The Run Down

When most folks think of Japanese cuisine, they think of either sushi or hibachi. This guide features neither. Instead, we start this guide with Osakan street food and a rich bowl of tori paitan ramen. From there, you'll take a quick walk around the block for an order Kakigōri, a Japanese shaved iced, for dessert. We finish the night up with drinks at an underground saké bar. Here are the details.

1, Takoyaki/Ramen @ Ramen Takeya

2. Kakigōri @ Gaijin

3. Sake @ Booze Box

1. Ramen Takeya

We begin this guide right under the large Fulton Market District sign that welcomes you to the neighborhood.  If you walk too quickly past this sign you may very well miss our first stop, Ramen Takeya, a modestly-sized ramen bar modeled after Japanese yokocho – small alleyway eateries that can be found off the main street in large Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka.

Normally, the restaurant seats on a first-come, first-served basis, but right now, they’re taking reservations on Tock. For the full yokocho experience, there is a narrow hallway towards the back of the restaurant that tries to recreate the alleyway street food effect. The hallway is illuminated with neon signs and lanterns and has seats that face their glass-encased kitchen to give you an up-close view of the chefs at work.

There’s also an outdoor patio with heat lamps if that’s more your style. We settled on a table inside for today.

A couple more logistics to consider:

– Ramen Takeya is open 5pm-10pm Tuesday through Saturday. They close at 9pm on Sunday and are fully closed Monday.

– If you’re planning on heading over to Gaijin and Booze Box afterwards, make sure to check when Booze Box closes that night. They serve the last drink at 9:30pm on some weeknights.

Now let’s get to the food. First thing on the list is their takoyaki or “octopus balls,” which is a deep-fried snack, popularized in 1935 by Tomekichi Endo, a street food vendor in Osaka.

These bite-sized snacks are made of a wheat flour-based batter which is then cooked in a specially molded pan so they come out perfectly spherical. They’re filled with octopus, ginger, and green onion and topped with bonito flakes, laver (dried seaweed), mayonnaise, and homemade takoyaki sauce.

The ramen was even better. If your only experience with ramen is the cup noodles you ate in college (or, let’s be honest, last Tuesday), get here as quick as you can. It was salty and rich with enough fat to make it feel decadent. That fatty, creamy flavor is normally associated with tonkotsu ramen – a super popular style in the United States made by cooking down pork bones for hours on end.

Tonkotsu is actually the specialty of Ramen Takeya’s sister restaurant in Logan Square (Ramen Wasabi); however, Ramen Takeya specializes in chicken (tori) paitan. This lighter style combines a creamy, umami-rich chicken broth and large servings of melty pork belly and veggies.

2. Gaijin

Next, head just around the block to Gaijin. Gaijin is the brainchild of Michelin-starred fine-dining chef Paul Virant, a self described gaijin or “outsider.” You may know Virant from Vie, his flagship restaurant in Western Springs, or from Vistro Prime, a neighborhood steakhouse also located out in the suburbs. More likely, though, is that you caught a rerun of his “Iron Chef America” episode.

Unlike Iron Chef America, Gaijin is effortlessly cool in a way that’s totally unpretentious but still electrifying. Sleek neon signs and brass lamps hang alongside more domestic plaid patterned booths. The kitchen itself is fully open which gives a unique view of the action while lending the space a homey, lived-in feeling.

This is what we’re here for: Kakigōri. This Japanese shaved ice dessert is traditionally made by taking a tempered block of ice (saved during the colder months) and using a hand crank to turn the block against a shaving blade. This creates a fluffier, smoother texture much like fresh fallen snow and distinguishes the dessert from, say, a snow cone.

At Gaijin, this snowcap was pumped full of yuzu syrup and laid atop a mound of black sesame ice cream. The whole mess was topped off with strawberry compote, sweetened condensed milk, and a honey sesame crumble. It was sweet, savory, and delightfully complex. If that doesn’t wet your whistle, they also have an array of mochi donuts. These rice-flour donuts are crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, glazed and covered in your choice of toppings. We went with the matcha-citrus donut to stay on theme.

3. Booze Box

Getting to Booze Box isn’t particularly difficult, but finding the door to go inside may be a little trickier.

When you approach the corner of Randolph and Green, you’ll see sushiDOKKU – the restaurant Booze Box is situated under. Walk into the alley behind the building and you’ll see an unmarked, red, neon arrow situated among the dumpsters. Based on this experience, I’m entirely convinced that all you need to do to have a successful bar is to find a space with an alley entrance, throw up a neon sign, and then just wait for people to give you money. This 100% worked on us.

In terms of the vibe, this underground bar is bathed in red and white light and was pumping club music, but it manages to feel sophisticated instead of “clubby.”

While their menu features a variety of cocktails (and a surprising amount of tequila), we came here for the sake. Now if you have never tried sake, let me give you the rundown.

Despite often being referred to as a rice wine, sake is brewed in a process much more akin to beer. Grains of specialty sake rice are “hulled” to expose the starch in the center of the grain and then allowed to ferment with water and yeast. Sometimes extra water or alcohol is added at the end to change the final proof to about 15% ABV. Keep these facts in your back pockets when you’re ready to impress your non-sake drinking friends that you’ve roped into doing this guide with you.

The sake tasting at Booze Box is $15, and includes 2 ounce pours of three different sakes to help you get acquainted with the drink.

Here’s a couple other logistics to consider:

– Reservations are for parties of 2-6, which you can book on Tock

– The bar is currently asking people to stay no longer than 90 minutes to ensure they can seat everyone

– The kitchen upstairs serves food in the bar until they close