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Restaurant Tours: Sunshine Cafe rises from the East

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There was a time when the Japanese owned Clark Street. After the end of World War II, Japanese immigrants clustered around Clark and Division, moved up to Wrigley Field, and headed north all the way to Andersonville. Dozens of stores and restaurants opened to cater to them. Now Chicago's Japanese population has scattered to the six counties, and to buy Japanese products one has to go to a Korean store. Still, a few remnants of the Japanese domination of Clark Street persist.

The best example is the Sunshine Cafe. It opened only five years ago, on Clark near Balmoral, but it feels like it's been around for decades. The cooking is decidedly home style. This makes sense, since the elderly owners, Joni and John Ishida, live upstairs.

Joni, who was trained as a chef in Nagoya, ran a tea garden at Superior and State in the 60s. Ninety-five percent of her customers were Japanese businessmen, and they expected to be served a certain way. "What a headache," she says. "I just wanted everyone to come in and be more relaxed."

Later she ran a Japanese restaurant at Broadway and Addison called Cho Cho San's. The place was a little more casual, but the neighborhood gradually gentrified and her old customers started disappearing, replaced by yuppies. John, who for years ran Johnny's Three-Decker Sandwich Shop at Belmont and Halsted, had the same complaint. About ten years ago kitchen fires ended up closing both places. John retired and Joni went to work cooking for United Airlines.

But the Ishidas' friends kept bugging them to open another restaurant. All the good Japanese home-style restaurants had closed, they complained, and Joni was the best cook they knew. Joni also wanted her own kitchen again, and the Sunshine Cafe was born.

It was a family restaurant from the start. Joni's sister, Shigeko Nishime, helped with the cooking, as she had at all of Joni's restaurants. Their brother Hideo, who owns a sporting-goods store in Toyota, flew in with decorations, including a red screen painted with cranes and some authentic Japanese roof shingles, which he installed inside the restaurant to make it look like a Japanese house. John pitched in where he could and cracked off-color jokes that he'd learned in the U.S. army during World War II.

Gradually Sunshine lured an all-star staff who were attracted by the cafe's authentic fare. As their manager, the Ishidas hired Dan Nakashima, a friend of their nephew's who had been a chef at Itto Sushi. Paul Oda, who used to own Star Market, joined as a waiter.

"Some people try to put out American food and say oh, this is Japanese," Nakashima says. "But a lot of people know the truth now. We're not like other restaurants." The menu at Sunshine doesn't list any sushi, except for an occasional California roll special to placate heathens. Many of the dishes are familiar, like tempura soba, shumai, and sukiyaki, and everything is simply prepared. Joni's chicken teriyaki is light and delicious, without the gummy sauce that ruins the dish at lesser restaurants, and her udon broths are rich and flavorful. The best dishes are the saba shioyaki, a lightly salted and broiled mackerel fillet, and the oyakodon, a mixture of chicken, eggs, and onions served over white rice.

In the early days of the cafe, Joni and John spent a lot of time up front hanging out with the customers. Over the last three years, though, the restaurant has become a popular neighborhood joint. Now they look forward to the slow times, between lunch and dinner, when Sunshine still feels like a home.

The other day, Joni and John were taking a break, eating a traditional Whopper with fries. "Everyone gets tired of the same old stuff," Joni said. Around 2:30 an elderly woman came in. She eats at the cafe at least two times a week, always in the middle of the day when there are plenty of free tables and Joni has time to talk. Over a bowl of tempura soba, she said, "A lot of people don't like to be alone, but I don't mind."

"Well," said Joni, "you're never alone here."

Sunshine Cafe, 5449 N. Clark, is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 9 PM. Call 773-334-6214.

--Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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