When I first moved to Milwaukee, I searched the internet high and low, asked for recommendations from any and everyone, in search of a legitimate ramen joint. What I came to find was a pop-up that seated about 20 patrons with extremely odd hours for this little big town. Ladies & gentlemen, let me introduce you to (if you are not familiar with already) Red Light Ramen.
In the desolate winters of the Midwest, Red Light Ramen warmed my soul. The pop-up ramen shop originally opened at 11pm on Fridays and Saturdays out of the contemporary fine-dining restaurant, Ardent. Guests would line up hours in advance (yes, myself included) in the summer and winter to get to be one of the lucky ones to slurp the rich, milky pork-bone broth. And on occasion some unfortunate souls even felt the painstaking heartbreak of getting denied as rations had run dry for the night (yes, myself included here too). After nearly 3 steady years of selling out of the elixir of life every night, the owners finally put a sign on it, bought the 20-patron capacity juice shop next door and converted it to the Red Light Ramen most know and love today.
A passion-project turned absolute success for James Beard Award nominee Justin Carlisle who spent a good amount of time in Japan, Red Light Ramen gets everything about a bowl of Tonkotsu right. From the broth that has been stewing for multiple days to the plethora of classic ramen ingredients such as nori (edible seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots), narutomaki (fish cake), mushrooms, green onion, a soy-soaked soft-boiled egg and cured pork belly slices, no detail or taste profile is spared in Carlisle’s bowl.
As the restaurant has grown into its more permanent home with somewhat normal hours (6pm-1am Wednesday-Saturday), the menu has also grown. The brief, seasonal menu boasts apps, an additional ramen option and a Japanese hot dish. Apps have ranged from the conventional such as edamame and shishito peppers to that of the unconventional sort such as whipped spam snack packs and baby eel fish tins (pictured below). Recognizing the best culinary experiences take risk and provide a sense of adventure, one should treat the apps as such and go in with an open mind and palette. You’ll be surprised to find you might actually enjoy spam and baby eel.
Oh, and did I mention they serve boozie-slushies?? Two flavors are always on tap – an old fashioned and flavor of the month. Come for the ramen, stay for the slushies.
There is a reason Red Light Ramen has held successful spin-off pop-ups in both Chicago and New York (the mecca of ramen in the U.S.), as well as being named one of Thrillist’s Best Ramen Shops in America. If you have not stood in line for a bowl of this ramen in the red light hours, you are not living. You would be remiss to not have this establishment at the very top of your #MKEbucketlist.
Pro tip: follow their twitter account, the memes are ridiculous and amazing.