Chuko opened in 2011 and continues to draw enough of a dinner crowd that evening waits for a table can stretch perilously close to one hour. But the idea of ramen on a bitingly cold day is too good to pass up, and for the vegetarian noodle-lover, there's good news: Chuko does a great bowl of meat-free ramen.
You can best avoid a wait at Chuko by going for lunch, and hey, midday ramen is a beautiful thing. But let's get to the ramen later. First there are some "bites" (appetizers) worth exploring. Crispy Brussels ($8), deep-fried sprouts showered with chopped peanuts, are normally prepared with fish sauce, but you can request them without it, and even in its absence, the dish delivers powerful savory flavor with a punch of garlic and a not-too-greasy crunch. Briny house-pickled red and green jalapeños bring some much-need acidity to the rich sprouts.
Hey, what do you know—like seemingly every other restaurant in this city, Chuko offers a Kale Salad ($8). But I can assure you its singularly delicious take on ol' green is unlike any other you'll find: here, tender raw curly kale is slicked with just the right amount of bright-tasting ginger-miso dressing (a nod, perhaps, to that thick orange stuff you find at Japanese takeout spots around town); you pick up a leaf in your chopsticks and notice that a healthy mound of tempura-battered kale lurks beneath the fresh green surface of the salad. These crisp, airy, greaseless fritters are the kind of gutsy vegetarian cooking we'd like to see more of, and along with tender golden raisins and a few curls of crunchy sweet potato chips, they make a unique and addictive kale salad that trumps any other I've tried recently.
And then there's Chuko's Vegetarian Ramen ($13), which demonstrates way more care than pretty much any meat-free Asian-style soup I've eaten in New York. Its deeply flavored seaweed-white miso broth is as rich as many meat-based versions, and inside it, a variety of perfectly-cooked vegetables shine: soft cubes of sweet kabocha squash; tender, mellow leaves of green cabbage; and thick, jammy strands of roasted onion. The curly noodles here are toothsome and springy, and raw chopped scallion and baby arugula bring a fresh, peppery kick. For two bucks, I added a boiled egg, and I was glad I did—it was textbook-perfect, its white firm but its yolk soft and custardy.
So if you haven't been to Chuko recently—or you've never been able to get in, period—I highly recommend that you visit between the hours of 12 and 2. You'll be rewarded with thoughtful, highly flavored food—without the wait.