Milwaukee seems to be developing a tradition of people lining up at night to enjoy the sumptuously seedy underbelly of the city’s best institutions. From Rocky Horror at the Oriental, to adult sleepovers at the Public Museum, to clandestine missions at the Safe House, we’re a city of night owls. And nothing appeals more to midnight wanderers of the East Side than a good, hot bowl of ramen. Enter the city’s latest culinary success story, Red Light Ramen.
Once a not-so-secret side business based out of Chef Justin Carlisle’s Top 100-winning East Side institution Ardent (1751 N Farwell Ave), the chef has recently acquired the other half of the former dive, which is in the process of being turned into a permanent brick-and-mortar location. In addition, Chef Carlisle operates Red Light Ramen as a food truck (known for its recent installment in front of Central Standard Craft Distillery) and as a touring company, recently bringing his entire kitchen staff to Momotaro Izakaya and Publican Quality Meats in Chicago for a series of kitchen vs. kitchen food battles. Just check out his insanely active Instagram and Twitter profiles, where he arduously chronicles his quest to bring his ramen to the people, to meet and collaborate with other incredible chefs, and to find the best quality local food products available.
What is Tonkatsu?
Now, I had heard of Red Light Ramen through the grapevine, and I’ve always been a big fan of traditional Japanese tonkatsu (pork cutlet) ramen, which is their main menu item. This isn’t the overly-salty stuff you eat in college out of a styrofoam cup, obviously; this is the culmination of hundreds of years of exacting Japanese traditions, and a cultural institution in izakayas and ramen shops all over Japan and, increasingly, the rest of the world. Simmering stockpots of hot, fishy, salty broth are ladled into bowls and tossed with curly ramen noodles, before being loaded up with pork cutlet and other toppings, such as mushrooms, naruto (a spiraled, sliced fish loaf), kombu, nori, spring onion, seven-minute eggs, bamboo shoots, and toasted sesame. The dish, when well-executed, delivers an unctuous blast of savory umami flavor, complemented by the salt and sweetness of the different components.
Waiting in Line
As Sydney and I arrived outside of the restaurant, just north of Brady St. on Farwell, we immediately see a line forming outside of the restaurant, despite it only being 11:00. The restaurant won’t open for another half hour, and people are already past the end of the building. We stand in line next to a few college students who live nearby, and they told us they had seen it when the sign was first installed, and showed up the other night in time to get some of the best food they’ve ever eaten. This was their second visit in a week. Through the alley, we could see a few of the kitchen staff sitting out back and smoking cigarettes, drinking, and chatting; always a good sign when the kitchen crew is able to enjoy themselves at work. Chef Carlisle has gone on record in saying that his staff is like his family, and we certainly saw plenty of familial camaraderie as the night went on.
As we stepped down the stairs towards the front door, we saw the namesake Red Light that was lit to signify the opening of the shop before the sign was installed. Unfortunately (or perhaps very fortunately), we were not among the first to be let in; since the space at Ardent is quite limited, they could only allow so many people to enter in the first round. So, we waited down in front of the door, catching bursts of excited conversation and whiffs of simmering stock and roasting pork as the host let in groups ahead of us, one at a time. When it came time for our turn, we were asked if we’d like to wait for a table, or stand in the kitchen with the chefs and eat our food there. Obviously, we went for the latter option, as it gave us the opportunity to see the staff in action.
Drinks in the Kitchen
We stood right in the middle of the kitchen, between the bar area and the prep station, and right next to Chef Carlisle himself, who introduced himself gratefully and welcomed us into his kitchen. Our drinks arrived first; slushy old-fashioneds were the drink of choice that evening, in two flavors: strawberry and watermelon. Boy, were they strong, but they felt good in the heat of the kitchen area, and tasted great. I may be a big watermelon fan, but the strawberry was definitely superior in my book.
The Main Event
After a short wait, our ramen came directly off the line and straight to us. Flanked with two spoons and two sets of chopsticks, and loaded up with everything, it truly was worth every second of waiting and every penny spent (and at only $10 a bowl, it’s probably worth much more than that). The noodles were slightly firm and bite-y, and the broth filled the mouth with that sort of oily, salty, savory warmth and velvety mouthfeel that comes from a well-prepared stock. The seven-minute soy eggs were soft and silky and delightful, with excellent color and a lovely smooth yolk texture, and the pork cutlet nearly fell apart in the mouth. Sydney isn’t a big fan of mushrooms due to texture, but she still (barely) tried one, and said how much she loved the taste, which was earthy, savory, and almost a little sweet. (I thought the texture was perfect, just into chewy territory, and not limp.) There was something else I wasn’t able to identify, some sort of algae or seaweed with a tart, almost lemony flavor, and the appearance of steamed kale, and it added a nice touch of acidity to balance out the rest of the dish.
After the Meal
After we had finished our meal and squared away the bill (only $30 for everything), we had a brief opportunity to chat with the staff, including a (slightly-off, in my opinion) comment from Sydney that one of the chefs has Tim Curry’s eyes, which resulted in the chefs pulling their phones and heatedly debating whether or not her claim was true. (Sorry, honey, I beg to disagree.) One of the ladies at the bar was celebrating her birthday that day, so the chef grabbed a small block of some sort of dessert from the chill chest, topped it with a candle, and the whole restaurant sang Happy Birthday to her. Afterwards, we stuck around a bit longer to take pictures with the chef, then headed out at around 1am to grab a pint of ice cream for dessert.
Special thanks to Chef Carlisle for opening up his restaurant to us and the many other hungry visitors that night, and for letting us talk and take pictures and be a bother. There may be an interview coming up in the near future, but we’ll have to wait and see how it works with everyone’s schedules.
Until next time, Milwaukee!
DISCLAIMER: As past readers will know, Sydney has a very mild soy allergy. While it’s usually not a good idea to feed ramen to anyone with a soy allergy, Sydney and I both know her tolerance level and how to prevent and minimize attacks, and she was perfectly fine afterwards due to the relatively low levels of soy in Chef Carlisle’s preparation, as well as the fact that we split a single bowl, avoided feeding her the soy eggs, and minimized how much of the broth she ate. We notified the Chef ahead of ordering, and he was very attentive to her needs, and able to indicate to us the obvious sources of soy. Feed Me, Milwaukee does not endorse deliberately eating foods you are allergic to, under any circumstances, and Chef Carlisle did everything in his power to ensure she was never in any danger.