A little bit of ika shiokara goes a long way. At Izakaya Mita in Bucktown, the little strips of cold squid flesh, marinated in salted, fermented squid guts, come in a dainty dish. But with the outsize intensity of their briny funkiness and their slippery and wormy texture, they seem to come alive in your mouth—and really can't be washed down with anything less potent than whiskey. This is drinking food, every bit as challenging as balut or hakarl. In Japan it's known as chime, or "rare taste," something only old men and Bourdain wannabes eat.
At Izakaya Mita the ika shiokara is listed proudly near the top of the menu, just under the seaweed salad and cold tofu, a testament to the operation's commitment to providing a serious, no-bullshit environment for those who want to drink the Japanese way.
Mother and son Helen and Brian Mita haven't tried to reinvent the Japanese pub, like so many of their recent predecessors in the city have. Theirs is closer to the old-school izakayas that have lubricated Japanese expats in the
North Shore northwest suburbs for decades. For that task they've tapped Toshi Motegi, a former chef at a Japanese steak house Helen Mita's husband once managed.
The centerpiece of his menu is the selection of mostly meaty bamboo skewers grilled over binchotan, the same superhot, low-smoke oak charcoal Gene Kato employs at Sumi Robata Bar. Motegi's offering the rare bits, dressed with salt and sake or teriyaki—crackly ribbons of skin, fatty tail nubbins, and iron-rich gizzards and livers—in addition to more commonplace parts from the thigh and the breast, and a crusty, juicy chicken meatball. You'll also find pork belly, beef tenderloin, shrimp, salmon, yellowtail, shiitakes, shishitos, asparagus, and oyster mushrooms.
But you can build a more varied meal choosing among items like crunchy deep-fried squid legs or sweet pickled onions, cucumbers, and daikon. The custardy chawanmushi is light and piping hot, brightened with citrus zest and embedded with bits of shrimp, chicken, and the processed fish cake known as kamaboko. A medley of buttery soy-drenched shiitake, enoki, and king mushrooms is almost too umami-rich to conquer. And Okonomiyaki, the gooey savory pancake that's perhaps the most effective alcohol sponge in the world, is laced with ropes of Kewpie mayo and sweet brown teriyaki sauce and topped with plump shrimp, chicken, fish cakes, and shimmering bonito flakes.
Open-faced rice sliders are a more modest two bites, topped with broiled eel or fried fish with tartar sauce. Meanwhile, the deep fryer turns out shrimp, scallops, and vegetables jacketed in tempura, among more unorthodox endeavors such as fresh mozzarella sticks and slices of tempura eggplant sandwiching melted cheese and garnished with pesto and tomato sauce.
These are small, simply seasoned snacks, and you could make a night of it just sitting at the bar alternating bites with sips from a succession of the 15 sakes by the glass, ten bottles of shochu, or five Japanese whiskeys—and spend very little money doing it. Most items range around $5 apiece.
But bigger appetites can be satisfied with similarly simple larger plates, like a basic deep-fried pork tonkatsu, a whole grilled squid, fillets of broiled mackerel, or grilled yellowtail collar. A plate of gyu tataki, very rare and thinly sliced beef dressed in ponzu, will probably rank among my top ten steaks of the year.
With this great variety of perfectly enjoyable snacks, it would be a shame to waste stomach space on the three sashimi offerings or the thin-bodied ramen—both categories in the Japanese canon that deserve the full attention of a specialist. Why fill up on soup when you have so many other liquids to explore? In addition to the aforementioned sake, shochu, and whiskey, there are a half-dozen cocktails built upon them, plus a wholly Japanese beer list—five on draft, ten in the bottle—and eight sake one-cups: gorgeously designed, personal-size cans featuring a variety of flavor profiles that will keep you exploring. Check out the rich, high-alcohol aged Funaguchi Kikusui Jukusei.
Izakaya Mita is the Japanese pub the city's been waiting for: simple, honest, and welcoming, with a great variety of interesting things to drink. Every neighborhood should have one.