There are thousands of Japanese living in the northwest suburbs, and it sometimes seems as if they’re all eating at the food court at Mitsuwa Marketplace. Those lucky enough to live or work nearby can take their sweet time acquainting themselves with Mitsuwa’s bounty, but Arlington Heights is a bit of a haul for me. So I ate it all in one day—or as much as I could in one long afternoon. 100 E. Algonquin Rd., Arlington Heights; 847-956-6699.
I start light at Daikichi Sushi, with salmon, tuna, cuttlefish, and a vegetable roll held together by soy paper that’s been dyed a hallucinatory shade of green. Nothing special, and after hitting the wasabi a little too hard, I’m having my own hallucinations.
At Otafuku-Tei, the menu options have been immortalized in plastic and suspended above the cash register. The okonomi-yaki looks like a cross between a frittata and a quesadilla. But what’s this I see as the lady slides it across the counter? Is my dish alive? Nope; it’s dried bonito flakes, so light that the heat from the underlying egg makes them dance like little flames. You’ve got an eggy sort of pancake, bacon, a sweetish brown sauce, the funky dried fish, plus bits of nori. Reminds me of a middle-school lunchroom dare, only good.
Next I linger over a matcha, sort of the espresso of green tea, from Re Leaf. It’s powdery, thick, and bitter. Was I supposed to put sugar in this? At Jockey Express, I pick up a papaya smoothie with black tapioca balls, which I love; shrimp and scallop dumplings, which I do not; and chicken feet, about which the less said the better.
Tempura forms a semi-submerged island in a hot broth swimming with soba noodles at Kayaba. Not bad. But as I slowly pick away at the fried stuff, releasing green beans from their oily shells, I feel like a paleontologist brushing away the dirt from a fossil. It’s too bad this is a booze-free zone. A saké would really help the cause about now.
The “special pork” with miso ramen from Santoka turns out to be specially fatty—and specially good. No sooner does each thin, floppy slice touch my tongue than it turns almost into a liquid. (Accidental shades of Moto.) I love Korean food, but not Ma Ma House’s duk bok gi, dense, chewy rice cakes in a sauce that is fiery but dull.
By now, it’s all over but the dessert eating. So I return to Re Leaf for an insane-looking matcha parfait. It’s a vanilla and green tea soft-serve twist with green tea jelly, a puff pastry stick, whipped cream, red bean paste, and mochi. Whoever invented this is a genius.
Seriously, you have to try it. It’s Japano-rific…. Oh, almost forgot: Pastry House Hippo has terrific sugary crispy palmiers.
Photography: Chris Lake