Don't Mind the Ghosts of 1960s Chicago at Ginza

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The now closed Tokyo Hotel. [Courtesy of the justified sinner/Flickr]

One of the things that kind of wowed me when I first moved to Chicago was the fact that there was a Japanese hotel downtown. It just bespoke a cosmopolitan world in which Japanese salarymen came to the Merchandise Mart to get their transistor radios into American shops. Well, until I got close to the Tokyo Hotel, and then the low-budget flophouse-iness (and presumed staff of ghosts with long straight black hair) creeped me out.

The fact that it had a sushi restaurant... I was pretty sure I didn't want whatever was going on in the hotel touching my raw fish. In those days I much preferred a long-gone place called Yanase, which had a much nicer Japanese-Mad Men teahouse atmosphere (and, incidentally, spawned the chef who just beat Grant Achatz in Chicago, Katsu Imamura).

So for years I avoided Ginza, the sushi restaurant in the hotel. The hotel has apparently closed—frankly it's hard to tell the difference—and somehow that makes me feel better about venturing into the restaurant at long last, as if my chances of a demon grabbing my soul and pulling it into my bowl of ramen have finally reached acceptable levels. And you know what? I was a fool, I should have been eating there all along, no matter what was going on upstairs.

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[Photograph: Mike Gebert]

The restaurant is tidy and unscary, with a pleasingly dated Japanese-60s decor of tan wood; there are some semi-private tatami areas. But the action is plainly at the sushi bar, where a couple of seen-it-all chefs tend to talk right past you in fast-paced Japanese. (I knew what they were talking about when I heard "Konerko" pop out of the stream of foreign syllables.) The fish looks pretty good, but I go there for Japanese comfort food, like ramen.

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[Photograph: Mike Gebert]

In this day of ramenphilia and ramen expertise, I can't say this is the greatest bowl to be had in Chicago. Others have more artisanal depth in their stock or lusher ingredients, like Santouka's pork jowl. But it's a perfectly fine old school bowl that tasted like its makers knew what they were doing.

So Ginza is, belatedly, on my list of regular stops. Looking at the hotel and all the development around it, you know it's not going to sit there empty forever. Go there now, while this ghost of 1960s Japan in Chicago still belongs to this world.

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