Tofu with bonito flakes at Sunshine Cafe Credit: Michael Gebert

Maybe you had the TV-commercial-perfect Labor Day: a racially diverse group of neighbors barbecuing in a lush backyard, everyone with a frosty can of [insert beer brand here] in hand. But I had the organizing-stuff-before-school-starts kind, lived vicariously through social media. And from those channels, it seemed like there was a lot of transitioning going on. According to Facebook, a lot of people got married—Boka chef Lee Wolen did; so did La Sirena Clandestina chef John Manion and food writer Matt Kirouac. Greg Hall sold another business (Virtue Cider) to Anheuser-Busch. And several places closed. Hoppin’ Hots, the Hot Doug’s-like place in the old Great Lake space where I interviewed hot dog author Rich Bowen, closed. Jack’s, a one-time 24-hour coffee shop in Skokie where machers and pishers went to kibitz, closed, a victim—to its ownership’s minds anyway—of the smoking ban that killed the hanging-out-in-a-booth-at-2 AM part of its business. And there’s some news that I’ve been expecting for a long time about a place that back in the LTHForum day was a favorite and everything we loved about quirky dining out of the mainstream.

No, Burt’s Place hasn’t closed for good yet—although the current temporary closing for health reasons could well become permanent, and if anyone deserves to finally retire for good after having foodies turn their sleepy place into a late-in-life hit, it’s Burt and Sharon Katz. But this news was about Andersonville’s Sunshine Cafe, a little Japanese restaurant with a lot of history behind it.

Most people, I think, know that Japanese-Americans on the west coast were interned during World War II. Far fewer people would know that Chicago was a sanctuary for them during the same period. Not that there wasn’t prejudice here; they only were allowed to settle here once the FBI had set up a field office to keep an eye on them, and as the Encyclopedia of Chicago describes it:

Hard-working and usually well-educated, the Nisei resettlers experienced greater opportunities in wartime Chicago than they had ever known before, but also encountered significant discrimination. Japanese Americans discovered that many neighborhoods were closed to them and often settled in areas of racial transition between blacks and whites. Some hospitals turned them away; most cemeteries refused them burial; and certain labor unions denied membership. 

Still, war plants were desperate for skilled employees, and the Nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) were desperate to prove their worth and live more normal lives than they could in an internment camp. Particularly interesting is the story of Curt Teich and Company, the postcard printers at Irving Park and Ravenswood; they employed Japanese workers in the printing plant on the first floor, on the theory that their presence would convince Japanese spies that there was nothing to spy on there. Meanwhile, on the upper floors, the company was secretly printing battle maps for the U.S. Army.

Anyway, some 20,000 of them came here during the war, and though many moved back to the west coast when it was over, Chicago was left with a significant Japanese-American population along the lakefront from Belmont to Andersonville in particular, with a number of Japanese businesses—restaurants, gift shops, an art supply store, and so on— lasting well into the 90s or longer. That’s the world that Sunshine Cafe came out of, though I don’t know how old it really is or even the names of its proprietors.

Saba shioyaki at Sunshine Cafe
Saba shioyaki at Sunshine CafeCredit: Michael Gebert

What I do know is that it was a home-style Japanese joint run by an older Japanese lady and a man named Danny, who I’d always assumed was her son, though that’s apparently not the case. Surprisingly, and despite a fair amount of coverage on LTHForum in particular going back to 2006, nobody for any publication ever did the check-out-this-little-ethnic-gem profile that would allow me to crib names and details now. I could have interviewed Danny at some point, I suppose, but it would have felt like invasion of privacy to impose upon the friendly, reserved older lady sitting at a table in the back, surrounded by her papers and with who knows how much English to accommodate an inquiring, intruding reporter wanting her life story in 15 minutes. So yes, this is the story about the place where neither I, nor anybody else, seems to have gotten the story—until it was too late.

In any case, I didn’t go anywhere near often enough to feel like I was a known customer, but I did go every year or two for exactly one dish that transcended the general homeyness: saba shioyaki, a piece of grilled mackerel, its top puckered with charred blisters and its oily flesh full of flavor, served with grated daikon and a side of pickles. It was simple perfection. (This old Serious Eats piece walks you through more of the menu.)

Besides being a welcoming and modest place to get lunch, it was a slice of history—and because of that you knew it couldn’t last forever. It had one brush with closing in 2012 when the Health Department shut it down because the 90-year-old owner had, among other things, let her dry-goods shelving get rusty. Now, according to neighbors on EveryBlock, her health is reported to be failing and the family is looking to sell the business and the building, and the restaurant has closed down, at least for the time being. Danny is said to be interested in buying it and continuing to run it, but who knows if that will happen; Andersonville is a very different neighborhood than it was when Sunshine Cafe popped up in a Swedish enclave (dotted with Persian restaurants) many years ago. And it’ll be that much more different if Sunshine Cafe disappears, leaving it to 2015’s trendy sushi restaurants and coffee joints.