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Fishy Business: Chicago’s sushi boom is marked by Kamehachi’s 40th anniversary (UR Chicago Magazine)

By Daniel B. Honigman

Chicago has long been known as a meat-and-potatoes town—the kind of city where business deals are done over a steak and a handshake.

But in the city of broad shoulders, dishes like ebi, unagi and sashimi have become as familiar as filet mignon, tartare and sauce Béarnaise to gourmands, entrepreneurs, hipsters and average joes alike. Times change, and so does the food.
The sushi craze is more frenzied than ever in the Windy City, and Kamehachi can be credited with jump-starting the trend, as the restaurant celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

Opening in 1967 at its original location in then-bohemian Old Town, Kamehachi was the first sushi bar in Chicago, located conveniently near the newly built Midwest Buddhist Temple. The modest 50-seat restaurant signaled the beginning of an era, with founder Marion Konishi dishing out sushi to local Japanese businessmen. However, it would take a little longer for skeptical Chicagoans to catch on—despite the neighborhood’s then-rising hipness. “Old Town at that time was a very vibrant community, with a lot of bohemian and hippie elements,” says Giulia Sindler, Konishi’s granddaughter and one of Kamehachi’s current owners. “But we still didn’t get many American customers.”

The restaurant soon gained popularity, as sushi caught on nationwide—and it didn’t hurt that Kamehachi was located across the street from Second City. (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were frequent patrons during the filming of The Blues Brothers.) Nor did it hurt that Kamehachi, a sushi bar, and other Japanese restaurants already in the city, allowed patrons to actually see their sushi being made firsthand, with sushi chefs given a chance to show off their skills. “My grandmother made tempura (deep-fried shrimp and vegetables) in front of the customers,” Sindler says. “It was very unusual to have the tempura and sushi stations in front of the customers so they could watch what was going on.”

In addition, the Japanese dining experience was new for most Americans, but its rise happened to coincide with the rise of a new “foodie” class, says Bruce Kraig, president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. “Sitting at low tables seemed interesting and exotic, and Americans have always been interested in that sort of thing,” he says. “ This was part of the new food culture.”

But, says Kraig, parts of Japanese food were easier to accept than others, and sushi, at the beginning, was left out. “Forty years ago, people weren’t necessarily into raw tuna or eating poisonous blowfish,” he says. “Tempura and teriyaki—fried foods
Americans eat—they were certainly familiar to Americans. They just didn’t eat sushi then.”

But we certainly do now. Nearly a half-century later (and with five locations in Chicago and Northbrook), Kamehachi is going strong, and because of its success, the restaurant—and Konishi—can be credited for spawning Chicago’s sushi scene, as they were responsible for bringing in many sushi chefs and cooks from Japan, says Sharon Perazzoli, Konishi’s daughter. “Many of them stayed in Chicago and went on to open their own restaurants,” she says. “Because we’ve been around for so long, I think you’ll find that, in a great majority of Chicago’s sushi restaurants, there’s probably someone we know or someone who has worked for us at some point.”

While Kamehachi is a traditional sushi bar, many newer restaurants have pushed the cuisine’s boundaries, drawing in an even more eclectic group of customers. Monica Samuels, general manager of SushiSamba Rio (504 N. Wells, 312/595-2300), says that on any given Saturday night, the restaurant can serve up to 700 customers. What keeps them coming, she says, is the food, a fusion of traditional Japanese dishes with Brazilian and Peruvian flavors. “People don’t only want California rolls,” Samuels says. “Our chefs have the opportunity to try different ingredients and different sauces. You’ll see hearts of palm or chimichurri on sushi rolls, but if you come here and order basic nigiri sushi, it’s still amazing. If we used only spicy mayonnaise and avocado, we’d be limited. You can have some fun with sushi.”

Regardless of how it’s made or the ingredients it’s paired with, sushi really has become a Chicago staple, and it’s not likely to fall off the culinary radar any time soon. “It’s pretty phenomenal,” Perazzoli says. “ When Kamehachi opened 40 years ago, nobody wanted to eat raw fish, but today even young children are eating sushi and raw fish. Sushi has completely evolved since the time my mother (who died in 1990) started Kamehachi. I think we only had cucumber rolls, a few different pieces of sushi, and that was it. Today, all kinds of ingredients are going into sushi, and the more complex and creative it becomes, the more people like it.”

So, what about steak? John Colletti, managing partner of Gibsons Steakhouse (1028 N. Rush, 312/266-8999) and Hugo’s Frog Bar (1024 N. Rush, 312/640-0999), isn’t ready to pack it up quite yet. “Sushi really has taken off,” he says. “But while I see more and more restaurants in Chicago featuring sushi, I think Chicago’s still a meat-and-potatoes town.”

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of UR Chicago Magazine. You can pick it up from a UR Chicago box in downtown Chicago or you can read it here.