Brett Suzuki is a purist. He sells pasture-raised beef at Arigato Market but he will never serve you a carne asada taco. When you own the only Japanese taco stand/butcher shop in town—maybe in the world?—you have to take a stand on cultural appropriation.
“We’re not Mexican,” he says. “Like—I’m not. And there’s tons of great Mexican food right around us as well. So it’s not really what we’re into. We’re more like American-style tacos, with Japanese influence. I only use Japanese ingredients.”
He means his tacos are built and garnished with things like soy sauce, panko, shichi-mi tōgarashi powder, and Tamaki Gold rice.
There’s a popular dish in Japan known as Okinawa taco rice, so Suzuki has some kind of footprint to follow. And there is one Mexican ingredient he uses at this tiny six-stool West Town storefront that might earn him a pass: flour tortillas made at the Tortilleria Atotonilco in Back of the Yards.
White flour tortillas, or something like them, the theories go, were possibly developed in northern Mexico by Spanish Jews (or Muslims) during the time of the Inquisition, adapting their own foods to the conditions of the colony they were lamming it in.
Suzuki is adapting them to his own conditions. He thinks that the flavor of corn tortillas overpowers the flavors of his fillings. More neutral flour tortillas, served just warm, act like cotton blankets swaddling generously portioned, and frequently hearty, compositions such as Japanese curry, pork tonkatsu, and the quintessential Japanese-American hybrid: a California roll taco with cucumber, avocado, aioli, and soy-yuzu dressed crab salad. There are more overtly American-style tacos too, most of which could credibly be placed in the category of stoner food: a cheeseburger taco with cheddar-parmesan bechamel and a tomato-meatball risotto taco invite indiscriminate wolfing.
Suzuki didn’t get this concept from his Magic 8 Ball. While growing up in Bannockburn, his Japanese father was a silent partner in a sushi restaurant. After college he worked in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo, then spent a few years in China at an import-export restaurant-equipment company before moving to New York and landing at Morgan Stanley. After the financial crisis he attended culinary school and found work exporting pork and eventually beef to Japan before heading back to the midwest. There he bounced around various kitchens (Next, the Pump Room), and opened a short-lived Italian restaurant in the suburbs.
Two years ago a friend hooked him up with an irregular pop-up gig at West Town’s On Tour Brewing, where he introduced high-end tacos, such as Côtes du Rhônes-braised short rib, that didn’t particularly resonate with the swillers. It wasn’t until he adapted simpler variants, playing off both his Japanese heritage (curry) and his American upbringing (buffalo chicken) that the tacos really took off, and he started working four nights a week.
He also looked for his own space with that same friend, Ethan Wautelet, whose father owns a 75-head cattle ranch in Nappanee, Indiana, just south of South Bend. That’s the source of the other half of their unlikely-sounding model: selling cuts of cryo-vacced, antibiotic-free, pasture-raised meat alongside the tacos. So while you won’t see any carne asada on his menu, Suzuki is about to introduce an Italian beef taco made from the same animals.
The ground beef is featured on the aforementioned tomato-meatball risotto taco and the cheeseburger taco too, which behaves a bit like the Akutagawa plate from Wrigleyville’s Rice’N Bread. I can’t see a corn tortilla standing up to loaded tacos such as these, but the flour tortillas tend to overwhelm some of the more delicate ones, like the spicy poke tuna, whose fresh soy-derived brininess is smothered by a double pillow of white rice and white flour, and which is only relieved with a bit of surgery around the edges of the flatbread. Others, such as a spicy deviled-egg salad taco, the chicken curry, and the crispy pork tonkatsu, command compulsory scarfing.
Arigato Market is my favorite kind of business model: a specialist that does one (or two) things really well. Most of the tacos are well-balanced innovations that borrow from seemingly disparate cultures and cuisines—the F word, or what people with straight faces used to call fusion. One, in this case, that follows a few rules. v