salted grilled mackerel set, Sozai Banzai
  • Mike Sula
  • Salted, grilled mackerel set at Sozai Banzai

I’d been hearing ominous rumblings from agents in the field about the demise of Tori Shin, one of a handful of legitimate Japanese izakayas out in the northwest burbs, but it wasn’t till I read John Greenfield’s account of owner Toshiro “Tony” Koneko’s relocation to rural Rochelle that I realized there was a bright silver lining. Moving into the Mount Prospect strip mall was Ramen Misoya, the first midwest outpost of a large Japanese ramen chain that specializes in miso-based ramen. If you’ve read my review this week, you know I think it’s a contender for the best ramen in the region, rivaling even that of Santouka in Arlington Heights’ Mitsuwa Marketplace. If you don’t agree, check your pulse.

It’s yet another reminder that for real Japanese food not much in the city beats what the suburbs—home to a significant expat population—have to offer. I recently checked out a couple other places that have popped up on the radar since my last foray.

Niles’s Izakaya Yume is Korean owned, but it’s worth noting because it’s truer to the spirit of an izakaya—a place where eating is just what you do while you’re drinking—than anything in the city. To that end they offer 33 different bottles of sake, everything from an $11 junmai Ozeki Pure sake from California to a $280 bottle of “supremely elegant” Kyokusen junmai daiginjo. There are some teriyaki and tempura dinners, but it’s more fun to stick to the snacky stuff like the takoyaki (aka “deep fried octopus donuts”), dumplings, and agedashi tofu. They also have a fantastic Korean pajeon. This savory pancake is often undercooked, but here it’s thin and crispy and packed with greens, one of the best I’ve ever had.

I journeyed to an Arlington Heights strip mall to check out the tiny, half-hidden Sozai Banzai primarily for its ramen, which looks pretty but falls way short of the standard now set by Ramen Misoya. What I found was a lot more interesting. This little place isn’t an izakaya or a ramen-ya—though they do have sushi and 14 varieties of noodles, those aren’t what you want to order here. Sozai specializes in small plates of homey, family-style Japanese dishes—lots of them—in addition to simple, inexpensive set menus and bento boxes that pack the place with expats during lunchtime; things like grilled mackerel, donburi, chicken karaage (fried chicken), and tonkatsu (not tonkotsu ramen, though they have that too). Check the sign above the register for specials—and take a look at some after the jump.

natto, Sozai Bonzai

Check out the fermentation action on that natto.

grilled salmon belly with spicy cod roe, Sozai Bonzai
  • Mike Sula
  • Grilled salmon belly with spicy cod roe

This lusciously fatty salmon belly was on special, grilled with a crust of spicy mentaiko. Unusual and really delicious.

cold tofu with grated yam, Sozai Bonzai

This cold, custardy tofu comes sprinkled with grated yam, okra, and nametake, soy-seasoned enoki mushrooms.

kale salad, Sozai Bonzai

This kale salad tasted like it had been pulled out of someone’s garden that morning.

garlic ramen, Sozai Bonzai

The ramen here is pretty but, as I said, a letdown compared to the other offerings. This garlic ramen tasted like it had been dosed with stale, bottled garlic powder.

Sozai Banzai, Arlington Heights

Keep your eyes peeled for it. It’s hard to see from Golf Road.

Sozai Banzai, 1089 E. Golf, Arlington Heights, 847-758-7328
Izakaya Yume, 9626 N. Milwaukee, Niles, 224-567-8365