The homey, welcoming sound of chopping, slicing and dicing can be heard the second I stroll in the front door, permeated only by the shrill cackles bellowing up from a table full of tiny, delighted grandmas. All are busy chopsticking their way through healthy-looking platters of slivered teriyaki chicken, rice and vegetables. If it weren't for a scattering of tables and booths, an attentive waiter and a mile-long menu, I'd swear I had wandered into a friend's snug kitchen in Asia...persnickety grandma included.
Sunshine Cafe is one of those restaurants that is totally off-radar, unless you're a round-the-way foodie or actually live in the Andersonville 'hood it calls home. It's not much more than a dusty storefront (with very unappetizing, odd-looking plastic recreations of its most popular dishes in the window display), but the cafeteria-style charm and constant shuffle through the front door immediately eases my fear. You just never know with places like this, but if the elders are trekking back then it must mean the goods are right on.
And right it is. I take the suggestion of the helpful waiter and order the day's special, unadon, which is grilled unagi over rice. Eel is one of my all-time favorite fishes, mostly due to the super sweet sauce, kabayaki, that covers the flaky fish. But I'm used to it being doled out in tiny, teaser-size tidbits, and I'm always left in a rage that I ate the sweet fish first (it's best to eat unagi last, much like dessert).
So when it shows up at my table, I'm wide-eyed with surprise that it's easily the size of my hand. Jackpot! Served over a big plop of white rice and a side garnish of chopped lettuce, it's really what I should be eating every day; a well-rounded plateful of omega-3 fatty acids, protein and carbs, all carefully hidden beneath an achingly sweet dessert-like sauce. Way to trick a girl with a behemoth sweet tooth into getting all the right elements into her nutrition-starved body. Due to the thick kabayaki sauce cascading down the usually ignored rice, there wasn't a grain left in the end.
Never one to order one thing, I coupled the unagi with an order of heavenly goma-ae (brilliant fresh green spinach mixed with a sweet sesame paste); bone-white, golf-ball-size shumai (soft shrimp dumplings); potato croquettes (Japanese-style mashed potatoes loosely formed into a thin patty and lightly fried); and foot-long shrimp tempura. Each of these dishes rolled out very simply, with nary a garnish and no frivolous sides to fool with.
The shumai was pillowly soft, and after one scant chew just slipped straight on down my throat; skip the hot mustard sauce, though, if you'd like to breathe again. The potato croquettes were covered in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), which makes for a much lighter, flakier style of frying. The wildly overlong shrimp tempura (where the hell did they get these monsters?) were some of the best I've had, and I order deep fried shrimp tempura at every single Asian restaurant I hit in a bold attempt to compare, contrast and generally feed my overwhelming addiction.
Though I'm a freak about tempura vegetables (which I usually skip in favor of the shrimp), the broccoli, yams and green beans were fresh, crisp and tasty. Given the cheapness of the menu, the availability of seating and the pleasure in the sound of a grandma's giggle, I'll gladly hike back north for a bit of Sunshine.
The Final Rave: Though I didn't sample any (what was I thinking?), this Japanese cafe is widely known for its homemade udon noodle bowls, an instant cure for cold weather blues, if ya ask me.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Tsuki Japanese Restaurant and Lounge
With a simple, user-friendly menu, the unagi here is said to be the best in the entire city of Chicago. That's a mighty bold statement, but most definitely one worth investigating.
Drink it: Penny's Noodle Shop (Lakeview)
The Penny's on Sheffield is BYOB, and though not the best Asian around, it's pretty dang consistent. And crowded. And cheap.
Eat it: Kikuya
Though it's a bit of a haul down south, the lunch menu is low dollar, the vibe is pleasant and the noodles are filling. Enough said.
Get crazy with it: Archer Avenue
Just traipse up and down this Chinatown street and you're likely to happen upon 50 things that are literally "the best thing I've ever tasted." At least that's what I claim every time I spend the day there.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.