After spending time with two concepts that tickled the national press in 2023, you turn your attention to a restaurant that—having opened at the tail end of last year—seems poised to do the same in 2024.
In Akahoshi Ramen, you discern some of the same narrative threads that so distinguished Daisies “2.0” and Thattu. Namely, you find a chef-owner driven by obsession (not with farm-to-table pasta or Keralan cuisine but with those titular noodles in broth) to leave the corporate world behind and try his hand at running a kitchen. Along the way, collaborations and pop-ups were conducted to fuel the fire of that passion. And, upon opening, you also see another instance of the “20% service charge in lieu of a tip” model that, in the wake of the One Fair Wage ordinance (and corresponding phase out of subminimum wage for tipped workers), positions these concepts as standard-bearers for a new approach to labor compensation.
While noting these shared details—the kind that make for easy marketing fodder and friendly press coverage—may be instructive, Akahoshi Ramen cannot be reduced to any simple blueprint. The restaurant embodies a singular story the likes of which you have never quite encountered in Chicago dining. You have seen celebrity chefs and owners before, as well as first-time proprietors and cooks who trace a circuitous path toward realizing their dreams. You have witnessed the most flamboyant of gimmicks and the quietest expressions of craft compete for consumers’ attention. Opening a ramen shop as a second career is, by comparison, in no way beyond the pale. But, in Akahoshi, you find a vision of the future.
The concept’s popularity is not undergirded by clever branding or a CV that touts Michelin stars and appearances on cooking competition shows. There is no sense of diversity, the exotic, or legitimate cultural exchange to fetishize here. Rather, this restaurant represents the realization of a decade of internet fame—of recipes cultivated and shared via online forums and the construction of “expertise” by participation in (and moderation of) an amorphous community of connoisseurs.
Typically, the line between chefs and their “foodie” admirers is not so blurred. The former group runs its kitchens while the latter group shows up, spends its money, and raves (or whines) about the experience online. Likewise, while the most prolific posters of recipes and other content creators may sling sponsors’ products, they tend not to cross the boundary into professional cooking. The demands of running a restaurant, assumedly, would inhibit interacting with their digital community and invite scorn from customers who are now actually tasting what they previously only read or watched you make.
Nonetheless, the risk of transitioning into ownership for this kind of influencer also carries its own rewards: to live the dream of being the kind of craftsperson you have so long admired and sharing your passion with the public. It means walking the walk in reality—not just hyperreality—and earning the respect of an industry that, from their positions behind the stove, may be inclined to view social media mavens as mere gadflies. It means, in the best case, consolidating that internet fame and transforming it into real culinary esteem on the back of a loyal population of aficionados—many influencers in their own right—who are ready to support and advocate for the fruits of so many years of content.
Though this may seem like an unconventional path on the surface, you think Akahoshi Ramen represents an emerging strategy for at-home specialists to turn their “foodie” identity (one defined by its conspicuousness and the assertion of “expert” knowledge over others) into a real livelihood. Doing so, they may sidestep the hard knocks to be taken and dues to be paid in favor of a personal, granular approach that wins future customers from the comfort of their own kitchen. Then, when it comes time to launch, these influencer-chefs can skip straight to opening their dream restaurant atop a readymade reputation. The existing fans then help deliver the initial buzz, which is translated to more traditional media coverage and—before you know it—real eminence within the chosen genre. This is all fine and dandy (and, dare you say, deserved) when the end product matches expectations and competes in good faith with concepts that do not benefit from such a built-in audience.
Evaluating Akahoshi in relation to Chicago’s existing ramen scene will form the core of this article, for it does not matter whom you are or how you came to the industry if you deliver the goods. Just the same, subverting the “apprentice/chef” model that has defined this and other culinary crafts invites its own criticism. What is gained—and what is lost—by the emergence of a new breed of restaurateur that masters digital marketing rather than take lumps from an actual master? Does such a shortcut realty supercharge creativity or simply work to secure the kind of consistent patronage that, right or wrong, ultimately determines success in this fickle industry? Does it matter if everyone leaves full and happy?
You will address these questions later on, but, first, it may be instructive to trace the story of the little ramen shop with a big online presence.
Akahoshi Ramen is the creation of Mike Satinover, an Oak Park native who was first exposed to the dish (if you “don’t count the 99-cent noodle packets”) when visiting Mitsuwa Marketplace (in Arlington Heights) as a kid. There, at a food court stall named Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, he would order the miso because “it was the only flavor…[he] recognized.” It tasted familiar “but leagues better” with “depth, nuance, viscosity, [and] punch—traits…[he] never knew were possible in Japanese cuisine.”
Cooking would become “an on and off career possibility” for him, with Satinover working as an “unpaid stage” at an “upscale Italian spot for around a year” during high school. Putting in “20-40 hours a week,” he “kinda fell out of grace.” However, many years later, Satinover would blame a “negative workplace culture” that compelled him to “circumvent any toxicity associated with restaurant kitchens.”
(For what it’s worth, a later stage at “a pretty well known ramen restaurant here in Chicago” in 2013 also “didn’t really work out.” Despite being just 24 at the time, Satinover claimed he was “a bit too old and untalented” to succeed there despite his “passion” for the dish.)
While studying business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Satinover specialized in marketing, international business, and Japanese. That led him to participate in a short-term exchange program at Hokkaido University from 2009-2010. There, in Sapporo (a place he now calls his “3rd home”), Satinover had his “first true exposure” to the kind of miso ramen that won his heart. Terming himself “a miso ramen fiend,” the exchange student began eating the stuff “several times a week, easily” at the “2,000 shops” in the city “slinging noodles.” He “bought multiple guidebooks,” “tried one,” “tried the next,” “tried the one after that,” and then “started going to multiple shops a day.”
Satinover earned a reputation on campus as “that guy who is always going out to eat ramen” and eventually “launched an independent study” through his program. For his research, he went “interviewing cooks, looking at restaurant practices, seeing methods, [and] discussing the history and culture” of the dish. By the time Satinover returned to Madison, he had “tried more than 100 different ramen shops.”
Back at school, “there was like one ramen restaurant, and it was awful.” Across America, the dish’s popularity “was starting to pick up,” but the “David Chang-ian interpretations” weren’t anything like he had seen in Sapporo: the menus were “expansive—as if trying to please every customer,” the ramen “took forever to make,” and “diners took even longer to eat it” (“slowly chewing…until the bowls turned cold and lifeless”). Satinover “had gone from eating this food that…[he] loved…to not having it ever,” and “this desperation led him to try cooking ramen at home.” Despite being “a pretty decent home cook” and feeling “pretty confident,” Satinover “abysmally” failed. The results were “utter trash, horrible concoctions” that took “years” before really starting to “click.”
He blames a lack of “many ramen recipes online” (either in English or Japanese) along with the fact that “ramen chefs are notoriously secretive about their techniques” for those early struggles. However, the challenge “was enticing—really enticing” and represented the “first thing” he felt he “didn’t understand.” This “addictive” process meant “a lot of room to fail and a lot of room to learn.” Soon enough, Satinover began “hosting small groups…including a number of friends who had also lived in Japan and missed the ubiquity of good ramen” to share in his recipes. In 2014, after four years of experimentation, he was ready to start posting his bowls “on the internet to see what people thought.”
Satinover did so through a blog titled “The Ramen Journal,” which was devoted to “exploring the possibilities and techniques of this wonderful” and developing “methods to make the dish at home.” He also hoped “to tackle the astounding amount of misinformation in the US” surrounding the form. The site was active for about half a year, during which Satinover discussed his first ramen attempts, broke down his failures, described how he prepared the dish for six of his friends at a time, defined certain styles, and offered recipes alongside a collection of pictures.
In truth, “The Ramen Journal” was really an extension of Satinover’s posts on Reddit’s /r/ramen subreddit. There, under the username “Ramen_Lord,” he had been “well received” since joining the community in 2013. In fact, he quickly became one of its moderators and a friendly presence who both shared his own bowls and helped to troubleshoot others’ recipes. This extended all the way to helping with ingredient sourcing, offering historical context, and providing excruciating technical detail. The separate blog was intended to be a home for “all of the information” he wanted to share that might not fit in the context of a Reddit post. However, as it happens, engagement on “The Ramen Journal” was rather low, and /r/ramen—where “everybody else was interested” in what Satinover was doing (something he termed “inspiring”)—would prove his permanent home.
As moderator for some 11 years, Satinover saw the subreddit grow from 15,000 to a total of 789,000 subscribers today. Some of this, no doubt, is the product of ramen’s burgeoning popularity during the course of the decade. When he started, Satinover felt that ramen “still kiiiiind of has a stigma as ‘that college instant food you buy when you’re broke’” and wasn’t sure “appreciation…has grown to a sustainable level in the US.” Later, he would also ask “is ramen in the US here to stay? Or has it become the ‘next big thing’ like cupcakes or cronuts?” There was a worry that the dish’s popularity was “a fad we’re experiencing” and that “the level of appreciation for it will die off in a few years” rather than becoming “an actual staple” like “sushi or pasta.”
Nonetheless, it is also hard to understate Satinover’s influence on the community (both the subreddit itself and the wider digital world of ramen lovers). Looking back, he didn’t really know why he started posting his bowls online. Satinover was “just a kid who wanted to bask in the glory of noodle soups,” one who “maybe” was “stressed out” because he “was unemployed and needed an outlet for creative projects” or just “homesick for Sapporo.” Ramen was “a bit more emotional” for him than he’d “like to admit,” yet engaging more deeply with the craft alongside other users who “just like good, cheap, but properly executed food” would ultimately lead to the creation of his own shop.
As moderator, Satinover would continue being an invaluable resource and content creator for his forum. However, he would also work to define and protect the subreddit’s culture (and, by extension, that of the online ramen community). This involved bridging the divide between users seeking “interesting, creative ways of using instant noodle”” and those “more interested in the authentic dish that has captivated Japanese (and foodies around the world) for almost a century.” These two camps “bashing the other side” was said to cause a fear of making new contributions to the community, with Satinover asserting “it takes courage to post in a subreddit and that courage is worthy of respect.”
Along those same lines, he would take a stand against “exceptionally rude posts,” “toxic” comments, “low effort memes,” “shitpost[s],” and simply “being a jerk” in order to “foster an atmosphere that cultivates quality content” (i.e., that which “encourages making ramen, because that’s how you expand knowledge about the dish”). The overall philosophy was: “it’s just food; if you don’t like the content, downvote and move on. No need to be so belligerent.”
In these early stages, the future Akahoshi owner would be careful to clarify he is “not a cook, just a home cook obsessed with ramen.” (Also, despite the detailed recipes and technical explanations, “I have no scientific background. I’m just a nerd.”) Satinover was “not really in this to make money,” and the most he “thought about ever selling ramen” was through “something like a popup” in his “dinky apartment.” When “shamelessly” plugging his recipes, he would declare “100%, I am a shill lol” while clarifying “if I were a good shill, I’d probably make some money on this. But I only post for the love of noodles.” This would inform a moderation policy where “generally we don’t like folks using Reddit to drive traffic to their own website (that’s self promotion and not really what Reddit is for).”
That being said, Satinover was never afraid to opine about Chicago’s ramen scene. When High Five Ramen was getting ready to launch, the moderator admitted he was a “tad scared” given Hogsalt founder Brendan Sodikoff only “studied ramen in Japan for a whopping ‘two weeks.’” However, when Zagat posted an article on “7 New Bowls of Ramen to Try This Winter” in Chicago, Satinover admitted High Five was “hands down the best in the immediate city” (though could be “disgustingly hot” in an “unenjoyable, bad way”). Still, he found the list “mildly infuriating” with “almost none of these places” coming close to “the level of the ramen shops found in LA or NYC.” A Thrillist list of the “Best Ramen in Chicago” (updated since its original publication in 2014) also had Satinover feeling “lukewarm to say the least.” He felt “many of the shops here are legitimately poor quality” and, more particularly, that “no one on this list makes a solid bowl of miso.” Overall, most ramen in Chicago could be described as “tonkotsu heavy, thick lard bombs with lots of gelatin,” with his “favorite place” being “my house.”
Satinover reserved the harshest scorn for Furious Spoon, which he claimed he “really enjoyed…back when they opened.” He even “supported their kick starter.” However, their tsukemen was labelled “absolute trash” with broth that was “tepid, a mess” with “no complexity or overt flavor to speak of,” “nothing to please the palate,” and an “extremely off-putting” character that was “borderline gross.” The noodles “only further destroyed any semblance of flavor,” and the moderator called the dish “a travesty” that “sets ramen back.” He even asked the restaurant, “how did you fuck up so bad?” Years later, Satinover would continue to tell users “avoid Furious Spoon if at all possible” even if, at that point, he tried “not to bash any places in the city too harshly” given he was then “semi-involved in the ramen business via running an occasional popup.”
The moderator would even take aim at Eater host Nick Solares (somewhat ironically given the fawning coverage the publication would later grant him) for a video titled “World Class Ramen At The Click of a Button in Osaka, Japan.” Satinover said Solares “is full of pretentious over the top garbage” and that he finds “videos with him to be abrasive.” Something about him “just feels try-hard,” and that quality prompted a general admission that he sometimes feels like “foodies are bogus.” Instead, one should remember “food is subjective; enjoy what you like, that’s key. Don’t over analyze it.”
As Satinover continued to post his ramen, troubleshoot other users’ recipes, guide discussion, and moderate content over the years (and, correspondingly, as /r/ramen grew), he really began to settle into the “Ramen_Lord” identity. Satinover originally “wanted to be Ramen_God,” but the username “was taken.” Thus, the “Lord” moniker was born, a title he admits was “presumptuous” from the start. Still, on the subreddit, the moderator was not against playing up his self-proclaimed majesty when called upon to render a judgment: “I have been summoned apparently, lol,” “I have been summoned lol,” and “lol, guess I’ve been summoned” regularly prefaced such posts. Satinover also began referring to himself in the third person: “alright, I’m going to write a typical “Ramen_Lord talking forever about ramen” post.”
To be fair, the subreddit’s users were happy to fuel the fire with a bit of roleplaying: “He has touched us with his noodley appendage. We are blessed,” one wrote, while another declared “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!!!*kneels and bows down deep kowtowing with outstretched arms.*” Though this kind of humor is thought to be cringeworthy by some within the wider Reddit community, it forms one of the website’s long-running codes of interaction and a path toward earning the upvotes, social standing, and power some prolific users desire.
When someone like Satinover—through consistent engagement with his subreddit and an acknowledged ramen expertise across several subreddits—cultivates this status, an ingrained internet fame is formed (and is maintained so long as he keeps his account and its accompanying karma). That attention might naturally lead to a sort of parasocial relationship forming in users who see the “Ramen_Lord” persona as a helpful, knowable, steadfast “celebrity” friend. By interacting with Satinover in the fawning manner seen above, they reflect some of his fame back onto themselves while being rewarded (via upvotes) by the onlooking community. This cycle serves to condition mimetic behavior in others (if they seek the same rewards) while perpetuating the power user’s fame and cementing the loyalty of their fans.
All of these factors—Satinover’s progression as a cook, a growing appreciation for ramen across the United States, the growth of the /r/ramen subreddit, and the rising internet fame of the “Ramen_Lord” persona—came together in 2017. At that point, the future Akahoshi owner’s reputation began to be transplanted from social media into the mainstream. First, in January, Serious Eats published “Obsessed: We Talk to Reddit’s /u/Ramen_Lord.” Therein, Satinover was profiled for creating “one of the best English-language resources for good ramen recipes” and given a chance to expound on his personal history and culinary philosophy while offering some technical tips. Saying “sorry for the shameless self promotion,” the moderator also shared the piece on /r/ramen and noted, though the article was “borderline embarrassing” for him, that he “owe[s] so much to this subreddit.”
In October of 2017, Satinover would be featured by the Chicago Tribune in a piece titled “Here’s the best ramen in Chicago — and you’ll probably never try it.” This time, he was ranked as the master of the form relative to the “17 ramen joints in Chicagoland” the author had sampled in the hope of “uncovering some hidden gem that would triumphantly put the Midwest on the map.” Satinover was again profiled—both personally and for his work under the “Ramen_Lord” persona—while being positioned as an expert “earnestly addressing issues with ramen that most people on Earth have never considered.” The author also recounts attending “three of his ramen nights” over “the course of the six months” that he’s known him, affairs that are described as “mostly informal” where “no money changes hands” as bowls are put together two at a time. Ultimately, the article wonders “shouldn’t the rest of Chicago get to try the best ramen in the city?” But Satinover is said to be “actively against opening a restaurant” because, despite “calculating how many bowls he’d have to sell to make a profit,” he ”doesn’t think it would work.”
The Tribune piece was posted on /r/ramen (this time by another user and not a “shameless” plug from the “Lord” himself), and the “overwhelming reception” prompted Satinover to plan a subreddit meetup. Toward the end of November, he would also pop up for a week at Ramen Lab by Sun Noodle in New York City. Satinover recounted 15 of the lessons he learned from the experience, which included: “Nothing can prepare you for the workload,” “We learned a lot about the health code and had to adjust our menu to comply with standards,” “Prep as much in advance as you can,” “Keeping the broth piping hot is actually challenging,” “Tickets and expediting orders are tricky for newbs,” and “Ramen Lab was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I hate that it’s over already. I want more.”
To that point, 2018 would see Satinover host a series of nine pop-ups at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square during the course of the year, 60-70 seat ticketed affairs that sold out in as little as 10 seconds. These not only allowed him to share his craft more widely than the intimate home setting previously allowed but to debut new, experimental recipes for ramen. They also marked the unveiling of the “Akahoshi” brand name: a word that translates to “red star” and references the symbol’s shared appearance on the flags of Chicago and Hokkaido (the two places that have shaped the concept). 2018 would also see Satinover host one of these pop-ups at Momotaro while returning to Ramen Lab for another weeklong engagement as well.
Additionally, the year saw him return to Japan “for the first time in 8 years,” during which he “ate 22 bowls of ramen in 6 days” (sharing thoughts on the experience with his followers). Satinover also began contributing a series of articles for The Takeout (each focused on a particular element in the creation of ramen) that he, once again, “shamelessly” promoted on the subreddit.
2019 would see more pop-ups at Paulie Gee’s throughout the year. However, Satinover would also bring his ramen to Atlanta (at Brush Sushi), Chicago’s Baconfest, the Let’s Make Ramen cookbook release party (a book in which he also features), Nashville (at The Green Pheasant), Split Rail, and New York (at Shuya Cafe de Ramen, which the “Lord” also “shamelessly” promoted on his subreddit).
2020 would see Satinover kick off a series of collaborations with Flat & Point—beginning, in February, with his very first “Tonkotsu bash.” However, with the dawn of the pandemic, he quickly pivoted toward selling $20 “Akahoshi Miso Ramen Kits” at the restaurant for customers to prepare at home. Satinover sold this same item at the Cookies & Carnitas Social Distance Market that summer before finishing out the year by offering a few additional styles of kit (i.e., “Jiro,” “Fall Shoyu,” and “Akayu”) every month or two back at Flat & Point. September of that year was also notable for a “Secret Kit” series of four experimental bowls like “Homemade Miso,” “Roasted Bone Tonkotsu,” and “Cement Ramen.”
All that said, 2020 was most distinguished by the release of The Ramen_Lord Book of Ramen in July. A collaboration between Satinover and his twin brother Scott, the work “isn’t a cookbook, per se” but something “meant to break apart ramen into its five components and explain them thoroughly, to help amateurs and cooks understand the components of the dish and to make more thoughtful composed bowls.” There were, indeed, recipes to follow—a summation of the work Satinover had been doing for 10 years—yet they were characterized as “by no means the be-all-end-all of ramen.” Rather, the authors would hope to update the cookbook over time and continue “to give it away for free”: “Why hoard the info right?”
To you, the most interesting portion of the book arrives under the “Beyond Salt and Flavor: Adding Umami Concepts” section. After discussing natural sources of glutamic acid in ramen like “soy sauce, kombu, and miso,” Satinover advocates for the usage of a “certain infamous ingredient” called monosodium glutamate (or MSG).
In truth, the author has recommended this food additive on Reddit and in his recipes for more than a decade. He has little hesitation about doing so. For, as a passage labelled “A Personal Notes on MSG” explains: “I have no problem with MSG. I love MSG actually. In small amounts, it greatly increases the savory characteristics of dishes, amplifies flavors, and makes ramen taste more cohesive. It also can help balance off-flavors, which is why most Tonkotsu shops in Kyushu rely heavily on MSG in their ramen.”
Satinover even preempts some of the common criticism levied against MSG, noting that fear of health risks is “rooted in a controversial history associated with slander against Chinese restaurants” while arguing “glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid we make and use in our bodies.” The author finds “there is nothing remarkable about the glutamate in MSG, and certainly sodium isn’t dangerous” so “using a little MSG here and there” does not pose “any significant problems.” Ultimately, “MSG helps make food delicious,” and Satinover’s goal is always “first and foremost to make delicious ramen.”
Now, you recall that Satinover admits he has “no scientific background,” and his intentions are probably in the right place. The defense of MSG has been spurred by a larger defense of Chinese cuisine against perceived racism, with supporters of this argument rightfully asking why one genre of cooking is singled out for scorn while the additive is pervasive across many beloved American processed foods (e.g., condiments, chips, frozen meals, deli meats, and cookies). Satinover is also right to note that “the science behind the health scare is bad”: MSG has not been found to cause headaches or other “Chinese restaurant syndrome” symptoms (except when ingested in large amounts in the absence of food).
MSG’s effect is actually more insidious. This form of glutamic acid is, indeed, naturally occurring, and “humans have evolved a very sophisticated detection system in our mouths for these molecules because they signify easily digestible protein—not the protein of raw meat, but the protein of perfectly aged, cooked meat” along with things like “breastmilk, seaweed, tomatoes, scallops, anchovies, cheese, soy sauce, cured ham and many more foods.” However, extracting MSG from its whole-food context and transforming it into a powdered additive subverts this process.
Additive MSG sends “a signal to your brain telling you this is nutritious,” but “when you digest it there is nothing there—so you keep eating.” Satinover asks “why do we think it’s ok to adjust salt and sweet flavors in a dish, but not adjust umami similarly?” However, “processed culinary ingredients” (like “oils, lard, butter, sugar, salt, vinegar, honey, [and] starches”) are categorized (by the Nova classification system) as “traditional foods that might well be prepared using industrial technologies.” MSG—and its “savoury umami flavours”—may exist (as a whole food) in this context. But the powdered substance Satinover is advocating for fits under the category of “ultra-processed food” (UPF): “formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, made by a series of industrial processes, many requiring sophisticated equipment and technology.” These “processes” include “the fractioning of whole foods into substances” and “chemical modifications of these substances,” which aligns with the neutralization, decolorization, filtration, and crystallization procedure outlined by MSG’s manufacturer.
UPFs are products of industrial processes that rid the compounds of their supporting nutrition—that which humans evolved to recognize and to prize in the first place. Such additives, stripped of “thousands of chemicals [that] bring health benefits” then used for flavor enhancement, “hijack…taste interactions” that signal you should eat this food without providing the expected benefits. The rewired “circuitry of desire” overrides feelings of “physical fullness,” inducing consumers to eat endlessly—and addictively—in search of a nutritional density that is not actually there. This sequence “disrupts our multi-million-year-old network of regulatory neurons and hormones” and is abused by companies looking to sell a steady supply of increasingly hyperpalatable products. UPF “isn’t harmful simply because it’s fatty, salty and sugary”: “it is the ultra-processing, not the nutritional content, that’s the problem,” and UPF has been associated with an increased risk of death, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancers, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, and dementia.
Used in small amounts to flavor a ramen that is otherwise made from whole foods, MSG powder poses no direct health risk. Satinover says the additive “is basically mandatory for balance” in some recipes, and that shops only “brag about not using it” because of “how rare a lack of MSG actually is.” He even says “if you’ve eaten ramen in Japan, you’ve probably had MSG.” However, Satinover himself stresses that ramen is “too young to have a culture” and “doesn’t have a lot of rules, unlike more traditional foods from Japan.” Thus, despite the convention of Japanese chefs adding MSG to their ramen, this is a practice that deserves scrutiny. It does not reflect any real history or heritage or “authentic” expression of culture that demands respect (if not total fidelity to the same methods). Rather, the usage of MSG is a contemporary, commercial phenomenon meant only to make the preparation of hyperpalatable food more convenient.
MSG producer Ajinomoto touts the product’s “safety” and “role in the diet,” particularly that it has “2/3 less sodium than table salt” and “can be used in the place of some salt in certain dishes to reduce the sodium by up to 61% without compromising flavor.” However, “it’s perfectly possible for someone to eat a high-UPF diet that is actually relatively low in fat, salt and sugar.” And it is by fixating on discrete nutritional benefits (like the need for less salt) that these companies distort the larger picture: additive MSG causes you to eat more of food that is nutritionally depleted (relative to the amount of glutamate being signaled to the brain) and to keep eating until there is nothing left.
In the manner, Japan, like the United States, has been victimized by the industrialization of its food system over the past century. Although “the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Japanese adults is rather low in international comparisons,” their rate of obesity has more than sextupled in men and more than doubled in women since 1976. The prevalence of overweight in adult males has also doubled over the same period.
Additive MSG, especially in the context of ultra-processed food, is best thought of as a mildly addictive substance—one that encourages overeating—rather than a harmless seasoning. It is “a cheat” (despite Satinover claiming otherwise) because it chemically alters a dish that is presented as being entirely “made in the restaurant” (i.e., homemade, wholesome in perception) for the sake of making it hyperpalatable and more intensely craveable. It represents nothing but a cheap shortcut to attaining a fleeting umami that perverts the very purpose (vis-à-vis the brain) of the flavor to begin with: signaling nutritional density.
This may seem like nitpicking, but Satinover spent more than a decade working as a marketing research consultant for Kantar, a company that celebrates its work for clients like Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, PepsiCo, and Unilever. These corporations are notorious purveyors of UPF and have cultivated “extensive relationships” with organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in order to undermine national food policy that might harm their business interests. These brands also fund and partner with non-governmental organizations as a form of “healthwashing” that yields good publicity for “weak promises and delaying tactics as they fight for ‘voluntary’ measures to challenge what they do.” When you consider that ultra-processing also involves “more indirect processes” like “deceptive marketing” Kantar seems to facilitate not only the proliferation but, in a sense, the very production of UPF.
Ultimately, this tangent means little in the context of Akahoshi Ramen. You have no window into the nature of Satinover’s work for Kantar or his complicity in promoting commerciogenic obesity. You just know he shills for MSG in the same manner the powder’s manufacturer does (i.e., conflating naturally occurring glutamates found in whole foods with a concentrated industrial product, focusing only on metabolic effects rather than those related to addictiveness and public health). Satinover simply recommends its use to his followers (calling it “basically mandatory” from his position of authority) and puts it in the bowls he serves at his restaurant. He acknowledges that, in Japan, “new wave shoyu” has opted “for technique over variety and quality ingredients over chemical seasonings or MSG.” However, while “charging a premium” and advertising that “we make everything in the restaurant” (while “most shops don’t”) with “real ingredients,” Satinover still chooses to use MSG. He even makes use of a mirin alternative called Honteri, substituting traditional rice wine for a UPF containing glucose syrup. Satinover willingly puts out an ultra-processed product—one that may help him sell more bowls at a “healthy margin”—while claiming, much like the multinationals, that he only wants to “make food delicious.”
Satinover says he gets “a little weirded out when a place has ‘secrets,’” believing any restaurant that does so “has something to hide.” In fairness, he has been honest about his MSG use from the beginning (though you suppose that is easy when cloaking yourself in the same “scientific” arguments utilized by UPF producers) and accommodating (though not always) of substitutions to his recipes in line with personal preference. You do not doubt that other ramen shops in town are using MSG without a second thought. So, taking this all into account, Akahoshi must simply be judged relative to its overall value proposition: what is being advertised (explicitly or implicitly) and what is being delivered? If the best ramen you’ve ever tasted benefits from a dusting of MSG, who could really complain? If the most hyped ramen you’ve ever sampled proves itself to be nothing special, just why might it be laced with that “infamous ingredient”?
Returning to the story, 2021 would see Satinover continue hosting pop-ups at Flat & Point, with ramens like “Duck and Negi Shoyu,” “Jiro Inspired,” “Soupless Mazemen,” “Mazesoba,” and “Tonkotsu” on offer throughout the year. In November, he also partnered with the Chicago Reader and Maa Maa Dei for a “Monday Night Foodball” pop-up at The Kedzie Inn. Finally, in November, the “Lord” would travel to Boston for a three-hour engagement at Yume Wo Katare that he noted, “perhaps,” would be the “start of another…world tour.”
That being said, 2022 would proceed in a similar fashion. Satinover started the year off with yet another collaboration at Flat & Point, serving “hits” like “Shoyu” and “Soupless Tantanmen.” However, April would see him bring the “New Wave Shoyu” style of ramen to Kumiko. There, a long line “created some serious hype” (the kind Satinover admitted it would be “disingenuous” to say he “didn’t like” while admitting detractors were free to give him “the middle finger” and call him “a clout goblin”). July would see another “Monday Night Foodball” collaboration with the Chicago Reader, but August would be marked by Satinover’s first pop-up at Perilla. There, alongside Umamicue, he served a “’Junk’ Style Mazesoba” with smoked brisket that was later followed, in October, by a collaboration with YouTuber Alex Aïnouz on two French/Korean/Japanese “Mega Mash Up” bowls. Finally, in December, Satinover would partner with SuperHai to bring “Junky Mazesoba” and “Chicken Paitan” to Ludlow Liquors.
2023 would prove to be a banner year, with Satinover—on the occasion of his birthday—declaring “34 will be the best year of my life. The most important year of my life. A completely life-changing year.” For once, he was “looking forward to…[his] life path” and to being “a part of the glory of this city [Chicago],” which he characterized as “a brash, imperfect, towering monolith of horror and delight, never taken seriously by anyone until it’s too late.”
To start the year off, Satinover would host his final pop-up at Dorothy’s (the concept that replaced Flat & Point) in January, serving “Akahoshi Miso” and “Soupless Tantanmen.” However, by the midpoint of February, he had a larger announcement to make. Satinover would be opening a restaurant under the Akahoshi name serving “a handful of ramen bowls, rice bowls, and beverages” (and “not much else”). His goal would be to “heavily fixate on quality with a small but exceptionally executed menu,” and he could also share that “the lease is signed, the designs are planned, [and] we are well on our way.”
You might remember that Satinover was “adamant he didn’t want to open a restaurant.” It was explained at the time of Akahoshi’s announcement that his “apprehension had to do with the restaurant culture he experienced as a teenager,” where he “didn’t feel comfortable” and “felt like, fundamentally, the culture wasn’t good” for him. However, hosting pop-ups taught Satinover that “not all kitchens operated the same way,” “you don’t have to make it brutal or messed up,” and you can “decide the kitchen culture…[you] want.”
In truth, Satinover had softened on the idea of opening a restaurant as far back as 2018, when he responded to a user’s question (regarding a permanent location) by asking, “Y’all got $350k? If so I’m definitely down to open a spot. Restaurants are expensive!” Elsewhere, he noted that he had actually planned Akahoshi “for years and years” and was “very meticulous about the right location, space design, and business model.” The spot he had chosen offered “good rent” and a “pre-existing space with the right square footage and infrastructure in place.” Being self-funded, he “saved a solid 300k with the location,” which—being “very close to the California blue line”—would cater to the people from “the north/northwest side” who predominantly came to the pop-ups.
That February, Satinover could already reveal that his shop would be located at 2340 N California Avenue, joining “a burgeoning ramen scene in Logan Square” with “Monster Ramen, Ramen Wasabi and Furious Spoon [his favorite whipping boy] all nearby.” Rather than directly competing, the goal would be “to increase the appreciation of ramen” and “to increase the discussion” in order to help realize the genre’s potential (“so much more” than currently exists) in Chicago. Elsewhere, on the topic of competition (in the wake of Slurping Turtle’s closure due to the effects “competition” in 2019), Satinover would contend, “we’re talking one ramen shop next door. Is that all it takes? Be better than your competition.”
Further details provided at the time revealed that Akahoshi Ramen had tapped Siren Betty—whose credits include Claudia, Evette’s, Pistores, and Tortello—to design its space. Satinover “initially wanted to emulate the extremely close quarters seen at ramen shops throughout Japan,” but “Chicago’s building regulations would have required expensive construction” to make it happen. Instead, the room would seat “about 50,” with a six-seat counter facing an open kitchen, a few large booths and a massive communal table that can fit almost 20.” The menu, more specifically, would include miso ramen (“the miso ramen will exist forever”) and “probably” a shoyu and a tonkotsu. There would also likely be “two soupless styles of ramen” because “Chicago doesn’t know how great those can be” alongside rice dishes like chashu don (“featuring fatty pork”) and ikura don (“topped with salmon roe”).
Satinover would look to keep the menu “focused and brief” because he wanted “to make sure the ramen is the star” (unlike other ramen spots where “people write that they like the pork belly buns”). This would help him to “put out a consistent product” and, again, “focus on the quality.” “To be honest,” he would reveal, “I don’t have a lot going for me except for quality—that’s what people know about me. It has to deliver because if it’s not awesome, the business is not going to work.” To that point, Akahoshi “won’t serve the cheapest ramen,” but each component would be made “from scratch”: “the noodles, soup, tare, toppings and everything in between.” To do so, the shop would draw on “specialized equipment” like a “$40,000 noodle-making machine” that was “currently resting in his living room.”
Elsewhere, Satinover would confide that he doesn’t “want to put on this air” like he “know[s] so much.” Ultimately, he’s “a white guy making ramen, that is the dynamic of the situation” and he would “lean into that.” This could principally be seen when Satinover shared further details on Akahoshi’s design in July.
Noting that the ramen shop is “effectively” going to be his “home for the next 10-20 years,” the owner stated a desire for the space to be “mature yet approachable,” something he “would be proud of,” and a “deep representation” of himself. As opposed to other places that “can look junky” and “parsed together from scraps and ideas over the course of its life,” Satinover, knowing himself well, “wanted to go all in” on Akahoshi.
At the same time, he admitted he was “VERY aware” that there is a “target” on his back. Rather than liking to pretend that “everyone and anyone” will love him, Satinover was prepared for the “intense levels of scrutiny” opening himself up to the public would entail. In that regard, “decor is any easy place to target” given he is not Japanese. Still, the design would look to “pay respect to certain Japanese aesthetics” while retaining a level of “American-ness.” Satinover “did not want this to be a stereotype,” and Siren Betty’s work would be “fundamental to encapsulating this.”
The “meticulous and thorough” design process took “around 6 months” and came to center on three pillars: “Simple and Fun,” “Culinary Excellence,” and “Refined Imperfection.” These were billed as “symbols” of Satinover’s work, and they were translated through “lighting and atmosphere meant to highlight food and experience,” “distressed finishes to give the space approachability,” and a “buzzy and fun” space with “a big communal table, open to the kitchen, to show everyone exactly what they’re eating.”
Akahoshi’s construction would be completed in October, and Satinover began hiring ahead of a prospected late October/early November opening date. The owner wouldn’t be able to offer healthcare, but employees would be able to eat for free while earning “competitive” pay: $20-$24 per hour for cooks and $15 per hour for front of house (along with a proportion of the assessed service charge). Once again, he reiterated the desire “to make the absolute best ramen possible for…guests” with “from-scratch cooking” and “high levels of hospitality.”
Inspections would delay the restaurant’s launch until the end of November, when, after a short period of soft opening, Akahoshi formally opened its doors to the public on the 28th. Satinover would mark the occasion, just a few days later, by honoring the many people—designers, contractors, landlords, parents, chef-mentors, fellow Midwestern ramen makers, and his staff—who got him there. He also shared a quote from Grant Achatz on how the Alinea chef “seasoned food with ‘emotion.’” Satinover “used to find that bewildering” but finally got it: “Every bowl we put out here is a reflection of so much work from so many people trying to do the best they can, a reflection of memory, a reflection of ideal. The best cooking is always layered with this.”
Akahoshi’s reception was warm—if not feverish—from the start. By November 29th, Eater Chicago was ready to declare the ramen shop “Chicago’s Toughest Reservation” (with bookings, at the time, totally filled through December 29th). The article cites former Chicago Tribune food writer Nick Kindelsperger’s evaluation at the time of soft opening: “I’m not a food critic anymore, but this is the best ramen I’ve had in Chicago.” This testimonial, which Satinover termed “pretty wild,” was well timed with the journalist’s departure from the publication, for you might remember that Kindelsperger visited the Akahoshi owner’s home for “ramen nights” at least three times. No money changed hands, and it would be flagrantly unethical for a journalist to promote someone who repeatedly hosted them for free—even if Satinover shrugged off the idea of opening a restaurant at the time—were they still a member of the profession.
Elsewhere, it was revealed that, despite reservations selling out, Akahoshi was “serving up to 60 walk-in patrons per day.” Satinover was also praised for the “extreme transparency” he had shown in documenting the concept’s fruitions, including both “triumphs and trials” (like “failed pre-opening inspections”). On that topic, the owner termed himself “an over-sharer by design” and stressed that he’s “not a seasoned professional” and he’s “going to do some stuff” without knowing what he’s doing. Being straightforward, thus, would set “appropriate expectations.” The restaurant was “not going to be perfect” but “just needs to be done earnestly, honestly, and compassionately” to succeed.
The start of December would also see Michael Nagrant term Akahoshi “Chicago’s Best Ramen” while The Infatuation (though not yet formally rating the establishment placed the concept at the top of its “The Best Ramen in Chicago” list. The latter publication noted at the time that “a line forms outside 30 minutes before” the restaurant opens and praised the fact that “each of their four bowls is distinct, with only a handful of toppings, giving every ingredient room to showcase its flavor.” More particularly, the namesake “Akahoshi Miso” was praised for “tasty wok-fried bean sprouts, pork chashu…springy housemade noodles” and a “rich garlicky broth.”
Later that month, Eater Chicago would again feature Akahoshi as “a top contender bringing fresh energy into the city’s chain-dominated ramen scene.” Therein, Satinover would admit he “doesn’t know” hot he feels “about being dubbed ‘the best.’” To him, “’best’ is a subjective thing” and his “’best’ ramen is not someone else’s best ramen.” Rather, the owner simply thinks he has “a lot to offer the Chicago ramen scene.”
(In 2018, Satinover sounded a less diplomatic note, stating: he “honestly” thinks he “dominate[s]” the Chicago ramen scene. He thought the stuff he puts out “completely trounces any restaurant in Chicago” and declared he “will accept nothing less than being number one.” To that point, the Akahoshi owner asked himself if he wants “to be the best among the average” or actually “stand with giants.” That is what would drive “intense improvement,” and you must keep in mind that this was more than 5 years before the restaurant opened its doors!)
Toward the end of December, Akahoshi would be named one of “Chicago’s 11 best new restaurants of 2023” by a panel of three “dining experts,” with Mike Sula praising Satinover’s “decade methodically learning how to make ramen” and “self described control freak” character without any further comment on the food. (You might remember that Sula collaborated with Satinover—twice—on the former’s “Monday Night Foodball” pop-ups. Praising the restaurant without acknowledging that seems like a clear ethical lapse.)
Finally, most recently, Satinover would reflect on the opening of his restaurant in an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit’s /r/chicagofood subreddit. There, in early January, the Akahoshi owner shared some details on how the business was doing and the philosophy that was guiding its operation.
He revealed that he was “doing 160-190 bowls of ramen a day” and “literally could not make more ramen if…[he] wanted to.” Satinover liked where his business was at, and producing more would cost an amount of money he doesn’t “want to spend” and require “relinquishing more control of production, which could impact quality.” Pricing the food, he admitted, was “a very delicate game.” During the soft launch, “tickets were $25” and the restaurant got “SO many complaints about the price, and in turn the food ‘not being worth it.’” Settling on a range of $18-$19 for the bowls, they “get far fewer comments, mostly that it is ‘expensive but worth it.’” Ultimately, Satinover believes “you should charge as much as you can get away with,” but certain concessions were made. He offers reservations because he’s “willing to take a hit on revenue to make customers happy” and “some people hate waiting.” However, “candidly,” if the owner wanted the restaurant to be more profitable, “the easiest way would be to remove reservations entirely.”
To that point, Satinover acknowledged the “true value of wait times and scarcity, which is “that scarcity creates a perception of value and quality that leads to long-term revenue opportunity.” The owner noted that “Hogsalt knows this, clearly,” and “it’s why literally every restaurant they open has wait times to get in” (even if he questions “if those wait times are real or not”). Satinover didn’t just want Akahoshi to be “busy now” but to “STAY…busy in 6 months,” which would affirm the concept “must be pretty good.” Ultimately, he reverts to his marketing background and cites the “sense of unattainability” that “drives demand” for products from companies like “Hermes, Nike, [and] Gucci.” The same “is true in restaurants” even if, in the short term, it seems a place like Akahoshi “should charge even more or make more product.” But “good marketers and businessmen know that scarcity breeds demand,” and that is why he runs the shop in his chosen manner.
More practically, Satinover noted that he doesn’t “’make’ much ramen as a restaurant owner now.” He “make[s] noodles, yes, but almost nothing else” and spends most of his time doing “payroll and inventory and finances and cleaning” along with “staffing and HR,” “contracts and supplier management,” and “marketing and menu planning.” In sum, “owning a restaurant is like 10% cooking,” but he was enjoying the other “90%” and even “the headaches,” like “when your dishwasher goes down and you have to call Ecolab at 8 pm on Friday” or “when a server gets sick and can’t come to work, but you have 100 reservations and a line out the door.” Satinover even divulged that “seeing folks eat the food…doesn’t register” due to his fixation on “what ISN’T good with the ramen.” He had also “definitely” become “less involved” on the /r/ramen subreddit, saying “you should see the complaints” over his “general lack of moderation.”
Still, creatively, there was much to look forward to. Satinover noted Akahoshi was “definitely doing and open to doing collabs,” especially “for a good cause.” The owner also revealed a new ramen would be debuting “as a special for the rest of January” and that he has “a long running list of specials,” “maybe 25 dishes deep,” that he’d “like to try.” To that end, Satinover would specify that he thinks “by definition” he is making “American Ramen” at the restaurant given his own nationality and how “tricky” it is to label the dish. Sometimes the ramen “feels very Japanese”—and sometimes it’s inspired by “other genres of food”—but it really centers on making what he loves.
At last, you come to the present day and the chance to taste the fruits of 14 years of obsession (10 of which were shared exhaustively online). Yes, while you are used to extensively tracing chefs’ careers (those movements from kitchen to kitchen and the moments that shape a personal culinary style), this feels different. It even stands distinct from a rare breed like Phillip Frankland Lee, who leveraged Top Chef infamy and self-funded concepts into earning a Michelin star.
Compared to professionals whose stories are brokered by journalists (and, perhaps, a small amount of social media engagement), Satinover’s growth as a home cook and internet personality has been laid painfully bare. His maturation from ramen-craving college student—unafraid to be a “snob” or put Chicago’s purveyors of the dish in their place—into magnanimous business owner has, too, been made apparent. But do people really change from whom they were when they were younger, or do they just grow more adept at concealing their flaws and channeling their virtues into an identity they can hope to sustain?
Looking back, Satinover was clearly the beneficiary of a digital ecosystem he built for himself. No doubt, growing /r/ramen took work and hinged most of all on being a friendly resource—the friendly resource—for all things noodles and broth. Yet “oversharing,” as he calls it, also offered a clear path to adoration (via upvotes) and authority. It offered a path toward the kind of “expertise” that is usually only attained by working in kitchens or climbing up the rungs of traditional media. It allowed him to sidestep that “toxic” restaurant culture from high school and keep the comparably cushy marketing consultant job to boot.
The 1% rule observes that “only 1% of the users of a website [that is, an internet community] actively create new content, while the other 99% of the participants only lurk.” Likewise, the 1–9–90 rule states that, in a collaborative website, “90% of the participants of a community only consume content, 9% of the participants change or update content, and 1% of the participants add content.”
Satinover is a shining member of this 1%—compulsively so. Remember, the genesis of his obsession with ramen was “essentially random” (or, at least, circumstantial given he was “a broke college kid” in a “mega ramen town”). “Posting bowls of ramen on Reddit” was, likewise, something he didn’t really know why he did: attributing it to being “unemployed” and needing “an outlet for creative projects,” thinking it “was cool” there was a receptive community, or maybe being “homesick for Sapporo.” Whatever the reasoning, he trained for four years before taking the plunge, ensuring the “Ramen_Lord” account would start off on the right foot and tap into the website’s natural reward system (i.e., upvotes). That quickly led to esteem, power (essential for someone who admittedly doesn’t “have very thick skin”), and the ability to lead internet discourse surrounding his favorite dish.
While stressing he was only posting “for the love of noodles” (rather than looking to “make some money on this”), Satinover took aim at High Five, Furious Spoon, Slurping Turtle, and chefs like David Chang. He termed Nick Solares “full of pretentious over the top garbage” and told errant users to “please read up on the history of ramen” and “understand that your fetishization of soft boiled eggs is an American affectation more than anything.” Still, Satinover was a benevolent ruler, generating boatloads of content (the same pictures of food that any garden variety “influencer” might post) and giving recipes out for free even as he unilaterally decided how—and about what—the ramen community would converse. Eventually, the “Lord” came to be summoned by users all too happy to play along with his self-chosen title in a bid to get a brief audience with the Reddit “celebrity” and secure their share of the upvotes. He would bashfully respond to the honorifics but still flexed his authority, consolidating the reputation that made him an online institution.
In 2017, Serious Eats and the Chicago Tribune provided Satinover with a crossover of traditional media legitimacy. At the time, he had “thought about” opening a restaurant (“even down to calculating how many bowls he’d save to sell to make a profit”) but was “actively against” doing so. Instead, he would continue to feed journalists and other industry figures for free at intimate home gatherings. Nonetheless, the end of the year saw him host his first pop-up in New York, the first of dozens of these events staged until Akahoshi’s opening. The moderator gleefully violated his subreddit’s rule against “self-promotion” to share news regarding many of the engagements. After all, this was his community, he was their “Lord,” and there could be no perceived hypocrisy from someone who had given users so much for free—never mind that Satinover “always” made profit from the events (“usually around 50% operating profit”). He was making “arguably the best ramen in Chicago” (in his own words) after all, “completely” trouncing “any restaurant” in the city.
Though formerly “not really in this to make money,” 2023 finally proved to be the right time to cash in. The same “journalist” he hosted in his home (at least) three times was ready to trumpet that Akahoshi Ramen would be “coming soon from Chicago’s favorite ramen obsessive.” Satinover had finally, miraculously realized “not all kitchens operated the same [toxic] way.” Of course, he wasn’t looking to compete with any of the restaurants he had disparaged for years but only to “increase the appreciation of ramen” and “increase the discussion.” How gracious! Plus, after hammily playing the part of “Ramen_Lord” for a decade, he also now didn’t “want to put on this air like” he knows “so much.” He wanted diners “to understand that he’s an enthusiast, not an expert” (and not to judge him with the same venom he so readily flung toward those other chefs). Satinover was also suddenly not comfortable “being dubbed ‘the best’” (after happily celebrating himself as such). He’s just “a white guy making ramen” after all!
Upon launching Akahoshi with a cutthroat business model based on scarcity and perpetual hype, Satinover was—at last—warmly received by the members of his subreddit, the journalists he’d hosted (and collaborated with), and an assortment of other industry figures he had fêted and reflected a bit of his digital fame back onto. That is, back in the day when he was never, ever going to open a restaurant of course.
You admit you are interpreting Satinover’s story rather cynically, and, likewise, you hope you have not delved too deeply into armchair psychology. This defensive posture is justified by the fact that Akahoshi is reflective of an emerging, almost hereto unseen, strategy for restaurant development. Satinover ingratiated himself with an online community, commandeered it, consolidated power as an “expert,” talked ill of Chicago restaurants and other chefs, promoted pop-ups against his own subreddit’s rules, and suddenly reinvented himself as a kind of ersatz kumbaya proprietor upon finally reaching a critical mass of support.
Surely, you are skipping over a lot of time and energy spent helping people better understand ramen and cook the dish at home. But what does being a terminally online Reddit moderator have to do with running a restaurant? And why should Satinover, uncritically, be allowed to take over a Chicago ramen scene he happily denigrated with the excuse that he was not (once upon a time) looking to make money from his passion? Shall the city just take him at his word? For, the fans he gained through this unethical behavior are the same ones that will make his scarcity model work, and the media figures who celebrated the shop’s opening would not (you hope) have implicated themselves had they known the real score.
Ultimately, just as some diners will naturally be drawn to Satinover’s story (or, if they have followed him on Reddit, his status), you must put forth a counterargument: “Ramen_Lord” was an adaptive marketing strategy almost from the start, a bad-faith effort to try and guarantee success in an unforgiving industry from someone who never had the mettle to actually pay his dues under a master. One bad experience in high school led Satinover to brand all restaurant culture as “toxic,” to retreat online, to sink into his compulsion, to become seduced by power, and to use the dark arts learned during his decade as a consultant to make an end run around the usual barriers to success.
This all might be worthwhile if Satinover really has subverted the industry’s nastiest tendencies to offer Chicagoans something superlative—if he really has forged a path for kindred, tender souls to successfully transmit their passion to the masses without being chewed up and spit out. Just the same, is the city being taken on one big ego trip by someone who quite simply learned how to play online sycophancy to his advantage? The answer, as always, can only be determined by evaluating those stalwart dimensions of quality, consistency, and value (free from any bowing to hype or conscious revulsion thereof) that guide each of your reviews.
You have visited Akahoshi Ramen a total of seven times, comprising a period from mid-December of 2023 to late January of 2024. As usual, you will condense the sum of your experiences into one cohesive narrative.
With that said, let us begin.
Visiting Akahoshi Ramen brings you to an eerily familiar area: a stretch of California Avenue just north of Milwaukee and south of Fullerton. Daisies “2.0,” the thought of which still makes your stomach churn, lies just around the corner. And you find across the surrounding blocks all sorts of familiar names: places like Andros Taverna, Bungalow by Middle Brow, Easy Does It, Kyōten, Lardon, Longman & Eagle, Lula Cafe, Mi Tocaya Antojería, Paulie Gee’s (the site for some of Satinover’s pop-ups), Pretty Cool Ice Cream, Spilt Milk, Superkhana International (the site for another pop-up), and Taqueria Chingón. Most interestingly, you find the range of other ramen shops that was mentioned at the time of Akahoshi’s announcement: Furious Spoon (Satinover’s nemesis), Monster Ramen, and Ramen Wasabi. Looking further down Milwaukee, you may even include Kizuki or Oiistar; however, it is hard to say that the area is totally saturated in noodles and broth.
Rather, this part of Logan Square—and perhaps extending into Wicker Park—is defined by a panoply of casual fare sprinkled with the occasional big-ticket item (like a $65 “Prawns de Jonghe” or, say, a $490 omakase). You do not mean that with the slightest disrespect. For, while West Loop remains king when it comes to fully-fledged gastronomic concepts, this composite neighborhood can boast one or more examples of Chicago’s best beers, burgers, charcuterie, cheeses, cocktails, fried chicken, ice cream, pastries, pizza, and tacos. This is to say nothing of the legendary farm-to-table fare or—dare you say—ramen to be found there.
These are places you can conceivably walk into or, at the very least, put your name down and wander around for a bit with a real hope of being seated in the foreseeable future. This is an area where you can fixate on a handful of recipes or techniques and execute them at volume, on your own little street, with some hope of success. Ironically, it is those concepts that try to do too much (e.g., Andros Taverna and Daisies) that you have found fall flat.
This is all to say, Satinover has chosen well when it comes to Akahoshi’s location. There were savings of “a solid 300K” involved, as well as a certain strategizing (in terms of the demographic that patronized the pop-ups), but the place fundamentally fits the scarcity model with plenty of surrounding foot traffic and myriad options to whittle down the wait. Just the same, Akahoshi’s particular block of California Avenue is quiet enough: you only note a bank, a salon, a tire shop, a pet store, a post office, a gas station, a smattering of residential buildings, the aforementioned Pretty Cool Ice Cream, and Noca Blu—the very apartment building in which the restaurant sits (alongside a small grocery store).
Though it can be hard to park here come dinnertime, most of the other businesses feel completely dormant. That means Akahoshi’s line can form and grow (and grow) without really impeding passersby (though many exhibit a quizzical look). Indeed, what proves most challenging is the condition of the sidewalks, which you have found on multiple occasions during the Chicago winter to be covered in a wet, slippery slush. Whether the responsibility of salting these surfaces falls on Satinover or his “great landlords” at Noca Blu is unclear; however, the state of the cement is both hazardous and a bit disrespectful toward those willing to wait out in the cold to support a business.
When you arrive at Akahoshi just a few minutes before your 5 PM reservation, the line of would-be patrons numbers somewhere between 20 and 30 people. (On Saturdays, that can balloon up to 50 or 60.) Given the restaurant sometimes opens its doors three to five minutes late, you have learned that it is often best to wait in your car (if possible) until closer to 5:10 PM. In truth, it is probably even better simply to book your seats at 5:30 PM or any time later in the evening to begin with. Otherwise, you will still be subject to all the chaos surrounding the opening rush.
To be fair, the process—when you have chosen to join the scrum—is pretty well managed. There is no avenue for those who have reserved seats to skip to the front of the queue (even considering the one-hour limit parties of two have to dine), a choice that may admittedly help to avoid any undue confrontation. For, especially during the first few weeks of service, the excitement shared by those waiting in line is palpable. Party by party, inch by inch, these poor souls wonder if they will have made the cut to be seated right away. Eventually, from the other side of the glass, you see the communal tables reach their limit. Instead of smiling, those who reach the host stand start to furrow their brows. They think for a moment, put down name and number, then retrace their steps—out into the cold—looking one of several shades of disappointed.
By the time you finally find your way inside, the walk-ins in front of you are being quoted wait times of 25, 45, or maybe even up to 90 minutes (depending on the day). In the latter case, they hem and haw a bit until finally, like all the others, submitting to the wait and getting out of the way. (On Saturdays, all the walk-in seats for the entire evening may be claimed as early as 5:11 PM.)
Finally, it is 5:12 PM and the opening line has all but dissolved. You approach the host—a burly, bearded man no doubt chosen to intimidate restive guests—and see his lips purse, ready to dispense with more bad news. But you say that magic word, “reservation,” and he marks your name off his tablet without giving any grief regarding your unavoidable late arrival. It may be the fifth time you’ve seen the host this month, the second time you’ve checked in at the restaurant in 24 hours, but there’s no form of recognition or “welcome back” (even if OpenTable serves him with that very information). Instead, almost as if shrugging, he leads you to your spots, halfheartedly mentions the QR code, and maybe—but not always—brings a carafe of water by before returning to his post.
Along the way, you have a chance to get the lay of the land. That begins outside, with a high-top counter (reserved for walk-ins) that abuts the windows running along California Avenue. There is also, on the other side of the front door, a small alcove containing Satinover’s fancy noodle-making machine. Stepping through the entrance, you find to your right the area occupied by Akahoshi’s back of house. This includes a small bar, some bins containing flour, a commercial mixer, the expansive open kitchen, and a rear dishwashing area that is only barely visible. To the left (in front of the high-top counter), you find a small open space where up to 10 patrons may try to huddle together while awaiting their tables. This is probably not encouraged by the establishment, for it makes forging a path to the exit somewhat tricky at times.
Parallel to the host stand—and situated right at the threshold that separates the open kitchen from the dining room—you find the ramen counter: seven low seats set before upper and lower tabletops with views of all the action. Gaps located on either side of this surface provide access to the staff when it comes time to retrieve customers’ food or return dirty dishes to be cleaned. Behind the ramen counter, running along the very center of the dining room, you find two communal tables separated by a support beam. The first of these, closest to the entrances, offers room for 14 guests in various configurations. The second of these, snugly shielded by that structural element, only seats four to six and actually feels more or less like a private table depending on your party size. Finally, along the wall opposite the kitchen, you find a series of six booths suitable for two (very comfortably) or four (comfortably enough) guests. A service station and a pair of bathrooms can be found at the very rear of the room.
Looking more closely at its details, Akahoshi’s interior design is defined by light tones of wood (seen across the various tabletops, as well as some of the booths’ surrounding trim) blended with off-white (the wallpaper, the framing of the kitchen), white marble (the host stand, ramen counter), faded red (sections of the ceiling, the kitchen flooring), gray (the dining room flooring, wallpaper, tiled walls/beams), stainless steel (the kitchen’s appliances), and black (the chairs). Many of these elements are complemented by real (or supposed) expressions of texture: the grain of the flooring, some errant brushstrokes (in white or black paint) applied to the wallpaper, and the subtle ridging of certain tiling.
The biggest bursts of personality come from a handful of flourishes like the embroidered cushions on the booths (done in a grid-like pattern), burnished mirrors and sconces (set above each booth), and an array of plant life (on the walls, some of the shelving, and certain surfaces). The framing of the kitchen, which you mentioned above, is also worth dwelling on. Extending down from the ceiling, it comprises a thick wooden base (the underside of which holds track lighting that illuminates the ramen bar) with a shorter, thinner section of wood set above it. Between the two layers, you find a kind of paneling dividing small windows draped with sheer curtains. The overall effect of this woodworking calls Japanese architecture to mind—though only subtly—and it is worth considering that only those patrons seated some distance from the kitchen will really be able to notice this element. You might also mention the design of the bathrooms, which feature two patterned wallpapers (one grid-like and set with concentric circles, the other reminiscent of sketched spools of noodles) separated by recessed LED lighting that glows red.
Overall, Akahoshi’s interior design is clean, modern, and bathed in warm, soft lighting. Though the details you noted provide some visual intrigue when taken in isolation, their effect—in practice—is rather subdued. The shop has seen little natural lighting (during service hours) since opening, and the constant crowds mean that it is hard to really meditate in the space or hone in on any of its textures. Rather, subconsciously, you get the sense that you are sitting among an overworked hodgepodge of ideas, a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach that somehow, perplexingly, expresses nothing. It’s as if Satinover and Siren Betty looked through a bunch of catalogues and wove a bunch of products together—with some amount of cohesion, you must admit—without any larger sense of personal narrative or profound inspiration.
To be fair, the owner does express a bit of his personality (presumably) through the new wave-inflected soundtrack that, while sometimes a little loud (depending on the energy level of the assembled crowd), imbues the space with a more upbeat feeling. Nonetheless, it is hard to describe Akahoshi’s design as anything more than competent: the product of playing it safe, paying a lot of attention to what technically makes sense, but never engaging emotion or conjuring the kind of transportive effect that characterizes a place like High Five. Really, at an aesthetic level, Akahoshi does not distinguish itself from neighbors like Monster Ramen and Ramen Wasabi (the latter of which can at least tout an extensive Japanese whisky collection on display) while falling quite a bit short of the mood at the much-maligned Furious Spoon.
You can appreciate that Satinover did not want his shop “to be a stereotype,” that he wanted to “pay respect to certain Japanese aesthetics” while retaining “a level of ‘American-ness.’” However, this fear of “having a target on his back” and décor being “an easy place to target” has proven paralyzing. The owner didn’t want Akahoshi to “look junky, parsed together from scraps and ideas over the course of its life,” but does that not signify an evolving, reflexive kind of design that allows the restaurant to grow and reflect the experiences of its proprietor? Satinover affirmed that “he knows who he is” and that the shop would be a “deep representation” of him, “specifically.” Yet how can that be expressed purely through materials, subdued colors, and the strange, quasi-Japanese framing of the kitchen? Where is the passion for ramen, for other ramen shops, for the many people the owner has collaborated with, for Sapporo, or even for Chicago? Hell, you would even take design elements inspired by Satinover’s Reddit career at this point. For, as it stands, Akahoshi feels plain, functional, and largely soulless. The restaurant reflects the cold, calculated taste of a businessman more than it expresses obsession—or love—for its chosen product. And the owner certainly cannot claim he is anything but satisfied with the space’s “impeccable design.”
Returning to that word—functional—it may be instructive to dwell a bit on the various seating options. You can really only speak to two of them directly (i.e., the ramen counter and the booths), but it stands to reason that the high-top counter (the one abutting the windows looking out on the street) is serviceable for walk-in parties and, especially, for single diners. The communal tables, you have already mentioned, are well-suited to larger groups. These spots can be reserved online, but they’ll force smaller parties into closer confines with other guests while not providing any real advantage (given the poor sightlines offered toward anything of note). Still, at this early stage, who can be unhappy about having any seat aside?
The booths, by your measure, offer the best accommodations. Though described by the restaurant as “cozy,” they feel downright luxurious for a party of two: offering space (for plenty of bowls), privacy (for polite conversation), and an out-of-the-way perch from which to watch the stream of customers and overall operation of the shop. It is from this spot—especially the rearmost booth (closest to the bathroom)—that you can really ruminate on how plain the place’s interior design is. Just the same, there’s a fundamental comfort to these tables that compares favorably to any seats at any ramen place in town—provided you know how to entertain yourself while waiting for the food.
The ramen counter, touted as “facing the kitchen,” would ostensibly offer the most coveted chairs: a kind of chef’s table from which you can watch one of the country’s ramen luminaries ply his trade. But really, you’re just squeezed next to other guests and forced to reckon with how underwhelming the workings of the kitchen are. Maybe that’s not a bad thing—for there are plenty of waiting customers to feed. Yet all you really notice is one cook aggressively flaming bean sprouts in a wok, Satinover gingerly moving noodles from bin to boiling to bowl, and a third cook helping to construct the finished product in between torching slices of pork. Sure, in terms of synchronization and that tranquil (non-“toxic”) working environment the owner so prizes, this coordination is impressive to observe. However, you are not sure the ramen counter experience satisfies any of the action, romance, or even a baseline of interaction that a devoted fan might dream of. The cooks are utterly anonymous—focused on the job no doubt—and do not even bring you your bowls personally despite being mere feet away.
Instead, seated at the counter, you really get a sense of the fanboys and fangirls that Satinover has cultivated: 20- and 30-something nerds, predominantly white and Asian, often bearded or bespectacled, and unabashedly glued to their phones until forced to stammer out an order and then, when the meal is done, ready to erupt in hyperbolic praise. Robbed of an audience with their “Lord,” this loyal following is sure to tell the hapless servers something like “that egg is a work of art.” Others may focus more on carefully intoning the Japanese words sprinkled throughout the menu, lending their appraisal and air of faux sophistication.
You are being a bit mean you admit, and there is certainly some diversity to note: parents with baby and stroller, an older woman and her teenage son, a smattering of younger black couples, and the odd groupings of 40-something white folks. Nonetheless, amid a sea of tie-dye, hoodies, backpacks, and beanies, you find a restaurant in which patrons are largely siloed off—here to seek sustenance in their own little worlds without any pervading, unifying sense of hospitality or community. (You can, at least, attest to one interaction with a neighboring table where you were asked how you managed to get a reservation.) The overall feeling reminds you of dining in a college town; that is, this is a business where eating is a practical, somewhat self-isolating consideration rather than a pilgrimage site defined by a shared, reverent appreciation of craft. Is that a bad thing? A fundamental problem with the Chicago audience? A case of misplaced expectations?
This sensation extends to the front-of-house staff and a series of interactions that begin with the burly host. To his credit, dishing out disappointment to those who have just waited out in the cold for a bowl of hot broth is likely no easy task. Reddit fame naturally attracts manchildren and womanchildren, and the prospect of waiting for hours—or maybe not getting in that night at all—is perturbing for those used to instant gratification (to say nothing of that oppressive fear of missing out). Plus, at least once, the host has bid you goodbye as you’ve walked out the door—signifying that he is trying to be hospitable even if warmth does not quite come naturally.
Taking your seat, it usually takes just a couple minutes for your server to come over; however, on one occasion (more than a month after opening), you have waited as many as eight minutes to be greeted. (In this dimension, sitting at the ramen counter proves superior, for one employee attends solely to those seven guests.) The servers arrive wearing aprons, many of which are festooned with pieces of flair, and—possibly—baseball caps. This is a “diverse” (Asian and white), youthful crew: the kind that again gives you those college town vibes and makes you feel like Satinover simply hired his friends. Certainly, that’s one way to establish a culture you won’t ever feel to be “toxic,” and the group is undoubtedly friendly enough.
Arriving at the table, they introduce themselves, ask how you are doing, and wonder if you have had a chance to look at the menu. (In your experience, especially for those arriving at opening or within a particular block of reservations, it is best to put the food in as quickly as possible since you may save yourself 15-20 minutes of waiting.) The servers stand ready to answer questions, share their favorite items, and accommodate any requests while invariably suggesting you add an “Ajitama Egg” ($2) to your bowl. They provide careful instructions on how you are supposed to eat certain dishes, particularly one ramen with a “spicy miso ball” that needs to be incorporated just a little at a time. And the servers accept even the most sizable of orders without hesitation and still make doubly sure—even at the point you feel you might have overdone it—that you have listed absolutely everything you could want.
Your drink order reliably arrives just one or two minutes after placing the order. It is really quite impressive, but securing a refill can be a bit trickier until your server attends to all of their waiting tables and begins to make the rounds. At that point, once everyone in the restaurant has placed an order (and it is only left for the kitchen to execute), the staff tends to congregate near the bar, three or four deep, making chit chat and playing on their phones. They do not notice your empty bottle of beer or proactively ask diners if they would like refills (for, you might remember, that 20% service charge is already guaranteed). Rather, the servers jointly indulge in what amounts to a short break before the flow of orders forces them to get back to work.
The food, which arrives roughly all at once, may arrive in as little as 10 or as many as 30 minutes. At that point, the server may return to ask if everything is looking good. As you work your way through the bowls, dirty receptacles are cleared. Upon finishing, the server kindly (considering the time limit on your table) asks if you’d like anything else. Bringing the check, they make sure to point out the 20% service charge (split amongst the front of house but not factoring into the back of house’s pay) even if they sometimes provide conflicting answers on whom any additional gratuity actually goes to.
Overall, you would characterize Akahoshi’s service as friendly, confident, and technically adept. Nobody follows a script, nobody arrives at the table ready to offload a spiel, so interactions feel canny. Just the same, there’s no sense of storytelling or expression of pride for the craft that’s being practiced by the kitchen. Rather, the servers are there to facilitate a commercial transaction, to ensure everything goes smoothly so that customers leave satisfied and the next set of asses get in those seats in a timely manner. As with the aesthetic dimension of the restaurant, Satinover’s desire to run a successful business—to compulsively formulate and fine-tune everything so that it is exactly “right”—obscures any sense of depth, personality, or soul. It’s the kind of mentality that believes allowing employees to wear those pieces of flair can actually substitute for emotion, connection, or the sense that you are being cared for as something more than an economic agent. (Once more, this is most starkly seen when trying to secure another drink—it’s as if the staff knows they only need to take your order once before completely switching off and going about their personal business.)
Across seven visits to the restaurant, you can only count one server (out of six working in the front of house) that recognized you and welcomed you back. This employee is really the shining star of the entire hospitality operation: they are every bit as well informed and technically proficient as the rest of the staff but marry these qualities with the kind of naturalness, enthusiasm, and downright love for the work that destine them for success in this industry. By comparison, the rest of the servers seem like automatons—again, the “college town” restaurant vibe that signals they are just working this job temporarily or helping out a friend. Again, this attitude works totally well for a shop that is focused on hitting its marks and pumping out the volume it needs to recoup Satinover’s investment. However, it might not clearly justify that 20% service charge (though who can really argue when neighbors tack on 25%) and, combined with the nature of the aesthetic plus the energy of the other patrons, makes for an environment that is pretty impersonal. (Nonetheless, you will also give credit to the dishwasher: laughing, dancing, and teasing the kitchen crew, he seems—alongside that lone server—like the only person who is actually having fun here.)
Again, Akahoshi is a business and not a pilgrimage site (despite all the surrounding fuss). Nowhere does that become more clear than when you consider the question of “chef presence,” one of your favorite facets of the dining experience to hone in on. Satinover, you have already mentioned, spends most of his time with his back turned to the audience: dropping noodles into boiling water, checking on them, and then eventually pulling them out. Occasionally, he’ll turn toward the dining room to help compose the bowls or to banter a bit with the other two cooks, emitting a telltale cackle. However, you could be forgiven for wondering just which of the men is the chef-owner. The kitchen just hums along like an assembly line, with each of the orders organized on a fancy tablet and plenty of space between the various stations.
Perhaps you are prone to romanticizing this profession, but surely many customers come to Akahoshi in order to taste the fruits of 14 years of experimentation from someone who also spent a decade cultivating internet celebrity. The whole attraction of “Ramen_Lord” was that he was a knowable, reachable kind of “expert.” The opening of the shop was meant to represent the realization of the /r/ramen community’s shared dream: one of their own—their moderator and captain—traversing pop-ups and buildouts to become a bonafide proprietor, to bring the appreciation of broth and noodles to another level. And yet, it seems like Satinover wishes to suddenly shed the “Ramen_Lord” identity and quietly go about his work as something of an anonymous business owner. He does not vocally lead the line or radiate the kind of concentration that makes you think, “whoa, now there is a master craftsperson totally engaged in their passion.” He does not deliver those coveted bowls of ramen to his guests—not even those seated at the counter mere feet away—or, better yet, work the room with any sense of appreciation or gravitas.
Surely, cooking those noodles is an estimable task, and they arguably form the very best part of his food. Likewise, you think any customer would admit that they want Satinover to channel his efforts toward ensuring each and every bowl is executed flawlessly rather than hobnobbing with people on the floor. Just the same, there are plenty of pasta cooks that could do what he’s doing during service. And it seems like a cop out that Satinover isn’t in front of the pass wielding the torch, harmonizing the various elements of his food, and acting as the master of a domain he never seemed shy about lording over until he had skin in the game. Doing so would, rather simply, provide guests with the money shot they are after and facilitate some feeling that the “Ramen_Lord” they came to see was really orchestrating their experience.
(Interestingly enough, by the time of your sixth and seventh visits, Satinover had—indeed—moved from the noodle station to the pass. There, the chef-owner delivered bowls to those seated at the ramen counter and even ventured to ask some of the guests how their food was. These encounters, you must admit, felt perfunctory and a bit clumsy. You are still not sure you would ever suspect you were interacting with the famed, domineering “Ramen_Lord” had you not already known what he looks like. The role of good-natured proprietor is one Satinover clearly will have to grow into; however, this is a start.)
Otherwise, dining at Akahoshi feels rather anonymous from top to bottom: ambiance, energy, service, and “chef presence.” Again, this is not a pilgrimage site but simply a humble business. It really has nothing to do with someone’s personal story or a Reddit cult of personality. Yet customers will flock here, take their pictures, and invoke that context all the same. Satinover is trying to have things both ways: benefitting from the rabid patronage his 10 years as “Ramen_Lord” entails while simultaneously spurning those fans and pretending he’s just an average guy who decided to set up shop. Even if you were to accept such a maneuver, it does not change the fact that the restaurant feels utterly faceless. This is a strategy that only works if the product being offered truly is superlative—and if everything you characterize as bland or soulless is simply geared toward ensuring the greatest number of diners get to enjoy a hallowed dish.
Turning, at last, to the menu, you begin with a diverse selection of “Drinks.” At present, these include four “House Cocktails,” three “Japanese Beers,” three “Crafts Beers from Marz Brewing,” five kinds of “Sake,” three kinds of “Wine,” and three offerings under the “Soda/Japanese Beverages” heading. No doubt, there is something for everyone (and you even spy a selection of tequila, Japanese whisky, and port wine that has yet to be listed).
Starting with the “House Cocktails,” you have sampled three of the four offerings. A “Yuzu Highball” ($11) is made with yuzu liqueur, sudachi shōchū, vodka, and soda is smooth, sweet, and watery almost to the point of seeming diluted. Though missing the crisp, driving quality of a proper highball, this stands as a pleasant sipper for someone who might otherwise order a soda. An “Assari Negroni” ($14), made with plum wine, shōchū, and an aperitivo liqueur, is arguably the strongest of the bunch. The cocktail is rich and rounded with an approachable sweetness that is balanced by the perfect degree of bitterness. Quite a pleasant surprise. Finally, the “Akahoshi Old Fashioned” ($15), made with whiskey, Amaro Montenegro, shio koji (fermented, mold-inoculated rice), and Angostura bitters, is less successful. You taste only the burn of alcohol and an offensive note of wood—what else could you hope for when everything but the brand of whiskey is named? It should also be noted that a fifth concoction—the “Ume Highball”—was excised from the menu only a couple weeks after opening due to a lack of sales. You did not have a chance to try the drink, but this move does speak to Satinover’s tenacity in ensuring his operation in streamlined.
Turning to the beers, you find the classic Sapporo ($7) in the Japanese category alongside a Red Rice Ale ($12) and Yuzu Ginger Non-Ale ($12) from Kiuchi Brewery’s Hitachino Nest label. The last of these, as a non-alcoholic option, is well chosen, balancing a medium, malted texture with subtle bitterness and only trace amounts of cleansing, citric punch. Meanwhile, the Marz Brewing offerings comprise a Pale Wheat Ale ($10), a Witbier ($10), and a Gose ($10) in what amounts to a varied range of options overall.
With the “Sake,” Satinover begins to educate his customers a bit more. Each of the five options comes appended with an annotation, beginning with two selections offered both by the glass and by the bottle. The Otokoyama Tokubetsu Junmai ($14 per 4 oz., $78 per bottle) is described as “Hokkaido brewed sake. Crisp, refreshing, approachable” and represents a 160% markup from retail pricing. Likewise, the Yuki No Bosha Yamahai Junmai ($18 per 4 oz., $90 per bottle) is described as “Complex, balanced in aroma and flavor” and reflects a 137% markup from retail.
Of two so-called “shareable bottles,” a Hakutsuru “Jumai [sic]” Ginjo ($28 per 300mL) is described as “Light, hints of fruit. Great for sharing” and represents a 212% markup from retail pricing. The Ozeki Platinum Junmai Daiginjo ($28 per 300mL) is, in turn, described as “Subtle sweetness, hints of vanilla, round mouthfeel. Great for sharing” and reflects a 155% markup from retail. Finally, the Ozeki One Cup ($8 per 6 oz.) is described as “The original single-cup sake. Found at every 7-11 in Japan. 1.5 servings” and is offered only at a 60% markup from retail. In sum, while most of the annotations are rather useless (just what does “complex, balanced in aroma and flavor” really express?) one of them (the Ozeki Platinum) is instructive and the sakes, overall, provide decent value in a range of accessible styles.
For the “Wine,” Satinover has selected a white, a red, and—boldly enough—an orange example. The first of these, Kellerei Bozen’s Alto Adige Pinot Grigio ($13.50 per glass, $52 per bottle), is described as “High acidity, notes of apple, mild minerality. Pairs well with the Miso and Aburasoba” and represents a 189% markup from retail pricing. The second, Jean-Paul Dubost’s Beaujolais-Lantignié ($15 per glass, $60 per bottle), is described as “Mike loves this style of red. Light bodied, easy drinking, dry with notes of cherry, low tannin. Pairs well with the Tantanmen” and reflects a 200% markup from retail pricing. Lastly, the Cirelli Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($13.50 per glass, $54 per bottle) is described as “Natural wine, skin contact leading to noticeable complexity and structure. Pairs well with the Miso or the Shoyu” and offers a 192% markup compared to retail pricing.
Of these, you have sampled the Pinot Grigio—the Trebbiano was sold out that day—and found it to be straightforwardly fruity with a moderate amount of weight on the palate that is balanced by just enough acidity. This is a pleasant, easygoing wine, and you feel like the Beaujolais is cut from the same cloth. However, the presence of the orange wine prevents this selection from feeling totally stereotypical. Plus, the annotations are better executed in this part of the menu and the markups, likewise, remain within the realm of acceptability.
To close, you find the “Soda/Japanese Beverages” category: a trio of Coke products, the always-playful Ramune, and the yuzu flavor of Kimino—the sparkling juice that has become something of a staple in the non-alcoholic realm. Those who want sparkling water will not find it listed, yet the staff will bring you a bottle of Topo Chico ($4) upon request.
Taken in total, Akahoshi’s assortment of drinks is thoughtful. Not everything—namely a couple of the cocktails—is a winner, but there are options to suit every taste at a more or less reasonable price (keep that 20% service charge in mind should you feel like ordering bottles of wine or sake). That being said, the selections cannot really match neighbors like Ramen Wasabi (whose list is huge) or Satinover’s nemesis Furious Spoon (where craft cocktails form a particular focus). However, these are also places that want their customers to stay a while and order what amounts to bar food. Perhaps a good point of comparison is High Five Ramen, whose focus remains solely on ramen and whose list is even shorter but sweeter and distinguished by those signature slushies.
You think it is fair to say that Akahoshi is effectively playing all the angles, ensuring that any customer who wants to spend money on drinks will have an outlet to do so, without really expressing a particular perspective—let alone an attitude. The Trebbiano is one key exception, but you would like to see the Pinot Grigio and Beaujolais substituted for wines of more character (say, one of countless Rieslings or domestic “glou-glou” reds). You would like to see the cocktails—of which there are only really three—become uniformly good or, better yet, express more personality than “Japanese riffs on classics.” The sakes, too, could be better described and rooted more firmly in some shared sense of craft (rather than standardization or mass production).
For, it really seems like Satinover has only chosen the “right” options out of what the shop can most easily get from its distributors. Admittedly, broth and noodles (and getting customers in and out in a timely manner) are clearly the focus. Yet this is another dimension of the concept that comes through as being somewhat anonymous: technically proficient, fairly priced, but not evocative of someone’s singular taste. After all, the beverages simply are an accessory to the main event (even if the descriptions of the wines indulge in the idea of “pairing” them to the food). So, again, this beverage selection—in its ordinariness—only works when the ramen actually lives up to “Ramen_Lord’s” famed reputation. In truth, this is the same logic that serves to justify, implicitly, every aspect of a fairly average customer experience across the board.
Finally, you reach the star of the show: Akahoshi’s raison d’être and the result of 14 years’ work. In evaluating Satinover’s ramen, you can do no better than following the chef-owner’s own criteria for crafting a “perfect bowl”:
“The noodles have presence in the dish. If they’re taut, wire thin Hakata style noodles, or classic crinkly yellow, they are not mushy or soft. I personally like a bit of alkalinity in the noodle, but the point is that you never feel like the noodle is a filler. The noodle itself is the dish itself. It has presence. The broth is extremely hot. Tepid broth is gross and hard to drink, and the heat is what makes the bowl comforting. Broth right off the boil is ideal. The broth is amply seasoned. Appropriate levels of salt through the tare. It should be almost too salty. MSG is optional but not unacceptable. The toppings should be existent, but not overwhelming. To me, it feels weird to eat ramen without toppings, but too much and it’s just plain difficult to eat. If you A) can’t see the broth or B) can’t count the toppings on one hand, the toppings are wrong. Still good tho. The broth has good gelatin content, but not overly so. If your broth goes beyond 10% brix scale thickness by gelatin alone, it’s too much gelatin. Use other thickeners like starchy vegetables, rice, or taro root to increase viscosity without giving an overly sticky texture. It needs an appropriate portion size. Small bowls of ramen kill me inside. At least 300 ml of soup and 140 grams of noodles guys! It should feel just shy of al-dente.”
Before you begin, it might also be worth dwelling on the topic of baselines. Given that salt sensitivity (or preference) is, in part, genetically determined, it can be particularly hard for a critic tasting broths to speak objectively about balance. Of course, defining good taste always demands the weighing of countless subjectivities, but this is a case in which different palates are quite definitively operating with different equipment. This is before you even begin to think about the hedonic treadmill: the standard of quality which a particular eater is reliably exposed to and, likewise, whether a particular tongue is tantalized by the extreme levels of salt, sugar, and umami that show up in ultra-processed food. (One can also question whether a given ramen, at core, is being designed in accordance with the Japanese palate or more in line with Americanized tastes.)
For this piece, it is worth clarifying that you do not regularly eat packaged ramen or other ultra-processed food. You have also not eaten ramen at any of Chicago’s other eminent establishments until first tasting Akahoshi and then deciding to expose yourself to the broths other chefs are making. Further, though you think that balance is fundamentally important (insofar as a lack thereof represents a flaw), it is really depth and concentration you seek from a broth—or any food—as you look beyond what is simply “correct” toward what really moves you. This is really not Satinover’s concern (or maybe he takes a certain complexity for granted): a good ramen broth is simply “extremely hot,” “almost too salty,” “has good [but not too much] gelatin content” and comprises “at least 300 ml.”
Thus, as you prepare to unravel Akahoshi’s ramen, it is worth stating that “balance”—the lack of any jarring, disjointed elements—is the sine qua non of Satinover’s broth. It’s the minimum expectation you attribute to 14 years of expectations and that declaration, in 2018, that he “completely trounces any restaurant in Chicago.” What you are looking for, instead, is a balance that portends a convincing, memorable expression of flavor: your “Black Truffle Explosion” (Satinover is an Alinea fan), a prime piece of nigiri at Kyōten (of which he is also a fan), or—perhaps—the “Lobster Soup & Seaweeds” that Smyth has been serving over the past year. Surely, these are weighty examples to invoke, but you are mostly speaking of a certain level of intensity rather than overall artistry. You are trying to establish baselines and orient your palate with regard to some of Chicago’s signature expressions of umami. And you might just as easily reference an Italian beef sandwich: not simply defined by meat and spice but, at its best, via deep, dripping savory quality.
At present, Akahoshi offers five different styles of “Ramen”—four of which debuted at launch and the fifth of which (a “limited special”) first appeared on January 9th—alongside a range of “Extra Toppings” and “Sides.” For the sake of simplicity, it may make sense to move from the periphery (the latter two categories of items served alongside the ramen) toward the full complexity of the composed bowls.
The ”Extra Toppings” are headlined by the “Ajitama Egg” ($2), the “half cooked jammy egg, marinated for days” that Satinover “pioneered” under the moniker “equilibrium egg.” Most other ramen shops in town include a half or whole egg in the price of a bowl, so charging extra—and, as previously mentioned, the servers are sure to remind you to add this item on—raises expectations.
In practice, the egg looks mighty tempting when you see its glossy surface bobbing in your broth. However, it is prone to small visual imperfections (i.e., a chunk chipped out of the white) or even larger ones (like a whole segment of the bottom being cleaved off). That being said, the egg feels plump and bouncy when grasped with your chopsticks. The membrane breaks apart easily with a bit of pressure to reveal a thin layer of firm yolk surrounding a shining, jammy interior.
The contents of this egg do not gush out uncontrollably but, rather, can be carefully distributed through the broth. Doing so actually takes a bit of work, so you typically bite off a decent chunk due to impatience. Texturally, the white is soft and pleasing while the yolk is attractively thick and gooey. However, the egg—despite being brined in water, soy sauce, and mirin—is absolutely flavorless. This is certainly true of some (not all) other examples you can find in Chicago, but, as a proprietary recipe sold for a premium, the item is in no way memorable. It offers a nice, fleeting mouthfeel but relies wholly on the broths to provide any intrigue. This blandness, along with the visual flaws you noted, make the servers’ insistence on hard selling the egg rather unpalatable once you’ve already sampled it. Though, to be fair, you’ve tried it seven times now (with consistent notes) wondering what you must be missing.
Another tempting offering under the “Extra Toppings” header is the ability to add “Extra Chashu” ($7). Ideal for those looking to build a meatier bowl, this “housemade pork chashu” is “simmered in soy sauce and seasonings.” This ingredient already comes with four of the five ramens while also featuring (in ground form) as part of a fourth and (in chopped form) as the topping on one of the rice bowls offered. Satinover utilizes pork belly whose sides are rolled together to form a C or U shape. The meat seared, the pan is deglazed, and the chashu is then cooked via sous vide with the resulting mixture of juices, mirin, soy sauce, sake, and brown sugar. The belly is then cooled and sliced as needed, with one of the cooks using a torch to develop a bit of char through the middle before it is placed in the broth. Ultimately, Satinover aims for the chashu to be “pretty melty, but still with some structure so that it doesn’t fall apart in the chopsticks.”
Approaching the pork (in its sliced form), you find the pieces to be appropriately proportioned: not necessarily “bite sized” but “still small enough that taking a bite isn’t a challenge.” At its best, the belly marries a layer of beautifully rendered fat with a firmer—but still tender—interior. On some occasions, the fattiness has been a bit less pronounced, yet you were still left with a soft mouthful of meat. On one occasion, the pork was dry and unpleasant. The torching seems to be a bit of a problem as well. In lieu of actually reheating the chashu, this method has meant that you sometimes receive meat that is cold (should you go right for a bite) until properly incorporated into the broth. The charring process also has a tendency to introduce overwhelming burnt notes. For, at the end of the day, the chashu tastes little of pork (let alone rich, porcine goodness) or of the “soy sauce and seasonings” used to prepare it. Like the egg, it is another element of the ramen that (sometimes) adds textural appeal but relies totally on the broth for flavor. You need only compare Satinover’s chashu to the pork served at other shops in town (particularly the one at High Five) to realize how one-dimensional it is.
Just as you can add “Extra Chashu,” an item called “Kaedama” ($4) allows guests to order “extra homemade noodles of your choice” in one of the two styles offered. This conventional ramen offering represents a good way to bulk up your order without having to commit to another full serving of broth and all the other ingredients. Just the same, given that the Akahoshi servers are prone to disappear once they’ve taken your order, there is little chance to request these extra noodles situationally (i.e., once you have finished your first helping). Instead, you must commit to them ahead of time or run the risk of your broth getting cold, a reality that robs the “Kaedama” of its charm.
Though you will delay your evaluation of Satinover’s noodles until you appraise his bowls in totality, there is one more thing you observed. Bins containing spools of these all-important strands can be found neatly labeled and stacked in a pile somewhere between the kitchen and the bar area. Once the noodle-cooking station exhausts its supply, an empty bin is discarded and a fresh one is carried over. However, this process runs a risk of leaving the remaining bins (particularly the one directly under that which was retrieved) without a lid, exposing those glorious spools to all and sundry. Given that this practice already runs afoul of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s “Food Code Rules” (stating that food must be stored “at least 15 cm (6 inches) above the floor”), the noodles’ added vulnerability to foreign matter is a bit disgusting. Though surely this is just one of those growing pains first-time restaurant owners need to endure.
Closing out the “Extra Toppings” category, you find “All other toppings” ($1), which includes housemade chili oil, spicy seasoning, bamboo shoots, green onions, beansprouts, nori, and “etc.” among its options. The first two of these prove popular as a means to increase the heat of any given bowl; however, that $1 (really $1.40 with the service charge) only gets you a comparative thimble of the oil or seasoning. Keep in mind, these ingredients are given away for free at most other shops, and you get the sense that Satinover is either being particularly greedy or simply trying to disincentive customers from altering his cherished recipes too much.
Nonetheless, you will admit you have found two toppings in this section to be worth the tariff. In essence, the abbreviation “etc.” is used to denote a range of ingredients mentioned in the descriptions of the various bowls (or otherwise utilized in the recipes): things like bok choy, sesame, or even soy sauce that the kitchen has on hand and would be happy to give you more of for a price. The best of these, in your opinion, can be found as part of the “Aburasoba” ramen under the title of “textures.” The crispy garlic and crispy shallots ($1 each) that comprise this element can actually be ordered separately and make for an enticing additional topping to any of the soupless ramens or rice bowls. Their serving size, too, actually feels aligned with the price.
Discounting the chili oil and spicy seasoning, this kind of customization (even if the full range of options is not quite apparent) is one of the things Akahoshi gets right. It helps to lessen the expectation that “Ramen_Lord” is going to serve you a perfect bowl and, instead, allows guests to determine the right balance of flavors and textures for their particular palate.
Before finally reaching the main event, you must also consider the “Sides.” These amount to three expressions of Japanese Koshihikari short-grain rice: a plain bowl of “Rice” ($3), the “Chashu Rice Bowl” ($8), and the “Ikura Rice Bowl” ($15).
First and foremost, it should be stated that, throughout December, the quality of Satinover’s rice was appalling. The grains were firm and clumped together and a little like what you get when (poorly) reheating day-old Chinese takeout. Nevertheless, by January, the kitchen’s execution of this pitifully simple dish improved. It has now risen to the level of totally average (if a bit bland) and represents something—at least in theory—you can conscionably pay good money for.
Of the two premium varieties, the “Chashu Rice Bowl” makes use of a familiar product. Here, the sous vide pork belly is chopped then topped with green onions. It really does not look like $5 worth of meat, and the flesh tastes just as underwhelming as it does when retrieved from your ramen (perhaps even moreso given the lack of supporting broth). The “Ikura Rice Bowl” is described as “a classic of Hokkaido” and features a healthy scoop of salmon roe (along with a couple pieces of nori) layered atop the Koshihikari grains. In essence, you are paying $12 for Satinover to transfer the contents of a Rare Tea Cellar jar. The orbs, by all accounts, are decent: just a bit wrinkled—a bit subdued in their “pop”—but still appreciably briny. The ikura was dramatically let down by the execution of the rice early on and, now that the grains have improved, makes for a decidedly average dish. There is really no good reason to offer this item other than signaling Satinover has some appreciation of “classic” Hokkaido culture. It is not only pricey but utterly forgettable. Moreover, the salmon roe complicates any effort to add the rice into the remnants of your ramen, which, as filler, represents the sole justification for offering these “Sides” to begin with.
Having laid all this groundwork, you finally reach the moment of truth. Satinover’s ramen recipes represent the fruits of 14 years of work. They form the heart and soul of Akahoshi, working to justify the line out the door and all manner of menial restaurant sins. They act as the tip of the spear of the chef-owner’s expertise, the proof that all the pompous moderation and all the venomous denigration of his now-competitors came from a place of utter superiority. Yes, he can try to walk back these expectations now that judgment day has come (though the internet never forgets). But it is hard to deny that customers come here with hopes of tasting the best ramen in Chicago (if not the country). And you cannot deny that if “Ramen_Lord’s” broth and noodles conjure some feeling of magic—of obsession and craft combining to achieve transcendent quality—then pretty much all is forgiven: hype, décor, service, drinks, chashu, rice mean little when they are but hoops to jump through in attainment of ramen nirvana. To be fair, a bit of pain and struggle to secure of bowl may be the very best seasoning of all.
You begin with the “Akahoshi Miso” ($19), described as “the namesake of the shop” and comprising a “blend of misos” with “homemade crinkly Sapporo-style noodles, plenty of lard” and toppings of “beansprouts, green onions, menma bamboo shoots, [and] pork chashu.” You have sampled this ramen five times.
The bowl arrives at the table boasting a brownish broth that is flecked with tiny bubbles of oil and that leaves noticeable staining around the circumference of the vessel. The kitchen does its best to make it all look pretty: the bobbing egg, torched surface of the chashu, strands of bamboo, and a handful of green onions help signal what you are getting into. There may even be a little glimpse of the noodles to take stock of before you plunge beneath the surface with your chopsticks.
Though some diners might look to immediately puncture the egg or sample the pork, it is best to begin by taking the broth on its own. The liquid arrives hot (but never scalding) and strikes you immediately with its straightforward, savory character. It is balanced—that is, free from any jarring notes—with a moderate weight that lends the other ingredients a rich mouthfeel. On one occasion, your bowl arrived having been filled noticeably less than usual. In this case, the broth, too, felt quite a bit thicker to the point of being muddled and unpleasant. However, at its best and at its worst, Satinover’s blend of misos is tastes decidedly simple. It is clean, pleasant, and perfectly enjoyable. The broth hits your palate, emits a small burst of umami, and totally disappears. The liquid offers no depth, no noticeable degree of intensity, or anything approaching a finish. Its intention seems to be technically correct and soft-spoken, a medium for all that floats within the soup that lacks any real personality or point of view.
Those Sapporo-style noodles help you understand. They are beautifully bouncy but still delicate—the individual strands perceivable as they reach your tongue—and leave you with a feeling of heartiness. These are undoubtedly the star of the show, yet they are let down by a broth that offers little real complement other than moisture. The same goes for the faint crunch of the beansprouts, which really do benefit from their time in the wok, and the snap of the fermented bamboo shoots (that, nonetheless, can sometimes feel too waxy). The chashu, you have already covered, can be tender but lacks porcine concentration. At worst, its charring imbues the entire dish with an offensive bitter note.
Overall, the “Akahoshi Miso” represents a modest textural triumph—at least when the chashu isn’t too firm or the broth too thick. The dish is anchored by Satinover’s noodles, which stand as a real achievement and elevate the other contents of the bowl. However, this shining element is let down by the muted flavor expression of the overall dish. The broth provides a fleeting dose of umami and otherwise gets out of the way, leaving the flavorless marinated egg and burnt-tasting pork belly flailing as they try to provide some intrigue. What you miss here is a sense of direction, a harmonizing of components that amounts to building, lasting flavor. Satinover may have formulated how to prepare these varied ingredients—in isolation—as a home cook but has failed to given them anything interesting to say. He may feel his broth is “correct,” but it is also not convincing or memorable. Like so much of Akahoshi, this ramen feels calculated to the point of totally erasing the emotional dimension of hospitality and food. It represents an above-average, perhaps good, but in no sense “great” example of the chosen form that leaves you wondering, “is that it?”
Next, the “Classic Shoyu” ($18.50) is described as representing “memories of the past, the original ramen.” It comprises a “clear soup” with “dashi elements” and is served with the same “homemade Sapporo-style noodles” as the preceding “Akahoshi Miso.” The bowl is also topped with green onions, menma bamboo shoots, and pork chashu but is distinguished by the presence of nori—that is, dried seaweed. You have sampled this ramen twice.
Aesthetically, you must admit that Satinover’s shoyu looks the part. It contains many familiar elements from before, yet the clarity of the broth evokes a sense of purity. This encourages you to consider all of the bowl’s contents cohesively, to appreciate their proportions as they slowly comingle. Plus, there’s a playful narutomaki (the spiral fish cake of emoji fame) to appreciate alongside those sheets of seaweed, which temptingly hang over the lid and invite you to incorporate them as desired. Still, to be fair, these assembled ingredients can get jostled on their way to the table—so much so that the resulting ramen can look like a bit of a mess. You may even find a fleck of dried food attached to the side of your bowl that transported itself by way of a cook or server’s hand. However, at its best, the presentation satisfies an idealized image of what the dish should look like.
Diving in, the shoyu broth is distinguished by a lighter mouthfeel that, with time, reveals a faintly savory character that is complicated by a hint of fishiness. Against this more transparent base, the ramen’s other flavors and textures can better assert themselves. Namely, you appreciate the subtle sweetness of the bamboo shoots and the soft, clingy consistency of the nori once it soaks in the liquid. The noodles (that may be wrapped in the seaweed should you desire a bit more complexity) are well executed once more. Nonetheless, their pleasing chew is yet again wasted by a dearth of flavor in the broth, the chashu, and the marinated egg. Even the seaweed, in truth, relies on the liquid it sops up. That shoyu broth just lacks the depth, length, or any clear direction that might carry the other ingredients. It is pristine—yes—but borders on being bland and, save for the noodles, makes for a fairly forgettable ramen.
With the “Soupless Tantanmen” ($18), you find the first of two “soupless variant[s] of ramen” that allow Satinover to put his troubled broths by the wayside and focus on noodles that, you must admit, are the star. In this case, the chef-owner takes inspiration from the Sichuan dish of dandan noodles, on which this preparation “loosely” based. The recipe comprises “extra thick noodles” (ones that are distinct from the “Sapporo-style” used in the previous two bowls) dressed with mala (a “numbing hot” spice) and sesame. They are then topped with pork soboro (crumbled meat seasoned with soy sauce and sugar), housemade chili oil, green onions, and bok choy. You have sampled this ramen four times.
Visually, the “Soupless Tantanmen” has arrived with each of its components neatly tucked into their own compartments—allowing the glossy surface of the noodles, in particular, to shine. However, with time, the presentation has evolved to be a bit messier and oilier. That may not be a bad thing, for the servers are sure to remind you to give the bowl a good mix before going at it. It also seems like the kitchen has started to compose the dish using a bit more of the pork and a bit less of the noodles, which would represent a positive change in the value proposition for many guests (especially when considering the “Kaedama” only costs $4). Unfortunately, these visual and compositional changes have also correlated with an overall drop in quality.
When first visiting Akahoshi, the “Soupless Tantanmen” was undoubtedly the best of the four bowls on offer. To be honest, the “extra thick noodles” are not as impressive as the “Sapporo-style,” but they provided much of the same appealing chew and, more importantly, came seasoned in a manner that felt richly spiced, powerfully savory, and delectably weighty. There was a depth and fullness to the satisfaction offered by the dish—one that totally delivered what you found missing from the ”Akahoshi Miso” and “Classic Shoyu” yet, in turn, was never overwhelming. (The cleansing crunch of the bok choy helped in this regard even though the usage of mala spice and chili oil was decidedly careful.)
Some time in the middle of January, the formulation or execution of this dish changed. Though the texture has more or less remained the same (becoming, if anything, a little too rich), the layers of flavor you so enjoyed have suddenly gone missing. Thus, the “Tantanmen” has become—like all the other bowls—a bit bland and simple. You have found this to be the case twice now, so it seems unlikely that you are perceiving a one-time mistake or some minor variation in the kitchen. Rather, what was once a memorable preparation is now, perhaps, the weakest! This is fueled, no doubt, from knowing how far it has fallen in only a matter of weeks.
The second of the “soupless variant[s] of ramen” is the “Aburasoba” ($18), which is said to have been “popularized by college students at Waseda University.” It comprises the same “extra thick noodles” as the “Tantanmen” that, in this case, are dressed with garlic and soy sauce. The bowl is then topped with “textures” (including the crisp garlic and shallots you previously mentioned alongside some strips of nori and green onions) and “chopped chashu” (of the same sort you found on the “Chashu Rice Bowl”). You have sampled this ramen three times.
At an aesthetic level, the “Aburasoba” has savvily avoided the same pitfall as its soupless peer. Each of the varied elements arrive snugly packed into their own corner of the bowl, offering a feast for the eyes and an invitation (echoed by the server) to toss everything together.
Upon doing so and diving in with your chopsticks, you encounter chewy noodles (again, not quite as delicate or delectable as their “Sapporo-style” cousins) offset by the brittle crunch of garlic and shallots. There’s also the softer snap of the green onions and seaweed, as well as the tender chunks of pork. Nonetheless, as has often been the case, the combination of garlic and soy sauce just does not do enough to season the dish. Yes, the noodles provide a fleeting savory note, but they receive no help from the chashu or the marinated egg (should you add the latter). So, once more, you are left with a bunch of (admittedly enjoyable) textures searching for depth and direction. Unlike the “Tantanmen,” this has always been the case with the “Aburasoba,” and you are not sure that adding more soy sauce—as opposed to utilizing one of a higher quality—would really offer a solution.
Finally, you come to the menu’s newest addition: a “*Limited Special* Akayu Spicy Miso Ramen” ($19) that launched on January 9th. Described as being “born in the 50s in Yamagata, this style of miso ramen may be just as old as Sapporo-style ramen.” It comprises a katsuobushi and pork broth with creamy miso and special “hand-massaged” noodles. The bowl is then topped with pork chashu, green onions, menma bamboo shoots, aonori (seaweed flakes), and a “signature spicy miso ball” with no modifications allowed. You have sampled this ramen three times.
Visually, this bowl certainly has the most going on: a broth you can somewhat see through, filled with many of the usual suspects, but blanketed in a thin layer of seaweed flakes with that spicy miso ball floating at the very center. When it comes to that last element, the servers take extra care to warn you. Diners should hold the miso with their spoon and take a taste with their chopsticks before committing to distributing it throughout the ramen. In practice, the ball is really not that spicy—nor does it strike you with all that much umami—and can be added to the bowl without hesitation.
When it comes time to slurp the broth, you encounter a flavor that is quite a bit like the “Akahoshi Miso” with some traces of fishiness and a mild, lasting burn. To your palate, the liquid still falls far short of the savory character you expect, but it does represent a small improvement when compared to Satinover’s other offerings. The “hand-massaged” noodles, when you get to them, do not seem dramatically different from the “Sapporo-style.” If anything, they seem a bit less chewy and more slick across the palate. This is enjoyable even if the broth’s other elements feel and taste the same. Even the aonori, despite its cosmetic effect, does little to drive up the umami or enhance your appreciation of the pork or noodles. Ultimately, this is probably the strongest of the ramens Satinover is serving right now, but it does not quite inspire you to come back (let alone wait in line for the pleasure). Might it make more sense to offer a limited special that is a bit more distinct than the existing “Akahoshi Miso”? For the “Akayu Spicy Miso,” despite its usage of katsuobushi and pork, achieves no greater depth.
With that, you set your spoon and chopsticks aside. Sitting back, you exhale as the effect of the hot broth slowly dissipates (Akahoshi offers no cooling dessert to help that along—though perhaps they will once the weather warms). The servers are quick to clear the empty bowls and, while careful to inquire if you might like to order anything else, bring the check by posthaste. They make sure to point out the 20% service charge, and, soon enough, you are on your way: through a packed house of patrons bowed before their ramen (or their phones), past those impatient souls waiting for their own audience with the “Lord,” and out onto California Avenue. At this point in the evening, there are no lines; there is no hubbub. Just a “humble ramen shop” humming along on the other side of the glass.
At its best Akahoshi, strikes you as the sort of place you would be thrilled to discover in your own neighborhood: a clean, slick operation spearheaded by a soft-spoken chef-owner with an unexpected passion for noodles and broth. You could stop in for a bowl whenever the mood struck, get to know the staff, and uncover the exact blend of extra toppings that makes your order taste just right. You could share the secret with your friends: the unassuming place that was a little expensive, a bit bland, but so doggone earnest. And those noodles—those delectably delicate and bouncy noodles—would keep you coming back, from time to time, along with those creative limited specials. At the very least, Akahoshi could stake a claim to be part of a rotation with the rest of the city’s ramen shops both near and far.
But Satinover chose to forge a different path: 14 years of recipe testing, 10 years of cultivating internet fame through ironfisted moderation, disparagement of (would-be) rivals, feting the press, hosting pop-ups, double standards (regarding self-promotion), a digital cookbook, some podcasts, and a whole lot of “oversharing.” Fair enough, you say. Someone needs to create the content that internet users greedily gobble up, and the throne of any given digital community awaits he or she who is willing to expend the most effort, mediate between rival factions (i.e., aficionados of instant versus homemade ramen), and consolidate their power. The title of “Ramen_Lord,” however obnoxious, was undoubtedly earned by a marketing consultant that transformed himself into Reddit’s foremost proselytizer of his chosen obsession: a historian, educator, and friendly home cook devoted to fostering an appreciation of craft. After all, it was never about making money—until, quite suddenly, it was.
Starting in February of 2023, Satinover began to spin a story in which he “for years suppressed the desire to open a restaurant.” He was “soured by a negative workplace culture he encountered while staging at a restaurant in high school,” he “didn’t feel comfortable,” he didn’t think it was “fundamentally” good for him, and, thus, he “regarded his obsessive interest in ramen as a hobby.” Satinover’s attitude only “began to shift” in 2017 as he started hosting pop-ups and “realized not all kitchens operated the same way.” (Despite these gears turning, he continued to attack Furious Spoon through 2019.) Presumably, the knowledge that he could “decide the kitchen culture…[he] wants” made the difference in deciding to open Akahoshi, and, for what it’s worth, the chef-owner was soliciting funding for the concept as early as 2018.
However, if you go all the way back to 2014, this narrative regarding the “toxicity associated with restaurant kitchens” was nowhere to be found. Forget the fact that painting an entire industry with a broad brush on the basis of one experience in high school is rather disrespectful. Then, describing “working as an unpaid stage for this upscale italian spot for around a year, anywhere from 20-40 hours a week,” Satinover said he just “kinda fell out of grace.” Despite, as moderator, speaking to a fawning audience on his own subreddit, he mentions nothing about a “negative workplace culture.” Instead, cooking is described as “an on and off career possibility,” with Satinover revealing at the same time he was “actually staging at a pretty well known Ramen restaurant in Chicago” a few months prior. That “didn’t really work out” due to him, admittedly, being “a bit too old and untalented.”
Satinover may have had his reasons for not wanting to revisit the trauma of his early restaurant experiences in 2014. Just the same, you personally choose to interpret his statements regarding the industry’s “toxicity,” especially at a time when it has become popularly decried, as a clever pivot. It is a device that allowed the chef-owner to walk back his previous statements about “not really…[being] in this to make money,” to justify all the smack talk, the self-promotion, and the hosting of journalists that would look unseemly (if not blatantly unethical) had people known Satinover would eventually enter the fray.
You feel the same way about the claim, in 2018, that his ramen “completely trounces any restaurant in Chicago” and that he “will accept nothing less than being number one.” This was echoed, in 2019, by Satinover’s affirmation that he “make[s] arguably the best ramen in Chicago.” However, once Akahoshi was open, the chef-owner suddenly didn’t know how to feel “about being dubbed ‘the best,’” for “’best’ is a subjective thing” and his “’best’ ramen is not someone else’s best ramen.”
All of this represents a conscious form of rebranding from someone who spent a decade working in marketing. In opening his restaurant, Satinover has sought to shed the “Ramen_Lord” identity with all the expertise and expectations it carries. He simply runs “a humble ramen shop,” making “the best ramen…[he] can,” and finds—upon recently hearing he has “officially reached ‘overrated’ territory”—that “the hype is completely out of…[his] control at this point.”
Yet this hype was cultivated every step of the way as Satinover touted his product, played into the cult of personality surrounding his online persona, and pursued a model in which “scarcity creates a perception of value and quality that leads to long-term revenue opportunity.” The chef-owner wants to benefit from his internet fame—just look at all the online reviews that mention “Ramen_Lord”—while ditching all its baggage. He wants to use his sycophants to get a leg up on the competition while hoping everyone forgets the nastiness, the arrogance that helped earn him that fanbase in the first place.
As far as marketing campaigns go, Satinover’s is pretty genius. He has formulated a way to be acknowledged as a master without ever really working in a professional kitchen. He has carefully grown and harvested a crop of consumers that ensured his seats were filled from the very moment of opening—who would broadcast their delight upon tasting his product and, along with allied members of the press, ensure Reddit fame would translate to mainstream appeal. In this manner, Akahoshi represents the translation of a hyperreal fixation, a social media sensation, into a bonafide business. Like MrBeast Burger, it reflects an emerging strategy in which the construction of an online personality and the corresponding digital promotion it generates precede any of the usual restaurant fundamentals. That is to say, rather than training under the best chefs or sourcing the best ingredients to earn distinction, this flavor of proprietor grafts their success earning upvotes in cyberspace onto a tangible operation. It is a pathway consumers may see more budding restaurant owners take as they try to sidestep the slow, painful process of simply opening their doors and winning fans one dish at a time. What better way to subvert the perils of an unforgiving industry?
The problem is that, after 14 years of effort, the results of Satinover’s plan are painfully average. You begin with Akahoshi’s ambiance: an overwrought hodgepodge of colors and textures devoid of any distinct personality or sense of place. Though some of the seating (i.e., those cozy booths) is quite comfortable, the so-called “ramen counter” is not only tighter but offers a view of a kitchen whose work, should you observe it, is just about as interesting as watching paint dry. Satinover’s staff, too, is (save for the one shining star you mentioned) nothing to write home about. You speak not only of the charmless host (called out several times in the restaurant’s online reviews), but of listless servers who go through the motions yet display no real ownership over the customer experience and cannot wait to get off the floor to grab a snack or play with their phones. Of course, you pay them a 20% premium for that pleasure, but hey, at least they’re not “toxic”!
You may speak of a paint-by-numbers beverage selection with misfiring cocktails and options to suit (that is, extract money from) every kind of palate. Though really, this lack of character is pretty standard. Even the aspects of environment and service you noted really do not matter, as you have said throughout this piece, if the food lives up to its proprietor’s reputation.
Satinover’s ramen, the fruit of so much study and self-aggrandizement, is simply underwhelming. Removing this aspect of expectation from your evaluation, the bowls rank somewhere between “decent” and “good.” Though the broths lack any jarring flaws, they also possess little depth or distinct perspective. They evoke no emotion, and one of them, the “Akahoshi Miso,” demonstrated a startling textural inconsistency.
Certainly, the noodles are the best part—the only truly impressive part—of this operation. Yet they are let down by flavorless, sometimes tough, and often burnt-tasting pork as well as despicably bland marinated eggs that diners must pay extra for. Though, over time, the kitchen has learned how to cook rice competently, you must note the precipitous decline of the “Soupless Tantanmen,” which went from being a rare exemplar of deep, lasting flavor to a dish that is rather anonymous. The “Aburasoba,” in turn, never reached even the most modest heights.
Satinover charges a premium for his food: about $1 or $2 more than his competitors before taking the egg or the service charge into account. He stresses that “everything is made in the restaurant, including all soups, seasonings, toppings, and noodles,” but—save for that last item—you cannot say you taste the difference. Rather, the chef-owner likes to use MSG and glucose syrup as part of these recipes. You wouldn’t say you can pick out their presence (though their ultra-processed influence may be part of the reason some patrons consume multiple bowls at the restaurant). Yet, these shortcuts (the kind that may be appropriate for a home cook but not a wannabee market leader) speak to the cost-cutting and standardization that robs his ramen of any convincing, memorable quality. Notice, Satinover says nothing about ingredient sourcing: where the pork for his chashu, the eggs for his “Ajitama,” or the soybeans for his miso are coming from. Instead, consumers should simply trust that anything “homemade” by “Ramen_Lord” will be of the highest quality and, implicitly, is worth paying for.
This idea of paying for the “expertise” and cult of personality Satinover cultivated really falls apart when you see him in the flesh. Though described on Akahoshi’s site as “too chatty for his own good, you’ll usually find him in the kitchen, spreading the gospel with guests,” the man has no presence. He is no host (something that is also clearly expressed through the staff’s conduct). And, now that he has actually been working the “ramen counter,” you can only describe the interactions as brief, clumsy, and detached. (Would cracking a smile kill him?)
Satinover admits it doesn’t “register” with him to see “folks eat the food.” But what becomes of passion or obsession when it is totally untethered from human connection (at least that which is not mediated by a keyboard)? It amounts to a glorification of technique for the sake of technique, for the sake of the ego, for the purpose of separating the creator—the “expert”—from the public they must necessarily love if they are to ever cook great food. No wonder Satinover idolizes Grant Achatz.
Plenty of people, you must admit, are happy to come along for the ride: the Reddit users, fellow ramen aficionados, journalists, influencers, and even some members of the industry (some whom you respect) drawn to exclusivity, to a “story,” to captivating content, and the chance to tap into the Akahoshi’s fanbase. (You think it is particularly devious how the influencers Satinover hosted in his home draw on that most intimate of memories to later praise a restaurant that is totally cold and impersonal. Talk about bias!) By buying into the myth—and for the great low price of $19—they can reflect some of that digital fame back onto themselves. Yet Satinover, in his food, the business that he’s built, and his fundamental character, strikes you more as being 25 than 35. He strikes you as someone who is only at the very start of his hospitality journey (dare you say life’s journey?) but buttressed by a degree of adoration that seems totally unfounded upon seeing him in the flesh.
Satinover, to his credit, is soliciting feedback and doing things like “routinely reducing the salt content on all dishes” in line with what guests are saying. He encourages customers to voice anything they dislike to the servers so that they can “fix it for you!” However, the experience (and, namely, the food) at Akahoshi is so far off of a reputation that—even more than Thattu or Daisies “2.0”—seems totally preordained.
Back when High Five Ramen was getting ready to launch, Satinover admitted he was a “tad scared” because the team only “studied ramen in Japan for a whopping ‘two weeks.’” However, the Hogsalt restaurant was helmed by Jeff Pikus, former chef de cuisine of Alinea, and he crafted a better concept with two weeks of study than “Ramen_Lord” has with 14 years.
That, you really think, is the galling thing about Akahoshi. Satinover has rightfully criticized the industry: its culture (in some places) and the state of ramen in Chicago (nay, the country) when starting out. But he has also tried to frame his lack of fortitude—or maybe simply the desire to make more money in marketing—as a virtue. He’s tried to learn and do it all from the comfort of his apartment, with the cheerleading of his own subreddit, with cushy collaborations, and a “scientific” approach. Far from discovering ramen’s best-kept secrets, he only has some good noodles and average broth (and below-average pork and eggs) to show for it. He also has no sense for ambiance, libations, or hospitality.
Imagine if Satinover spent just one or two of those 14 years seriously submitting himself to a master—not cowering in an online community of his own design but overcoming “toxicity” by growing, thriving, and extricating those most rarefied aspects of craft from their fearsome guardians. The chef-owner has, by all accounts, chosen the path of least resistance and expects to be celebrated for it. He expects Chicagoans to be his guinea pigs as he now, with a reputation far too big for his britches, actually learns how to make the kind of ramen people—not sycophants—will pay for.
Satinover has gone so far down this road that, try as he might to shed the “Ramen_Lord” identity, he is wholly reliant on it. To meaningfully alter his recipes, printed in the cookbook and representing the crux of his very “expertise,” would be to admit that 14 years of work have yielded little but a clever marketing plan. And, in the final analysis, that is what Akahoshi amounts to: good noodles, from a fancy machine, spoiled by blandness, inconsistency, and a dilettantish overall experience but buoyed—against all odds—by social media stardom.
Satinover and his marketing strategy represent the very inversion of what makes dining life-affirming. He sells secondhand status, not food, and you cannot imagine a bleaker future for the quiet, truly selfless pursuit of craft.