. All of this arrived on my tray in a gigantic bowl and was only about $10. Using a soup spoon for the tasty broth and chopsticks for everything else, I managed to polish off most of the contents and was really delighted with the way the various flavors mingled. My only regret is that they didn't include more pork pieces or fish cake (there were two of each - that's all), both of which were very tasty.

Obviously, a large bowl of ramen would suffice for a proper meal most of the time, but (as sometimes happens) I had other ideas on this day. Trying to make the most of my waning freedom before returning home to the progeny, I made a slight detour southwest of the downtown area towards Bridgeport to visit Ramova Grill (3510 S. Halsted, just down the street from its namesake historic theater, now shuttered). For those of you out-of-towners, Bridgeport is a working-class, traditionally Irish neighborhood that became the city's political stronghold in the early 20th Century with the election of Mayor Edward Kelly in 1933 and continuing for 78 years through 2011 when Richard M. Daley stepped down. Ramova Grill opened just before this period (in 1929), making it one of the oldest diners in the city, gaining a reputation over the years for serving Chicago's best chili (granted, this is a dish that we're not particularly well-known for). Just a few weeks ago, word got out that the owners were planning to permanently close shop and, given that I happened to be passing by on the day before the purported demise, I opted to stop in to grab me one of the last bowls of this famous chili.

I tried to time my arrival so that I showed up after the first pitch of the White Sox's home opener, taking place a mere 8 blocks away at U.S. Cellular Field. Unlike Wrigleyville, Bridgeport is a lot more, well, subdued, even on the first gameday of the new season - the tiny diner was only about half full and there wasn't a Sox fan in sight. What I did see conjured images of the 1930s, from the 11th Ward calendar on the wall to the old-school iceboxes in the back to the ancient, chipped slate boards listing daily specials. The sole cooking surface in the place appeared to be a small metal griddle up at the front of the restaurant right next to the picture windows, which probably explained the relatively-short list of food offerings (breakfast, burgers, chili, and liver/onions) that I'm guessing hasn't changed much over the years. As far as charm, I would have expected that a diner with such a storied history would have framed pictures, etc. showing the good old days, but there was no such nostalgia on display, only a business-like vibe and a dull grime much in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. And the chili? I ordered a small bowl, topped with a pack of oyster crackers (held the cheese and noodles - $3.25). I'd say it was good, equal parts ground beef, onions, beans, tomatoes, and grease (perhaps the Chicago Irish version of ramen), but probably not life-changing enough to warrant special attention. Still, as I took in the whole tableau before departing for the last time, I felt a twinge of sadness for a time and a culture retreating away, knowing that diners like this are becoming increasingly scarce. It's too late for Ramova Grill, but if you've got a favorite greasy spoon in your town, make sure you stop in as often as you can...

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