Taste Test: How to Cool Down a Spicy Mouth
"Most Chicago izakayas offer some variation on kara age (deep fried chicken) and okonomiyaki, an umami-rich Japanese seafood pancake that might be the world’s perfect alcohol sponge."
This inviting Bucktown pub channels old-school izakayas with its easy-going atmosphere featuring oak accents and Japanese bric-a-brac above the bar and a menu of East-meets-West shareable plates from Chef Toshi Motegi and Japanese drinks. Start with spicy Chinese-style cucumber (lovingly poached from Izakaya Sankyu in Mount Prospect) and meaty skewers grilled over bincho tan. Among hearty plates, don’t miss the delicate gyu tataki, with fanned slices of ponzu-dressed rare sirloin or the tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet). Friendly staff will expertly guide you on a Japanese drinking tour via 15 sakes, 11 shochus, five whiskys, and 15 draft and bottled beers.
Underneath the chic Japanese behemoth Momotaro is the equally posh -- if slightly less buttoned-up izakaya anchored by a U-shaped bar. There’s plenty to drink, including cocktails, sake, beer, wine, and whisky, but it’s the small menu of mostly savory shareable plates that sets this spot apart including unexpectedly killer house-made bread. Two rectangles of elegant uni toasts are generously heaped with creamy, oceanic sea urchin heated with a bit of spicy chorizo and cooled by pickled celery. Juicy, crispy-skinned chicken thigh skewers will transport you to the streets of Tokyo, while audibly sizzling clams swim in bright, savory sake-laced broth that you’ll want to soak up with more of that buttery, springy toast.
Logan Square (& other locations)
The bold small plates match the bustling energy at this Japanese street food spot that’s something of a love letter to Tokyo. The high bar offers great sight lines into the kitchen, where chefs deftly grill up everything from meaty octopus to juicy lamb meatballs and thin-skinned shishito peppers. Crunch on salmon and chicken skins while you sip a boozy soda or one of the formidable offerings of Japanese and domestic beers. Then share a bowl of mentaiko carbonara, a seaside leaning take on the Italian pasta with spicy cod roe and bucatini from sister restaurant A10. For executive chef/owner Matthias Merges, izakaya is as much about the energy as the food and drink: “A great izakaya has all the components of the experience: great environment, well-crafted straightforward, whimsical food, great bar program, and a friendly, knowledgeable staff.”
Sumi Robata leans fancier than traditional izakayas, but Chef Gene Kato’s River North spot is a can’t-miss for minimalist Japanese grilling at its best. Kato helms the glass-enclosed, 26ft robata grill where he expertly chars bites of tender wagyu ribeye, teriyaki-slicked salmon, meaty shiitakes, and even romaine. Balancing the grilled items are elegant chilled plates like cubed tofu with caviar and crispy ginger and velvety chicken liver mousse with Japanese mustard. Pair your bites with a range of dry to rich sakes, 10 Japanese beers, or one of a few bottled cocktails. Start or end your night downstairs at the fire aftermath-themed charcoal bar, where a heftier list of craft cocktails includes Fleming Studied Abroad, tinged with peaty Laphroaig Scotch, lemon, ginger, and white oak whiskey.
Duck into the alley behind sleek West Loop sushi spot sushiDokku and follow the neon pink arrow through a heavy door and down the stairs to quite possibly the coziest izakaya on this list. It’s also the only spot in the city where you can have sake on tap. Ice cold, lightly floral Bushido is perfect for washing down salty snacks like smoked salmon skin sticks, crackly seaweed chips, takoyaki, and beefy tsukune at the small square bar dimly lit by handcrafted red lanterns. Thursday through Saturday nights get a little rowdier, with rotating DJs spinning vinyl for well-dressed (and lubricated) West Loop night owls.
Opened in the former Chizakaya space, this two-year-old brother ("Ani" means elder brother in Japanese) spot to Arami serves up a rich mix of Japanese fare, from sushi to noodles, rice bowls to robata items. But every Monday night is dedicated to izakaya, with a rotating menu of East-meets-West dishes like fried oyster mushrooms with wasabi cream and karaage chicken, plus a roving sake cart that serves up a little sake education with table-side $4 pours. “Our weekly offerings are things that people can feel familiar with but still get Japanese flavors,” says owner Ty Fujimura. “Japanese cuisine is a much broader genre than just sushi. Or ramen for that matter.” Don’t worry sushi lovers, the regular menu is still available on Mondays.
This former Chinatown spot was reborn in Lakeview in 2015, and serves up seriously good Japanese comfort food. Don’t let the nine-part menu (organized by classic Japanese cooking styles) or somewhat starkly modern interior throw you -- the food here simple and richly comforting. Standout cold (kobachi) items include Wagyu carpaccio, with a drizzle of truffle oil and creamy tobiko, and marinated raw zuke salmon, zingy with rice vinegar. They’re also great at deep-frying (agemono) -- evident in kara age, crackly fried chicken hunks with rice and shaved bonito; ika geso, squid legs with satisfying crunch; and chef’s special filleted tempura-fried whole snapper (eyes and all) with ponzu dip. Wash it down with a selection of sakes, shochus or bright craft cocktails like the jalapeno- and Japanese pickle-infused agave roundhouse.