Red Light Ramen’s Bright Bowls

A bowl of noodles and a slushie? Read more about this full-service antidote to winter’s doldrums.

Red Light’s tonkotsu. Menma: Fermented bamboo shoots. Narutomaki: A fish cake visually denoted by a pink spiral. Ramen Egg: Soft-boiled and submeregd in soy marinade. Pork belly: Cured, roasted and sliced. Nori: Paper-like seaweed sheets that soften in the broth. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

Red Light Ramen is the yin to neighbor-brother Ardent’s yang – the boisterous home of blistering bowls of Japanese ramen made from rich, milky pork-bone broth. Opposite, perhaps, in their vibes. One is the other’s complement, the dark to the other’s light, the Spam mousse spread to the sousvide beef tartare.

The 17-seat ramen joint is a surprising success story that started as a late-night, weekends-only resto-within-a-resto.

The small, devoted Ardent staff decided to turn their passion for after hours noodles-and-broth into a separate moneymaker shortly after Ardent’s opening in late October 2013. At 11 p.m., burlap bags covered the windows, the music switched to 1980s New Wave and the soup queue, even as the temperature dropped, never failed to snake around the corner. All a precursor to owner Justin Carlisle and crew taking over the old next-door juice bar and giving Red Light permanent signage. In this tiny red-walled, spray paint-blotched room, the lusciously fatty broth – enhanced with sliced pork, green onions, mushrooms, soy egg and nori – is joined by a seasonal menu whose flavor profiles build like the crescendo of a Depeche Mode song.

Even the snacks – such as the rings of smoked squash tossed with pickled yuba (tofu skin) in miso butterscotch ($7); and pickled herring, chili daikon, unagi (eel) and crisp rice ($6) – are powerhouses of flavor. Set aside your preconceived notions about Spam. Whipped into mousse and served in the Snack Pack ($6), the concoction’s salty processed flavor is downplayed by nori, pickled cucumber and spicy masago mayo. Delicious. Another ramen – miso-enoki mushroom with greens, bamboo and a soy egg ($13) – is a nuanced, meatless soup.

Expansion is not in the plans. Turning the tables nine times a night keeps them plenty busy, says Carlisle, who first challenged restaurant business models when he opened the low-overhead Ardent in a sleeper spot after his restaurant investor pulled out. Few would have predicted ramen would also be a viable year-round business option. Let’s toast a house-specialty spiked slushie to unexpected successes.

1749 N. Farwell Ave., 414-837-5107 | Hours: Wed-Sat dinner to late-night. | Prices: Snacks $5-$12; ramen $13. Service: A team of fast, friendly, noodle-’n-broth advocates. Reservations: Not accepted.

Hi Hat Lounge & Garage

The watering hole brought back its $8 Wednesday night ramen – pork or tofu with mushrooms, daikon, seaweed, cilantro, green onion and poached egg. (1701 N. Arlington Pl.)

The National

The milky, creamy, tonkotsu-style pork broth ($12) is thick with egg noodles, seared pork belly, soft egg, scallions, nori and – served on the side – the obligatory “spicy bomb.” (839 W. National Ave.)

‘The Balm of Ramen’ appears in the January 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.