Natto-stuffed tofu at Tori Shin
Natto-stuffed tofu at Tori Shin Credit: Mike Sula

Japanese Restaurants


1829 W. Chicago | 312-243-1535



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. 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. 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

Bob San

1805 W. Division | 773-235-8888



Proper raw-fish minimalists typically have nothing but scorn for the dark sound-tracked nightclubs that chum fashionable neighborhoods for suckers eager to accessorize their nights out with gaudy fish candy. With a dining area and lounge, Bob San has the latter market locked up—it’s the place to be seen washing down your crabby dragon roll with a saketini. So hats off to Bob Bee. He’s a hell of a businessman, but no bottom feeder: the sushi bar at Bob San is also a haven for people who take their sashimi and sushi seriously. Show a little interest and Bee and his knowledgeable crew will guide you through the day’s best and most unusual catches, presenting them in artful textural combinations and contrasts that don’t distract from their God-given freshness—a face-off between fresh- and saltwater eel, for example, or a plate of engawa, the pale pink and resilient fin muscle of a flounder, or a tip to punch up your already lusty mackerel with a bit of refreshing minty-fresh shiso leaf. In these encouraging circumstances it’s easy to forget what comes from the kitchen; simple, winning dishes like gomae or black cod with miso, a heartbreakingly silky and ephemeral piece of fish that dissolves in the mouth like a dream of lush beauty. —Mike Sula


3056 N. Lincoln | 773-697-4725



Chicago’s apparent indifference to the izakaya—the traditional Japanese pub dealing in beer, sake, and shochu in equal importance to small, unfussy, inexpensive plates—has already killed several recent attempts at the form. So now the civically named Chizakaya, from chef-owner Harold Jurado (Sunda, Japonais, Trotter’s), has perhaps been unfairly cast by the opening hype as the city’s last chance for a concept that’s proved reasonably successful in other North American burghs. It’s important to remember that even in Japan, izakaya vary as widely as barstaurants here do. Still, Chizakaya 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. Behind a dark, cheerless front dining room and bar, in a stark room heated by an open kitchen, Jurado executes his wide-ranging menu before a pair of communal tables, most notably a selection of simple $3 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. —Mike Sula

Ginza Restaurant

19 E. Ohio | 312-222-0600



Let us rejoice that places like Ginza Restaurant—housed in the divey Tokyo Hotel—live on amidst River North gentrification. A comfortably worn hole-in-the-wall, it attracts downtown workers and Japanese, the latter always a good sign. Don’t look for fancy-pants maki or “fashion sushi”; instead you’ll find old-school sushi and sashimi platters, reasonably priced for the neighborhood. But Ginza, in addition to predating the sushi frenzy that began in the 80s, is perhaps best known for traditional home-style Japanese dishes such as piping hot noodle soups and tonkatsu, breaded, deep-fried pork chop. Service is congenial, and you’ve gotta love the unpretentious, pale wood sushi bar, chefs working away behind it diligently. —Kate Schmidt


210 E. Ohio | 312-266-8929



The Chicago entry of the Japanese chain Gyu-Kaku (“bull’s horn”) is the 13th U.S. incursion of the franchise, with pairs in Hawaii and New York but most in southern California. As you’re led in among the semi-isolated tables inset with roaring gas-powered grills, line cooks in the rear open kitchen bellow the traditional welcome, “Irasshaimase!” You’ll first be asked to choose some apps, among them small plates of simple cucumber, daikon, or cabbage kimchi priced at an astonishing $4 apiece. More reasonably valued starters include a handful of salads and soups and some slabs of soy-and-ginger-sauced fresh salmon sashimi, parcooked with a drizzle of scalding hot oil. The main event is supplied by an extensive beefcentric selection, very fresh, and certainly more varied and specialized than that at a typical Korean joint, ranging from higher-end Kobe options and chateaubriand to gnarlier, cheaper cuts such as brisket and ribs. Wild cards like lamb chops, pork jowl, duck, shrimp, scallops, tuna, Kurobuta weenies, and a few odd bits (tongue seems to be a popular order) provide balance. Each and every one is bafflingly customizable with one of five different marinades (white or sweet soy, miso, garlic, or basil), which might explain why orders take so remarkably long to arrive from a kitchen that doesn’t have to cook them. Rice and noodle dishes are meant to be eaten at the end of the meal; these include an opaque but inadequately porky shio ramen, garlicky “Okinawan” noodles that seemed house-made (I was told they weren’t), and spicy-good “sukiyaki” bi bim bop mixed tableside by servers, who spread it around inside the searing hot bowl to impart a crispy texture to the mix. —Mike Sula

Izakaya Sankyu Japanese Restaurant

1176 S. Elmhurst, Mount Prospect | 847-228-5539



Fumiyasu Yoshida opened Izakaya Sankyu in the mid-80s 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 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. The tori liver—chicken liver steamed for hours in soy sauce, mirin, sake, and Worcestershire—is incredibly rich. 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. —Mike Sula


2651 W. Peterson | 773-784-3383



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. Imamura 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. Long slabs of that day’s most beautiful fish drape over each end of the rice, accented with fresh minty shiso leaf, tiny mounds of caviar, and flecks of gold leaf. Nigiri is generously portioned; Imamura says that while most sushi chefs use their four fingers as a measurement, he sizes it against his four fingers splayed. That’s just one way in which Katsu, despite prices that can be steep, surpasses the still more exorbitant see-and-be-seen scenes. 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, extra-crispy 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 raised and sacrificed just for you. —Mike Sula

Kurumaya Japanese Kitchen

1201 E. Higgins Rd., Elk Grove Village | 847-437-2222


JAPANESE | lunch: monday-friday; dinner: monday-saturday | closed sunday

Hiroko Kitazawa resists calling her restaurant 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. Taiko Oshida, one of Kitazawa’s chefs, has 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. —Mike Sula

Mitsuwa Marketplace

100 E. Algonquin, Arlington Heights | 847-956-6699



A visit to Mitsuwa Marketplace provides the sort of sensory overload and culture shock untraveled Occidentals have been trained to expect from the frenzy of modern Japan. The fish department is an excellent source for unusual species and sashimi-grade seafood, and the produce section yields consistently fresh (and often pricey) fruits and vegetables with some really uncommon finds—it’s the only place I know where you’ll (occasionally) see fresh wasabi root. The food court (open 11 AM to 7:30 PM) presents a singular opportunity to experience the varieties of Japanese fast food locally. The sushi counter, with its plethora of prepackaged rolls, reflects the populist origins of raw fish and rice as fast food for travelers rather than the rarefied restaurant meal we’ve come to pay dearly for. At the curry stall thick gravy chunky with carrots and potatoes is ladled over rice and accompanied by fried eggs, panko-breaded pork chops, or ground meat patties—a dish that results in such an intense MSG high I’d recommend assigning a designated driver. Next door, Kayaba specializes in bowls of udon and soba noodles; another stand, Santouka Ramen, serves the long tentacular noodles in salt-, soy-, or miso-flavored broths. The choices can be baffling, so each stall helpfully displays shiny plastic but not unappetizing models of each dish. New to the mix is Gabutto Burger, which serves Japanese-style burgers doused in teriyaki sauce or a proprietary sweet demi-glace and flavored fries. —Mike Sula

Shabu House

8257 W. Golf, Niles | 847-470-1700



Do you hate it when your pals dunk clams into your carefully balanced beef broth? Grossed out by your baby brother’s baby corn bobbing around in the soup? Well, you’re in luck: Shabu House individualizes this traditionally communal eating experience. Inside a brightly lit strip-mall storefront a long, oval open-ended bar is set with sunken aluminum pots, each with its own adjustable heating element, slotted spoon, and mesh strainer. The protocol and lore of the hot pot is ardently described on the menu, which is dense with a confusing number of options, but the servers are extraordinarily attentive—worried for you, even—if you don’t happen to be Asian. To get you started, they arrive with a pitcher of chicken or seaweed stock and an optional saucer of minced kimchi. The stock goes into the pot, and from there the method is simple: prime your roiling broth with chile paste or salt, add veggies and starch, swish the thin slices of prime or marbled beef or seafood in the broth, dip it in one of four sauces, and eat. Near the end, when the broth has absorbed the essence of all that’s bathed in it, you can throw in a portion of rice for “risotto.” The attention to detail here is particularly appealing, given the affordability of the experience—noodles and terrifically plump, fresh dumplings are house-made, plates of protein and plants arrive artfully stacked and arranged. Still, there’s a lot of work involved in this kind of eating. The toil might be better mitigated if BYOB was permitted, but no dice, soldier. —Mike Sula


1952 N. Damen | 773-772-6170



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 (now available only at lunch) 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. —Mike Sula


5665 N. Lincoln | 773-561-2277



Daniel Choe named his place after Juzo Itami’s noodle western, whose eponymous heroine is named for the Japanese word for dandelion. Like that woman’s ramen shop, Choe’s restaurant is bright and earnest; unlike her, he offers more than just three different kinds of noodles—there are 14 types of ramen, udon, and soba, plus donburi, bento boxes, sushi, and nearly two pages of traditional Japanese appetizers and entrees on the menu. Choe has a deft touch with the deep fryer, rendering delicate items like panko-fried oysters and halibut tempura light and greaseless. He handles artistic presentations—like a startling whole squid, sliced then reassembled, that looks capable of wrestling down a submarine, or steamed shrimp dumplings in wasabi-infused wrappers—just as easily as home-style dishes like good ol’ sukiyaki, or agedashi tofu, fried bean curd with ginger in a minced radish sauce with tiny mushrooms and soybeans. —Mike Sula

Tori Shin

1584 S. Busse, Mount Prospect | 847-437-4590



The “master” at Tori Shin, located in a small strip mall near the intersection of South Busse and Dempster, is Toshio “Tony” Kaneko. It’s a small space, with a bar and open kitchen opposite a handful of tables set under framed autographs from ballplayers like the Cubs’ Kosuke Fukodome. 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. On Friday nights the tables are usually filled with salarymen drinking, chatting, and snacking—a scene you won’t find anyplace in the city. —Mike Sula

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