Izakaya Mita

Michael Nagrant / 01.22.15

The jury is out on whether Jay Cutler is going to get his act together anytime soon. And so, the 1985 Chicago Bears continue to loom large as one of the greatest Chicago sports teams ever. For those of you who sported headbands like Jim McMahon as a kid or still rock that No. 34 Walter “Sweetness” Payton jersey on the weekends, you’ll likely want to check out the new Bucktown Japanese spot Izakaya Mita for its vintage Bears connection.

Shiyouji Mita, who passed away in 2010, was the manager of a popular Japanese steakhouse called Ichiban located near Belmont and Broadway. Ichiban was a regular hangout of the 1985 Chicago Bears. Izakaya Mita’s owner, and widow of Shiyouji, Helen Mita said, “They came by on Sundays after every home game. They ate a lot. I didn’t know them that well, but I used to talk to [center] Jay Hilgenberg quite a bit. He was a really interesting guy.” Though Ichiban is now closed, its spirit is alive at Izakaya Mita, where Helen and her son Brian are realizing Shiyouji’s dream of opening a Japanese-style izakaya. They’re doing so with Ichiban’s former chef, Toshi Motegi. I stopped in myself to see if I could score a super bowl of ramen and maybe a touch of the spirit of 1985.

The scene

Izakaya Mita is what an izakaya should be, which is to say a spartan lair suitable for hideaway post-work salty snack supping and hard sake drinking. Many izakayas in Tokyo are subterranean. Though Izakaya Mita is above grade and located on a busy corner in Bucktown, it’s tucked away in a typical Chicago red brick three-story building, the kind of spot usually occupied by eyeglass boutiques or dentistry practices. The dining room features a bamboo-lined bar, maple-colored flooring, white pendant lamps and fairly bare walls. Tables are dotted with flickering candles. “I told my designer I didn’t want anything fancy,” Mita said. “I wanted the design to be in service to the food.”

The food

Many small Japanese-skewing spots in Chicago have aspired to be a true reflection of the kinds of gritty izakayas you might find in Tokyo, but few have succeeded. Places such as Momotaro and Sumi Robata Bar are great, but lean fancier and more gourmet. Other spots, many which have since closed, offered too much monster maki and not enough cheap good and odd cuts, like say fish collar or fermented seafood. Izakaya Mita does not make these mistakes. A bowl of ika shiokara (squid bits, $4) covered in a fizzy pink sauce channels the chilled monkey brains from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” While some folks will likely take issue with their chewiness, they pop with funky, briny flavor. “Our Japanese customers love this stuff. It might be too much for non-Japanese people, but we want to represent the kind of food you’d get in a real izakaya,” Mita said. If you’re really brave, you can also score natto ($4), an authentic fermented (and especially stinky) soybean mix.

The smoky chicken gizzards ($2.50), which Motegi and his crew grill over binchotan (Japanese charcoal), paint with a touch of teriyaki and spritz with a bit of lemon, were so good I regretted not ordering two. My buddy and I wrestled over the last bits. Firm, sweet shitake mushrooms ($5.50) glazed with a sweet soy sauce and caramelized on that same binchotan grill tasted like delectable fungi candy. There’s also a smattering of tempura on offer, including usual suspects such as shrimp and assorted veggies, but what really drew my eye was an eggplant, cheese and jalapeno tempura sandwich ($5). Picture crispy eggplant, spicy jalapeno and gooey cheese all tempura-fried into one crazy delicious nugget, like a Japanese-inspired mozzarella stick. Really, the only thing that didn’t work for me was the tonkotsu ramen ($12.50). The broth had decent body, but it was way too salty and the roast pork served inside was desert-dry.

The sake

The sake and sochu list, overseen by general manager Brian Mita, is pretty deep. Instead of being forced to invest in a whole bottle, I liked the option to choose from a selection of eight different “one cup” sakes, 180-milliliter single servings ranging in price from $6.50-$20 that allow you to sample a range of flavors as you might glasses of wine or bottles of beer. I really enjoyed the Kiku-Masamune futsu-shu ($6.50), which was dry and had a mineral-like finish like a clean, crisp shot of vodka.

The service

My server had a dry demeanor (think MTV’s cartoon queen of sarcasm, Daria) but not in an off-putting way; her candor and straightforward manner was kind of charming. What really earned my appreciation was her enthusiastic discussion of which sakes paired with which dishes.

The bottom line

There’s a time to get glammed up and chow down at a flashy spot like Momotaro. But when you’re looking for a Japanese spot to hang out in relative anonymity in your favorite T-shirt and jeans, Izakaya Mita is the place to be.

Mini-review: Izakaya Mita
1960 N. Damen Ave. 773-799-8677
Rating: ***

This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.