Most non-travelers' experiences of Japanese cuisine consist of a) sleek, sexy sushi bars or b) dim, slightly worrisome sushi holes-in-walls. But as the Japan National Tourism Organization literally says on its website, "To think that sushi best represents Japanese food is like saying that pizza is the finest dish to be found in Italy."
Here in Chicago, Sunshine Café is a worthy exemplar of other simple staples arising from Japan's worthy food culture. In lieu of sushi, the restaurant offers steaming, home-style noodle bowls, donburi, crisp-skinned fish, tempura, pickled vegetables, fresh tofu, and mirin-soaked greens. In the bright, no-frills interior, the remarkably friendly staff keeps a comforting, nutty green tea flowing all evening long.
In short: it's a gem of a restaurant, and worth the trip to Andersonville no matter what part of the city you call home.
On the evening I stopped in to sample a range of the restaurant's offerings, my camera had spent an accidental few hours locked in the trunk in the frigid weather. (Oops.) The food wouldn't wait for it to warm up, so I snapped these with my phone before the dishes disappeared.
For the inari zushi ($2.50 for 2), a clump of sushi rice is packed into a ball and wrapped in a pouch of spongy, sweetly seasoned yuba. For the uninitiated—yuba is basically the skin you get on top when you're making tofu, and a favorite Japanese snack. On top, Sunshine Café's zingy house-pickled ginger may seem incredibly salty when sampled alone, but when eaten in tandem with the mild, sweet rice balls, it's perfect.
The gyoza ($4.75 for 6), a fusion dumpling that trickled in from China in the middle of the last century, is probably second to sushi as a Japanese food we all know and love. There's even an annual gyoza-eating championship in L.A., at which a young Matthew Stonie recently ate 268 of the things in 10 minutes. At Sunshine Café, these are made in-house rather than by the manufacturing giant Day-Lee Foods, so you'll probably want to slow down and savor every bite. Each crisp pan-fried exterior hides little mounds of finely minced pork and scallions, seasoned with shoyu and sake. The dipping sauce is a punchy vinegary chili-soy mixture.
I had never tried goma ae ($4.50), and I sprang for it because of fond memories of a similar cooked-and-cooled spinach dish in Korea, siguemchi namul. The Japanese version packs far more flavor due to a thorough soaking in Sunshine Café's homemade goma da re sauce—a sweetened blend of miso, dashi, shoyu, rice vinegar, and mirin. It was the only item on the menu that seemed dainty in comparison to its price, but as anyone who's ever blanched spinach at home knows, a lot of greens went into this little bowl.
Entrees are preceded by a generous pour of a delicious traditional miso soup, where the earthy white stuff blooms in the broth with scallions above a little mound of tofu.
Saba shioyaki ($11) is exactly the kind of dish you want a professional to make for you. It might seem simple, but getting that oily, salty fish skin to a perfectly crisp char is an art. The blistered mackerel is served with finely grated fresh daikon for spreading on top with a drizzle of soy sauce.
I had heard the sukiyaki ($11.50) was good here, and the massive, perfect-for-winter bowl did not disappoint. The slightly sweet, shoyu-laced broth smells wonderfully like the thinly-sliced beef and onions packed inside, while the tofu, glass noodles, and still-crunchy greens and cabbage round out the flavors and textures.
When translated, oyako don ($8.50) means "parent and child rice bowl," so that helps make sense of the union of chicken and eggs in this hearty, comforting dish. Hunks of chicken and onion are cooked with whisked eggs, along with a sauce reminiscent of teriyaki, into a kind of tender, just-done omelette that's placed on top of the bowl. Let it sit for a moment before diving in—the flavorful sauce will soak deliciously down into the rice below.