Illustration: Greg Clarke

Torizen opened in 2017 and without much attention began serving the needs of the western suburban Japanese population and whoever else could find it tucked along the periphery of the Schaumburg Corners strip shopping center. Inside is a long counter facing the open kitchen where cooks bread and fry cutlets, as well as two small dining rooms set with chunky wooden tables. 

During the day Torizen serves the kinds of set lunches called teishoku you’ll find all over Japan: trays holding an entree (fried chicken karaage, pork cutlets), rice, miso soup, and a few pickles. I always love teishokus because they rely on variety not volume to satisfy you. The restaurant also serves rice bowls, called donburi, topped with glazed eel or tempura, and a variety of noodle soups, from udon to ramen.  

At night it becomes an izakaya — the kind of drinks and snacks establishment that so many spots around town attempt but don’t get quite right. Torizen gets it right. The food has character, as an izakaya menu should. It’s not a paint-by-numbers menu of the best hits of Japanese food in America but rather a distinctive listing of small plates cuisine that tastes awfully good when washed down by a draft Asahi. 

Torizen is the only restaurant I know well that brings me back to the two years I lived in Japan after college. I ate a lot of lunches at counters in restaurants that looked exactly the same. My job as an English teacher took me to different neighborhoods around Osaka every day of the week, so I spent my lunch hour scouting out the best and/or cheapest teishoku meals. I was usually a sucker for anything fried, from tonkatsu swathed in brown curry to fried oysters nestled against a mound of shredded raw cabbage. At Torizen I always consider the options and invariably go for the saba shioyaki, or broiled mackerel served with grated daikon that you moisten with soy sauce as a condiment. The cutlets, both pork and chicken, are as crunchy-crispy and juicy as any in town, but if I can get so much satisfaction from a healthy lunch, I’ll go healthy.

In the evening I always order the shredded daikon salad topped with katsuobushi fish flakes, shredded nori, and shirasu. Photo: Torizen

Many evenings in Japan were spent with students after class in an izakaya. The trick to ordering, I learned, is to vary the cooking techniques, i.e., get something fried, something raw, something stewed, and something grilled. In the evening I always order the shredded daikon salad topped with katsuobushi fish flakes, shredded nori, and shirasu — little silverfish that are salty and crisp-chewy. I kind of crave it, and if you haven’t yet discovered the great Japanese combination of dried fish and beer, this is the starter dish. While there are some straightforward entrees, I much prefer to look at the daily specials list to see what the kitchen is cooking up. There will always be some top-quality sashimi. Add in fried tofu agedashi, grilled squid or eggplant, a pork and kimchi stew, and some fresh veggies, like cucumber spears with chunky moromi miso paste — another brilliant match with beer. 

These meals make me all kinds of natsukashii — the Japanese word for a strong, happy feeling of nostalgia. 

The Great Outdoors

Omar Cadena throws the party but you bring the booze to this BYO. Photo: Beto de Freitas
The warmly affable Cadena turns you into a regular customer from the moment he lays eyes on you. Photo: Beto de Freitas

Patio season is Omarcito’s season. If you’ve never been to this wholly unique restaurant, now is the time. Omar Cadena runs the business from a bright yellow storage container parked inside the courtyard of a mixed-use building on the Hermosa side of Logan Square. Latin music bangs (thanks to a playlist or, oftentimes, a live DJ), and the warmly affable Cadena turns you into a regular customer from the moment he lays eyes on you. 

This is good because he prepares and serves the food to order with only a helper or two, and there’s no way you feel the slightest bit upset by the not-uncommon wait: good things are worth it. Cadena, a native Chicagoan whose heritage is Cuban and Ecuadorian, offers a pan-Latin menu that earned him a Jean Banchet Award last year for Best Counter Service Restaurant. I really like his tacos dorados de pollo en consommé. Picture a resplendent tortilla soup but replace the tortilla strips with plump, crisply fried chicken tacos and you’ll get the idea. His fried fish sandwich splashed with Ecuadorian salsa criolla (an herbal green chile sauce) is also stupid good. 

There is also a side dining room for rainy or cold days (or if you’re not into the music), but the courtyard is where it’s at. By the way, Cadena throws the party but you bring the booze to this BYO. 

One for the Home Team

The James Beard Awards wrapped this Monday in Chicago. Jason Hammel and his team at Lula Cafe brought home the award for Best Hospitality — the city’s only hardware. As Hammel noted in his acceptance speech, hospitality in a foodservice environment means not just treating the guests well but treating each other well. You can feel it, right? That good energy every time you enter the restaurant. Congrats on a well deserved win.