It just occurred to me that the few restaurants I review on this blog tend to be simple, down-to-earth Japanese homestyle cooking. Sunshine Cafe in Andersonville is Ozu’s slightly less crunchy Chicago cousin, too cute and family-run for the name to be cheesy in the slightest. Although not quite a hole-in-the-wall, the restaurant is minimally decorated with extremely frustrating hours– only open for lunch Sunday and closed Monday. How many times have I stupidly braved the hour commute from Hyde Park, only to find Sunshine, ironically, dark, with a “Closed” sign on the door?
LET ME IN, PLEASE. I WANT YOUR MACKEREL. Not only that– I want you to say, “Octopus Gourmet, right? I remember you. I’m sorry for the wait– Let me get you guys a free appetizer.” When asked for a recommendation: “Well, the people on Yelp really like this…”
First, complimentary green tea, particles of matcha clouding the bottom of the mug.
Free small dishes will follow, true to the gorgeous waitress’ word: lightly seared eggplant coins, served with grated ginger and a sweet miso sauce. Seaweed salad, a classic. Goma-ae, blanched spinach, coated with a not-too-sweet sesame dressing. Best of all– kampira gobo, julienned carrots and burdock, chewy and earthy, like nothing you find in your run-of-the mill sushi restaurant.
Even miso soup is special here. You know a restaurant is authentic when they don’t even bother to give you a spoon– the proper way is to bring the bowl to your lips and sip, which happens instinctively, given how good it tastes.
But it’s the entrees that distinguish Sunshine from the rest. What other Japanese restaurants in the U.S. serve saba, or mackerel? Possibly the most underrated fish in the world, it has succulent and firm white flesh and a crispy skin, chock full of omega-3’s. You are instructed to squeeze lemon over the fish and dip it in grated daikon radish, whose sweetness and bitterness mellow out the saltiness of the dish. Take a bite, then chase it with a bite of white rice– perfectly steamed, slightly sticky rice, enough to convert even a brown rice fanatic like myself back to white. Finally, taste the vinegared cucumber relish that comes in a little dish. Tangy, salty, sweet– it hits all the right notes. When was the last time I ate something and didn’t feel the need for hot sauce?
But why not take advantage of that perfect rice and order a massive bowl of it as a donburi? Perhaps slightly sadistically-named, the Oyakodon (“mother and child rice bowl”) is a personal favorite. A loosely bound omelette is slightly sweetened, studded with chunks of chicken, caramelized onions and spinach. Katsu don is a similar version with pork cutlet instead of chicken.
And yet, I haven’t even begun to exhaust the menu. Vegetable stir-fry in a spicy teriyaki sauce uses silken tofu, not fried.
Sukiyaki has ingredients similar to the Mongolian Hot Pot I just blogged about: meat, tofu, and glass noodles in a cast iron dish. Of course, soba and udon, with or without tempura, are available– but why would you turn down that perfect rice, which is also available as rice balls filled with umeboshi plums?
Sunshine Cafe offers dessert (green tea ice cream), but no thanks, I’ll take another plate of mackerel. When a main course costs less than 10 dollars, why not?
And the best part? The waiter thinks I’m Japanese