The city is littered with hundreds of sushi joints, and I've been on a mission to try them all. I've definitely got my stalwart favorites, but sometimes it isn't the very best place that draws me back. It's more the economics, especially if you crave rolls every few days like I do. I'm not saying that the grade of sushi doesn't matter, of course it does. (My taste test for every place revolves around how good the shrimp tempura roll is, how tasty the goma-ae is, and whether or not the unagi is slimy and sickly sugary or firm and just-sweet-enough.)
The sushi havens that I know I can count on are spread out over the city like little pulsing heartbeats, always seducing, constantly beckoning. There's Kaze Sushi (Roscoe Village), with its charming outdoor patio, superior sushi and tempura whitefish in parsley sauce that melts in my mouth; and Sushi X (River West), the affordable and tiny stopover after late-afternoon cocktails at Matchbox.
There's Renga Tei (Lincolnwood), an authentic, home-style sushi house that caters to the folks in the 'burbs, as well as those in-the-know types that are willing to burn up hundreds in gas for the tempura flounder wrapped in seaweed; House of Sushi & Noodles (Lakeview), for those that adore the $12 all-you-can-stuffit-buffit mentality; and Katsu (West Rogers Park), the more expensive, off-the-beaten path place that attracts devout foodies, neighborhood regulars and every food writer in the city with its astonishingly fresh cuts of fish.
That said, the sushi house that I return to most often, Tombo Kitchen, is close by (isn't that always the case?), affordable (I need to be out the door for less than $20 bones) and delicious (the shrimp tempura are alarmingly addictive).
These kids dole out unique spins on fish, while keeping the price low; don't ask me how they pull that off. It even has (and this is a big secret!) full-blown, more-than-a-liter bottles of piping hot sake for $10. My entire table was stunned to realize that when the waitress said $10 for a bottle, she didn't haul out a tiny carafe; no, it was a dark blue, towering bottle of the imposing drink. I've never really been a sake fan, but now with circumstances like these, I feel like I should be pounding the stuff all damn day. Ten dollars? That's literally the price of an heirloom tomato at Whole Foods.
But, what I'm most loving at Tombo these days (besides the adorable wooden menus) is the grilled mackerel. Hitting another price point of mine ($4.95 gets you the whole fish), I was again thrilled that I could get an entire fish, served sizzling on a sliver platter with fresh lemon, for less than a coffee at Starbucks. It's tantalizing without being overbearing. Served with grill marks etched into its belly, the fish is meaty, fresh and a meal unto itself. Thank god Tombo is closed for lunch: that sake could kill a workday.
The final rave: Though I've not participated (no amount of liquor could get me up on stage), there is a back karaoke room that lets the sake-fueled patrons get silly with a microphone.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Sam's Wine and Spirits
This cocktail superstore has made it possible for you to browse its sake selection without ever leaving home. All you have to do is go online, read up on a new sake to try and enter your credit card number. That's scary.
Drink it: Up Gallery
This gallery-cum-event house just hosted a sake seminar and an educational sushi class, and plans on doing so every few months, or as interest dictates. Check the Web site frequently and remember, it's all about portion control.
Eat it: Rise
Packed to the gills almost every single night of the week, this hip Southport stop has some of the best fish around. Try to go early, though; the later the night gets, the longer the wait spilling out onto the street. And, trust me, you do not want to conversate with the drunkards stumblin' out of Justin's after an all day drinking fest (unless you were with them, that is).
Get crazy with it: Japonais
This riverside sushi house and hangout of the rich and famous has become so popular that it's opening a sister restaurant in Vegas. Diners be warned: You could fly to Vegas, slam down an all-you-can-eat buffet, gamble all night and fly home for the cost of dinner here. Wow.
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.