The Over 21 Club: Kamehachi

The Over 21 Club

Reviews of classic restaurants.

Editor's note: The Over 21 Club series features Chicago restaurants that have been around for over 21 years. They must be doing something right, so we'll visit them and see why.

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[Photographs: Dennis Lee]

Kamehachi

1531 North Wells Street, Chicago, IL, Chicago, IL 60654; (map); 312-664-3663;
Open Since: 1967
Cuisine: Japanese
Cost: Uni Shooter ($7.00); Chilean Sea Bass ($19.00); Suzuki Nigiri ($3.00); Hirame Nigiri ($4.00); White Heat Maki ($16.00); Black Sesame Pudding ($6.00)

After I went to Walgreens to check out its sushi, I got to thinking—just where is the oldest sushi restaurant in Chicago? I nosed around on Google until I found my answer: Kamehachi.

Not long after I moved to Chicago, I had friends and coworkers gush about how good Kamehachi's food was. I'd been once or twice and remembered the sushi to be pretty good, but it had been years since my last trip.

After doing my research, I was amazed to find out that Kamehachi has been around since 1967. Translated into English, the name means "Eight Turtles," which together mean long life and good luck. Not a bad combination, if you ask me. Kamehachi recently moved to a bigger and more modern space, so I was interested to check out the new digs, and, of course, the food.

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I've found that some people are either obsessed with uni (sea urchin roe) or they completely hate it. I fall into the "insanely-crazy-about-uni" category, and my friends think I'm off my rocker.

Kamehachi's Uni Shooter ($7.00) isn't cheap, but holy crap was it delicious. This version comes with Asian pear, tobiko (flying fish roe), and shiso (perilla leaves). I have a feeling that mine was slightly different from the menu description because of the green onions floating on top.

But you know what? It worked. It worked really, really, well. I took a sip of the liquid and found it sweet, somewhat citrusy, with a fair amount of soy sauce to lend an umami and salty flavor. Then I took the entire thing and dumped it my mouth, and the flavors hit home.

Along with the assertive sweet and salty taste from the liquid, the uni came through as extremely rich, almost like an oceanic and slightly iodine flavored egg custard. Then at the end, I got the little pops of the tobiko and the sharp fresh flavor of the green onion. Wow. I wanted another one right away.

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For those of you who aren't raw fish fans, Kamehachi has a lot of cooked seafood options. The Chilean Sea Bass ($19.00) is marinated in a citrus and sake blend, before being basted with a miso butter. It comes with a side of asparagus and a bowl of sushi rice.

I was excited for my sushi, but when I had a taste, I almost stole the plate from my girlfriend. For a white fish, it actually had a fair amount of marbling, and the skin was crispy and charred. There was a slight sweetness, a touch of miso, and none of the marinade or miso flavor overwhelmed the otherwise relatively delicate flavor of the firm sea bass. Man, I wanted a plate too.

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There are four signature maki on the menu. The White Heat ($16.00) contains escolar, wasabi tobiko (wasabi-infused flying fish roe), avocado, jalapeno, red pepper paste, and citrus soy sauce. And yet again, I was impressed. I know it looks pale, but it packs a ton of punch. You can eat it as-is.

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A unique option is the nigiri sushi with an optional type topping paired with each fish. There are six options, but the ones you see are the suzuki (sea bass) and the hirame (flounder). The suzuki comes with momiji oroshi (grated daikon radish and red pepper sauce), and the hirame comes topped with momiji oroshi and ponzu.

My advice? If you get these, eat the delicate nigiri before you eat anything more flavorful. I nuked my mouth with the jalapeño from the White Heat roll and had a hard time tasting the subtle flavor of the raw fish and the delicate toppings. I'd recommend the high-quality fish as-is, without the extra stuff on top.

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I am not a dessert person...at all. But when I saw the black sesame pudding on the menu, I was curious. It's topped with homemade whipped cream and tahini halva, which in this case, was a toasted white sesame brittle. The pudding was soft and a little gritty with a deep squid-ink color, but it tasted of black sesame. The flavor was a bit strong, but with the whipped cream, it was a lot better. The brittle was deceivingly airy and added good crunch to the softer texture of the pudding.

Kamehachi is not the cheapest restaurant out there, as I found out after I sat down. It's definitely a special-occasion sort of place, but it does hold its own as the oldest sushi restaurant in Chicago. Plus, I sat two tables down from Doug Sohn, owner of Hot Doug's. That should say something.