The days of suffering through wan sushi rolls are over—a recent influx of terrific Japanese restaurants has elevated the cuisine in Chicago. Whether you're looking for maki, yakitori or ramen, Chicago restaurants are bringing their A-game. For a stellar Japanese meal (and some of the city's best sushi), use our guide to find the best Japanese restaurant Chicago has to offer.
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The Boka group's (Boka, GT Fish & Oyster and others) foray into Japanese fare is a reminder that the cuisine goes far beyond sushi. The sushi is excellent, though cooked dishes from Mark Hellyar consistently amaze—the namesake momotaro tartare melds dehydrated tomato, a spicy hit of Dijon and onion puree into a slightly sweet, savory spread, while roasted crab legs come to the table dripping in butter. A simple cedar-roasted sea bream, spritzed with lemon and drizzled with shiso dressing, is a testament to how clean and fresh Hellyar's flavors are.
The West Town Japanese restaurant impresses with food from chefs Fred Despres and Nelson Vinansaca. The pair turn out pristine sushi and sashimi, along with noodle bowls like the accomplished, pork belly-laden Arami ramen and other well-composed dishes. While we usually go for beer with sushi, a smart cocktail list includes seaweed-infused Japanese whiskey with yuzu-pineapple bitters, a thoughtful way to start the evening.
At the heart of Gene Kato's Japanese spot is a traditional charcoal grill, on which he cooks pitch-perfect skewers of protein such as juicy cubes of skirt steak, tender hunks of salmon, and craveable, miso-marinated lamb ribs. Appetizers are really the same size as the skewers and offer the complexity of entrees (tiny squares of tuna topped with avocado and crispy shallots, a sweet and earthy shaved burdock root salad). Fried chicken, Japanese sliders and chocolate-filled doughnuts all make an appearance, and they're all robust and satisfying. But ultimately this is a place where subtle, quiet foods win.
Brothers Melvin and Carlo Vizconde are masters of maki, and this 22-seat Humboldt Park gem is their domain. From simple fried tofu makimono through elaborate sushi twists like a scallop wrapped in salmon, these are the rolls you wish every neighborhood sushi spot were making. Omakase tasting menus (starting at $50) are our favorite way to cruise the menu, but whatever route you choose, just don’t show up on a weekend without a reservation. With just 22 seats, the only dilemma is not getting in.
The best sushi in Chicago is at Juno, where BK Park serves masterful sushi and sashimi. The chef’s choice sashimi, perfectly sliced, spread over ice and adorned with shells and orchids, is $38 for 18 pieces of fish. This is a steal, and while it's enough for a solo diner, there are more great things to eat, like the smoked hamachi, which arrives under a glass dome with two spoons cradling lightly smoked pieces of fish. The King Juno consists of two single bites of tuna wrapped around rice and topped with spicy crab—they're delicious. Even the spicy tuna roll is elevated, with a thick piece of tuna and scallions, and a trace of sriracha and chili oil.
The small, unassuming West Rogers Park hideaway serves melt-in-your-mouth, superpremium yellowtail, bluefin, mackerel and fatty tuna. Beyond the raw, Katsu’s crew has skills on the grill, turning out a tasty marinated duck breast and a crispy yellowtail collar, great with a dab of shaved, pickled daikon, a sprinkle of sea salt and a squirt of lemon.
Matthias Merges' casual, yakitori-and-cocktails joint has expanded to Hyde Park and Las Vegas, bringing his Japanese street cuisine to a wider audience. The more people who can eat Yusho's juicy chicken wings, fried chicken steamed buns with Old Bay mayo and pork-miso ramen, the better. Dishes rotate, but never disappoint.
Takashi Yagihashi’s foray into River North is the chef’s attempt to capture the taste of his noodle-slurping childhood in Japan. Based on the highlights of the menu—hamachi tartare in delicate little taro-root tacos, tan tan men ramen weighted with herb-packed pork meatballs, fried ramen noodles you toss with a dollop of spicy mustard for a dish called Chiyan Pon, and joyful desserts like softball-sized cream puffs—Yagihashi may have had the best childhood ever.