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Santouka: Best ramen near Chicago

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One doesn't usually think much of food court fare. You wait for your number to be paid, you grab the first greasy table available, you eat with plastic silverware. You are hungry, and you just want a quick bite and then get on with your shopping.

At a far corner of the food court at the Mitsuwa Marketplace near Chicago, however, you find mostly Asians standing in line for the best bowl of noodle soup they can find in the Chicago area. You can't go when you're too hungry, as the line can take an hour on holidays and weekends.

Established in 1988 on Hokkaido, Santouka is one of the most popular ramen noodle chain in Japan. Try it once, and you will be addicted. You will be dreaming of driving an hour or over an hour to reach the Mitsuwa Marketplace, just so you can have a proper bowl of ramen.

The menu is simple: shoyu (soy sauce flavor), shio (salt), or miso. Each comes in different sizes, and the miso comes spicy or not spicy. You can order extra pork belly on the side. The noodles are bouncy and not overcooked, so they stay firm until you finish every last drop of the broth. The broth is seriously thick with pork bones that have been boiled for close to 24 hours. Such serious bowls of noodles require a serious attitude. You shouldn't talk when you are confronted with your noodles.

Prices are not cheap for a food court. A medium sized ramen with a side of soy-braised egg and a bowl of steamed rice toped with salmon roe will cost you about $12 plus tax. But this amount of food is enough to share with another person, and you will leave with a satisfying sense of well-being. You will even pay double the amount for the same spread because you know you can't find it easily anywhere else in or near Chicago.

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