It seems early to be wondering if it is intrinsically impossible for a snob to write a positive ramen review. It’s like we’ve gone down one fork of the classic dilemma of whether one should be more trusting of a fat or skinny food critic. Oh well. Let’s do this anyway.
My optimism for High Five could scarcely have been higher. With Toki Underground in the rear-view mirror, and strong intel that this may be the best ramen in Chicago, intuition led me to believe that I had picked up on a strong lead. Like a police bloodhound with a hard-on for justice, I sought out High Five ramen with childlike eagerness.
The early signs could not have been more promising. Obscure, poorly-marked entrance: check. In an alley no less. No reservations allowed and an obnoxiously long wait: big ol’ check. Too few seats for any business plausibly seeking to optimize on scale? I counted (read: didn’t actually count) around 12. Trippy music? Oh, you betcha.
As I sat nursing a drink from the conveniently adjacent Green Street Meats, my anticipation had undoubtedly reached its zenith. Then, the first bad omen – a Caviar courier leaving the restaurant.
What self-respecting twelve-seat ramen restaurant would allow Caviar orders? I quieted my misgivings, but the first flaw in the luster had left its mark.
When the text message came in, somewhat later than had been estimated (which I note as a positive), my initial impressions were reassuring. At the risk of being a blogger who uses the word “ambiance,” the ambiance was straight up ramen haven. Unnecessarily dark lighting, close confines, half of the already limited seating crammed against the bar, the open kitchen uncomfortably close – the stage was undoubtedly set for a good ramen outing.
At this stage, a sidebar. It is already apparent that I will need to assemble a set of fundamental ramen principles. One will need immediate reference – adding heat to ramen is at best a mediocre and lazy cover for an underwhelming broth. The discerning snob can see right through the deception to the watery, flavorless sewage it hopes in vain to conceal.
High Five takes an interesting tack with its menu. They offer four kinds of ramen and they have drinks. That’s it. No buns. No dumplings. No cheeky snacks or desserts. Just the noods. It’s a bold move, Cotton, but I respect it. So long as this hyper-focus on the primary dish results in commensurate quality.
I order, predictably, the signature bowl, which is a tonkatsu miso pork ramen with pork belly and – I note with delight – black garlic oil. Your Snob observes at this point that while his default preference is tonkatsu, any ramen billed as the signature or specialty will be selected for review. If the ramen purveyor is going to make a claim as to their superior product, who is the Snob to argue.
Notably, each ramen can be chosen at a spice gradient. I select full spice and am cautioned that this will be extremely hot. I joke to my companion that one should never trust a Midwesterner’s sense of what is spicy and my hunch will ultimately bear out. Midwesterners are a fine, but mild, cool-ranch loving people.
The ramen comes and is some of the most aesthetically unique stuff I have seen to date. The tower of bean sprouts and scallion makes it a bit hard to discern the coloring at its foundation, but a closer inspection reveals all. The ramen itself is a deep crimson with a veneer of hot power and pepper flakes. Not a great sign. A rich, fatty broth will not so easily mingle or be overtaken by the insertion of even a hearty dose of chili powder or its like.
A few sips of the broth confirm the worst. The substance here is more powdery smoke and mirrors than substantial stock. I don’t want to overstate my case here – the ramen is fine, perhaps even good, and the flavor of the heating agent itself is pleasantly smoky. But an elite ramen it is not.
There are some additional positive notes worth contributing. The pork belly was the perfect level of fattiness and was chopped and distributed in such a way that I would forget about it as I ate, come upon a new slice, and find myself elated at the rediscovery. By the bottom of the bowl, that last chunk of hot, ramen-soaked belly was a savory, tender dose of porcine heaven.
Additionally, the menu does not give short shrift to the vegetarian ramen, which is crafted with equal effort and attention and, while the broth is unmistakably mushroom-laden, is not a poor effort.
The noodles are another plus. Their consistency is just right – that difficult-to-articulate mouthfeel of noodles that are the perfect density and saturation, and their dark coloring suggests high quality inputs.
High Five may turn out to be the best ramen in Chicago. Sadly, this is not a high bar. My longing to find East Coast quality ramen in the Midwest is unabated. Still, as an overall ramen experience, and for certain unique qualities of the ramen’s flavor and overall profile, which is evocative of a good dry rub, High Five has just enough to recommend itself to even the most snobbish among us. The totality of this ventures is disappointing, but not dissatisfying, which, from the Ramen Snob, may be the equivalent of of an Irishman’s “not bad.”
For snacks, High Five gets a N/A.
For broth, 5/10.
For heat, 7.5/10, for a surprisingly flavorful heat profile.
For accoutrements, 8/10 for its noteworthy and delicious pork belly and quality noodles.
For overall experience, 8.5/10 for good atmosphere, layout and plating.