552 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11238 (at Dean Street, map); 718 576-6701
Service: Friendly and prompt, though not perfectly knowledgable about the menu.
Setting: 35 seat Japanese diner-style.
Must-Haves: Shishito peppers, any ramen
Cost: Appetizers $5 and up, Ramen $12 and up
There's no shortage of good ramen joints in Manhattan (check out our search for the The Best Ramen In New York), but despite all the other great neighborhood restaurants near Vanderbilt Ave. in Prospect Heights, your options for ramen were pretty much nonexistent until now.
Opened by Jamison Blankenship and David Koon, two Morimoto alums, Chuko brings ramen and a few small plates to the neighborhood. The space is reminiscent of a ramen-shop in Japan with a few tables, high tops lining the windows, and a bar that you can feel equally comfortable eating with others or wolfing down a bowl of ramen solo.
It's unusual to see an all-white staff at a ramen joint, but this is Brooklyn, after all. Service is fast and friendly, though at times the servers seem a little befuddled by questions about the food. That said, the food was uniformly very good.
The menu is tiny, comprising four appetizers priced between $5 and $7, and four bowls of ramen at $12 each. Deep fried Shishito Peppers ($6) are blistered and wrinkled and nicely salty, though I didn't taste much of the yuzu in the "yuzu salt" they were supposed to be sprinkled in. Delicious nonetheless (are shishito peppers ever not delicious?).
You won't find steamed Chinese-style buns on the menu here. Instead they've got little veggie-based sandwiches. Fried green tomatoes were on the opening menu but have now given way to the Fried Eggplant Bun ($5). Breaded in panko and crisply fried, they've got an nicely creamy center and go well with crunchy lettuce and pickled onions along with a tofu-based sauce that tastes remarkably like In-N-Outs spread. This is a tasty little sandwich.
Pork Gyoza ($7) are Japanese-style dumplings, perfectly crisped with crackly golden-brown bottoms and a sweet porky filling. I like my mom's dumplings better, but these are quite respectable.
The one appetizer I wasn't crazy about was the Salt & Pepper Chicken Wings ($7). Though they were crisp as can be, they were breaded too heavily, tasting more of coating than of chicken. The hot chili oil that came on the side was also lacking in flavor, despite the abundance of garlic and chili you could see floating in it.
Your ramen selection is equally short and sweet. Four bowls with pork, soy, miso, or vegetarian broths along with some combination of perfectly soft cooked egg, scallions, sweet corn, and mustard green along with slices of duroc pork or Giannone chicken.
The pork flavored broth is pretty unique. It has the creamy, opaque appearance of a traditional tonkotsu style broth, but has a very distinct smokiness to it, almost as if it were made with bacon or perhaps some smoked pork jowel. Our waiter said it was made from three different meats—chicken, pork, and beef—and it showed. Deeply flavored and rib-stickingly thick. Thin slices of fatty pork jowl float on top, while under the surface are perfectly cooked fresh noodles sourced from California.
The miso version is equally tasty. I had mine served with slices of poached chicken breast that while extremely moist and tender verged on undercooked, even for my taste. I could easily imagine some being turned off by its pale pink color and softness.
Ramen-eaters used to the hulking bowls of noodles at Manhattan eateries like Ippudo or Hide-Chan might be a bit disappointed by the smaller portion sizes here, but I found them to be more than adequate for a single diner and a fair deal at $12 apiece.
With pedigreed chefs and a Brooklyn location, you might expect some surprises or unique takes on traditional dishes, but that's not the case. Instead, you get very well-executed food with an attention to detail and a good mastery of technique. Stunningly original or mindblowingly good? No. A great, reasonably priced neighborhood restaurant in a neighborhood that badly wanted a noodle shop? Absolutely.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.