Jun Takahashi has lived in Mount Prospect for a year now, but with his wife still back home in Tokyo, he's often left to his own devices. He's a 29-year-old business analyst for Mizkan Americas, a Japanese-owned corporation that makes vinegars, cooking wines, and other Asian sauces and condiments. About once a week he goes to a small izakaya a few minutes' drive from his house. "For me it's really comfortable to be there because of the master," he says. "I speak with him regularly. It's not really my home, but I feel like it's a room in my house."
The "master" at Tori Shin, located in a small strip mall near the intersection of South Busse and Dempster, is Toshio "Tony" Kaneko. He's been cooking there for 28 years; the restaurant's been open for business since 1976.
In the last couple years or so the brief lives of restaurants such as Shochu and Masu Izakaya have fostered the view that, Lakeview's Chizakaya notwithstanding, Japanese-style pubs won't work in Chicago. Truth is, a handful of izakaya like Tori Shin have operated quietly in the northwest suburbs for decades. These have largely catered to expatriates working for Japanese companies in the orbit of O'Hare or drawn to the area by the Chicago Futabakai Japanese Day School in Arlington Heights, one of few such schools in the country.
These restaurants aren't exact replicas of traditional Japanese pubs, but they're more genuine than the izakaya-like "concepts" that have flamed out within the city limits. In Japan izakaya can be as varied, corporate, and franchised as restaurants and taverns in the U.S., but before an izakaya boom in the 80s, more often than not they were small pubs dealing in beer, sake, and shochu, in equal importance to small, unfussy, inexpensive plates of homey, unpretentious food. They served as way stations for salarymen to have a drink—or many—and a bite to soak it all up before the long train ride home to the wife in the suburbs. Interaction with the cook grilling chicken gizzards or deep-frying fillets of blooming tilefish was personal and direct, and if you were a regular, you might have your own labeled bottle of liquor behind the bar.
In Elk Grove Village, Hiroko Kitazawa resists calling her Kurumaya Japanese Kitchen an izakaya, but her daughter Stephanie, who lives in Tokyo, says it's a lot closer to the modern Japanese pub than she thinks. In the daytime it's popular with an international clientele—Americans, Chinese, or Koreans who come in for noodles or main dishes—but at night it fills up with guys in jackets and loosened ties, nibbling on salted grilled beef tongue (gyutan shioyaki) or creamy, crunchy deep-fried potato and beef croquettes. The Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome and former Sox player Tadahito Iguchi have been here.
In 1996 Kitazawa opened a karaoke bar called Rokudenashi, and made it such a success that eight years later the owner of a struggling Japanese restaurant, Sushi-ya Hayashi, invited her to take over this place as well. She renamed it Kurumaya, the Japanese word for a rickshaw puller. Taiko Oshida, one of Kitazawa's chefs, created a beautiful menu with hand-painted pictures of the dishes, along with whimsical translations and endorsemsents (tori nankotsu, or grilled chicken gristle, is "full of collagen!"). So there's no trouble ordering the takana onigiri, rice balls stuffed with dried plum or salmon, wrapped in steamed mustard leaf, or the dashimaki, an omelet rolled around grilled eel that Stephanie says you can't get in Japan. All stocks, sauces, and dressings, from the miso to the ponzu, she says, are made in-house.
In Mount Prospect, Fumiyasu Yoshida opened Izakaya Sankyu in the mid-80s in yet another strip mall and thrived for a few years until the economy forced him to broaden his offerings and become more of a full-service restaurant, adding noodles, sushi, and meal sets to the array of small plates he served.
The name is Japanglish for "thank you," but it also stands for the numbers three and nine, a recurring motif in the dining room, where glass cabinets hold labeled shochu bottles reserved for regulars. Yoshida's 29-year-old son Ken says his father is of the whole-beast school of cheffery, using every part of the chickens he gets in—which should make you feel virtuous about eating the tori kawa, a deliciously fatty chicken skin salad tossed with garlic, chile paste, miso, sake, and mirin. When I ate here with Jun Takahashi, he was enraptured when he tasted the incredibly rich tori liver—chicken liver steamed for hours in soy sauce, mirin, sake, and Worcestershire. He imagined himself nibbling on it in front of a baseball game, between puffs on a smoke and sips of shochu.
Yoshida likes to experiment with ingredients not often found in traditional Japanese cooking—chiles, for instance. And he makes a surprisingly good "spaghetti maki," the rice and seaweed wrapped around pasta, crabmeat, ham, carrots, and cucumbers and drizzled with spicy mayo. But his claim to fame is the his buta kimchi, thinly sliced pork and kimchi sauteed in butter and tossed with spring greens.
Among these three places, Tori Shin comes closest to an old-school izakaya. In 1975 Kaneko left Niigata Prefecture for America, telling his mother he'd return in just a few years. He worked in Pittsburgh at the Benihana-style steak house Samurai, and then joined forces with a friend who took over Tori Shin in 1982. Eleven years ago Kaneko bought him out.
It's a small space, with a bar and open kitchen opposite a handful of tables set under framed autographs from ballplayers (Fukudome again). There's an English menu with a collection of appetizers, noodles, and sushi and sashimi specials, but the really interesting stuff is on a dry-erase board, written entirely in Japanese. Unless you can get Kaneko's full attention or read it yourself it can be tough to suss out what's what. But persistence—or simply pointing at what your neighbors are eating—pays off. You might get slices of ankimo, cold monkfish liver bathed in ponzu, or a hearty bowl of chicken liver and mushrooms stewed in sweet, slightly spicy miso. Recently Kaneko served up crystalline sweet potato noodles tossed with briny cod roe (harusame mentaiko) and fried smelts (shisyamo), their tiny bellies pregnant with eggs, along with skewers of grilled "black pig" pork belly skewers (butabara kushiyaki) and plump oysters set atop fresh shiso leaves.
Thanks to the smoking ban, most of Kaneko's customers can't light up with their shochu anymore, which he says has hurt business, but not as much as the lousy economy, which has shrunk the expat community.
That's something all the izakaya owners I spoke with complained of. Still, on Friday nights his tables are usually filled with expats drinking, chatting, and snacking—a scene you won't find anyplace in the city.
For more on these izakaya see our blog the Food Chain, where there's a post on natto, Japanese fermented soybeans.
Boozin' Food: Ten more Japanese restaurants with full bars
1829 W. Chicago | 312-243-1535
japanese | LUNCH: TUESDAY-SATURDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY TILL 11
One look at the nightly specials menu at West Town's Arami should jar anyone out of his sushi-ordering routine. Sushi chef B.K. Park, a veteran of Mirai, Meiji, and Aria, leaves the spicy-mayo-tempura-crunch frippery to everyone else, instead focusing on the fundamentals of traditional Japanese cooking: rice, fish, soy, seaweed. Park's sushi showcases outstanding quality and character across a wide variety of fish, both familiar (tuna, salmon, yellowtail) and less common (madai, kampachi, shima aji). Even if you don't opt for omakase (chef's choice), pieces arrive in an experience-enhancing progression, starting with the most delicate and ramping up in intensity throughout the meal. Though some folks might be unnerved by sashimi that stares back, the whole aji (horse mackerel)—sliced off the bone into silvery wisps and artfully reassembled and arranged with flowers—is a spectacular beginning. This species belies mackerel's oily, fishy reputation, especially when paired with Park's ginger-chive dipping sauce. At the top end of the intensity scale is the toro hand roll, in which incredibly rich tuna belly is chopped into smooth submission, fat threatening to melt into the rice—it's an instant candidate for last-meal consideration. Superpremium California Tamaki Gold is the rice of choice here. Cooked and seasoned to exacting specs, the tangy grains barely cling together when formed into bite-size fingers for nigiri—what a difference from the cold, sticky rice bombs so often found hiding out under slabs of weepy tuna. Other thoughtful details include house-pickled ginger, crisp sheets of toasted nori, and a fine selection of loose-leaf teas. Despite all the attention to tradition, Arami isn't some hushed temple of sushi. The simple space is casual—hipsters, families, and neighbors quickly fill up the small room on any given night. Homey dishes like steaming bowls of pork-belly ramen, short rib donburi, and broiled octopus salad come from the kitchen tucked behind the sushi bar. But though the cooked stuff is competent, it doesn't shine the way the raw does. One exception is the broiled fish collar that appears regularly on the specials menu. Rare at the bone and blistered on the surface, this gnarly hunk of sushi-grade fish neck is like the seafood version of a porterhouse steak. BYO to begin with, Arami now has an interesting beverage program from owners Troy and Ty Fujimura, who also own Small Bar and the Exchange. —Kristina Meyer
3056 N. Lincoln | 773-697-4725
JAPANESE, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | OPEN LATE: Friday & saturday till midnght, MONDAY-Thursday till 11:30 | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
The civically named Chizakaya, from chef-owner Harold Jurado (Sunda, Japonais, Trotter's), feels less like a comfortable, friendly bar than a small-plates restaurant with a remarkable sake list (curated by former L2O sommelier Chantelle Pabros)—its conviviality is in some ways hobbled by fine-dining touches. Chef de cuisine Robert Rubba (another L2O vet) executes Jurado's wide-ranging menu before a pair of communal tables, most notably a selection of simple yakitori: skewered fatty chicken skins, squeaky gizzards, steaky ribbons of beef tongue, juicy white turnips, and shisito peppers. Along with bites such as florid, delicate pig ears deep-fried pork-rind style, plates of pickles, and slices of hamachi sashimi layered with rich, fatty bone marrow, these are exactly the sort of alcohol-abetting snacks that keep salarymen drinking and singing without horking (too soon) into their sake boxes. Whoever controls the restaurant's Twitter feed has at times seemed sensitive to the suggestions that it's not an actual izakaya. But if the kitchen could consistently execute every dish as well as it does the crispy, greasy-good deep-fried chicken thighs or the cold soba noodles with feathery shrimp tempura, nobody would care at all how authentic it was. Chizakaya will be closed December 24 and 25. —Mike Sula
2521 N. California | 773-276-8080
JAPANESE | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, MONDAY THROUGH THURSDAY TILL 11
Jim Bee of Sai Cafe brought sushi to Logan Square with this spot just south of the boulevard. The menu's extensive: soups and salads, hot and cold appetizers (we enjoyed gyoza, panfried pork dumplings served with a slightly spicy dipping sauce), rice and noodle dishes, plus sashimi and cooked options. The sushi's superfresh, from basics like tuna to a "fashion" maki (tuna, shrimp, avocado, mayo, fish eggs, and cucumber) and more inventive options such as the excellent Spicy White Tuna Crunch. You can also order individual nigiri; I'm a sucker for unagi, and this was some of the best I've ever had. The ice cream sampler offered tasty little domes of green tea, lychee, and red bean ice cream meant to be eaten with a toothpick spear. Hachi's also has a nice selection of wines available by the bottle and the glass and a very satisfying house sake. —Katherine Young
2616 N. Halsted | 773-871-1800
ASIAN, JAPANESE | LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | OPEN LATE: MONDAY-SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT
Itto Sushi is a warm, casual sushi restaurant shoehorned awkwardly into two small dining rooms linked by a bar. It's cute, but the food is sometimes erratic. Pieces of nigiri are generally small, and while the fish is ultrafresh, it's not spectacular. The extensive list of appetizers is more interesting—everything from oshinko (pickled vegetables) and seaweed salad to concoctions like delicious king crab with cucumbers marinated in vinegar and a strange bowl of warm squid tossed with heaps of grated ginger and a healthy dose of melted butter. —Martha Bayne
58 E. Ontario | 312-202-0808
ASIAN, JAPANESE, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: FRIDAY-SATURDAY
On the second floor of Sushi Taiyo and open only weekend nights is this izakaya from Jeff Zhang and Sandy Yu's (Jia's, Shine, Rise). Don't expect the head-and-tail-on fried fish, beef intestine stew, and other exotica Japanese businessmen share while downing sake, shochu, and beer after work. The big menu is geared to Americans, with variations on tempura and teriyaki, accessible stir-fries and noodles, and familiar appetizers and salads. For sushi and such, you can order from the Sushi Taiyo lineup. Instead of beak-to-feet chicken parts, "yakitori" here refers to a wide range of grilled meats, seafood, and vegetables on skewers; our spongy fish balls were tasty, but the short ribs we tried to order were unavailable, as was onigiri yaki, broiled rice balls the menu says are "great to combine with sauce."Pitchers of mojitos and alcoholic lemonade are among the drinks, along with martinis and other cocktails, more than a dozen sakes, wines by the glass or bottle, and a handful of beers. —Anne Spiselman
1514 Sherman, Evanston | 847-864-4386
ASIAN, JAPANESE | LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11
At Kansaku it's not easy to resist the seductive and colorful signature rolls: we had the Fiesta, a tangy cigar of salmon, tuna, jalapeño, and cilantro, as well as the appetizer Citrus Spring Roll, a spicy tuna paste with cucumber and avocado peeking through translucent rice paper. Both of these nouveau Asian items were fine, but my recommendation is to stick with more traditional sashimi or sushi and savor incredibly fresh finned things shipped in several times a week to this atmospherically lit, stylish, and friendly place. We had a buttery escolar, rich enough to smear on bread, and tuna sliced thick as a ham steak and so transcendently tender I couldn't bear to defile it with soy and wasabi. To drink you might try an unfiltered sake like ozeki nigori, a tongue-coating, floral, richly textured beverage suitable as aperitif or with dinner; a more expensive filtered sake seemed neutered by comparison. —David Hammond
2651 W. Peterson | 773-784-3383
ASIAN, JAPANESE | DINNER: SUNDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY, TUESDAY
Long before the tsunami of overpriced, overdesigned sushi bars struck West Town, Katsu Imamura was quietly and unpretentiously elevating sea creatures to their edible ideal in less fashionable West Rogers Park. Here he and his wife, Haruko, have earned the loyalty of traveling Japanese businessmen and discerning locals with their friendly attention and superb high-quality fish. The best approach is to place your fate in Imamura's artist's hands and allow him to craft a sashimi combination of his choice. Don't overlook the cooked dishes and specials, which make the most out of the rare and seasonal: a grilled yellowtail jaw, amazingly moist and tender, is armored with crispy caramelized bits. Nuggets of lightly fried flounder fillet crown the fish's equally delicious, delicate, extracrispy skeleton. A saucer of raw quail's egg atop a pile of shredded daikon, green onion, and wasabi is meant to be mixed into a cup of cold tea and used as a dip for green-tea buckwheat noodles. Even simple dishes like thin grilled slices of steaky beef tongue or a tender sectioned squid come off like they were born, raised, and sacrificed just for you. Katsu will be open on Christmas Eve, closed Christmas Day. —Mike Sula
Mizu Yakitori & Sushi Lounge
315 W. North | 312-951-8880
JAPANESE | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11
Yakitori are a popular Japanese drinking food: skewered and grilled bits of meat, usually chicken. Old Town's Mizu Yakitori & Sushi Lounge takes the concept further, offering vegetable, beef, and seafood skewers as well. On our visit we sampled chicken skin, bacon and tomato, scallops, and shiitake mushroom yakitori—all exceptionally tasty. And now master chef Seijiro Matsumoto, formerly of the kaiseki restaurant Matsumoto, is on board, offering specials like paper-thin sliced hirame plated to look like a flower, and jellyfish salad with an ume miso sauce in addition to artful sushi. —Chip Dudley
2010 N. Sheffield | 773-472-8080
ASIAN, JAPANESE | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT, MONDAY-THURSDAY TILL 11
The fish served at Sai Cafe is so uniformly good that it's hard to misstep. Pieces of sushi are lavishly cut, and even the fishiest fish—mackerel, for example—is firm and fresh. The lengthy menu includes all the sushi standards as well as specialties such as rainbow maki—salmon, tuna, yellowtail, white tuna, and avocado wrapped around a core of crab stick—and a startling soft-shell crab maki complete with a jumble of deep-fried claws jutting out of the center. The menu offers many hot entrees, but most customers are interested only in the sushi. —Martha Bayne
1952 N. Damen | 773-772-6170
JAPANESE, FRENCH | LUNCH: SUNDAY; DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY
I wonder what the Polish immigrants who probably once inhabited the compact Bucktown cottage at 1952 N. Damen would make of its transformations into Glory, Scylla, and now Takashi, chef Takashi Yagihashi's French-Asian synthesis. Dimly lit and battleship gray, the restaurant is cozy without being cramped, and a trip to the restroom provides a startlingly intimate look into the kitchen—you might stop short at the sight of the chef hard at work (golly, he's not just a Beard Award winner, he's . . . he's human!). There are a number of irresistible keywords on the menu, things I'd probably order anywhere—duck fat, pork belly, sweetbreads—and a few I might instinctively avoid in a pricey place like this. But even a trio of small, cold tofu squares carries the potential for surprise and delight, dressed with seaweed, eggplant "caviar," and raw okra and smoky marinated shimeji and enoki mushrooms. Another surprise, a konbu-marinated fluke sashimi appetizer garnished with a thread of saffron and a garlic chip, stirred up some controversy in my group, but I thought it worked just fine. There were no surprises where the well-prepared duck-fat-fried chicken (available on Sundays only) or crispy, juicy veal sweetbreads were concerned, but their respective foils—spicy, slightly pickled cabbage slaw and cream-kissed green peppercorn sauce—made all the difference in the world. A wild striped bass with more tiny shimeji mushrooms was bathed in a savory broth that came with its own spoon, and pork belly with steamed buns, mizuna, pickled daikon, and a dollop of mustard reminded me of one the greatest sandwiches I've ever had, at a now defunct Chinatown restaurant. We did encounter a few less successful dishes: a roasted duck breast and leg confit needed some crisping, potato-and-prosciutto-encrusted salmon was simply dull. With a handful of expensive disappointments like that, I wouldn't call this place a terrific value, but that doesn't mean it isn't mostly terrific. —Mike Sula
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