806 W Webster Ave, Chicago, IL 60614
There are the places that you see featured in prominent magazines or talked about in reverent tones on TV programs, but it’s a happy discovery that the places that create the happiest memories are often tucked away in some little-known side street that few frequent.
I stumbled across Kameya by accident with Jenny who, like me, was going through a ramen phase of food obsession. I walked in imagining it to be like the other late-night noodle shops I’d visited in the past – you know, those that exude the urban feel, maverick-esque music pounding in the background, swarmed by cosmopolitan individuals of all sizes, shapes, and colors.
This was very different. A cozy, tight, but clean little space; a flicker of something reminiscent of childhood. The place seemed like the restaurant I kept trying to convince my parents to open when I was twelve; all around were signs of an older person’s somewhat misfired attempt to be cool like their kids. Exclamation marks written in multi-colored chalk dotted the blackboard walls, a Koopa Troopa grinned at up you on a random corner of the menu as you browsed your options, and after staring at it for a sufficient duration of time, you notice that the logo of the restaurant was shaped like a turtle which apparently is the patronus of the owner.
Behind the counter overlooking the small dining room stood the chef, a rotund, jolly Asian man with round glasses, an awkwardly striped apron over his whites, his sous to his right. Our waitress had the temperament of a fussy and feisty Asian mom who was used to smacking her kids and serving them the best food in the whole town. The whole room could probably only seat sixteen people so I felt a sense of good fortune that we managed to snag a table on what was a boisterously busy Friday evening for them.
For such a small operation, the menu is quite extensive. A good three dozen or so set options with additional specials and seasonal sushi/sashimi choices. I tend to feel skeptical whenever I see more than fifteen things on a menu. From personal experience, that is usually a statement in subtext that the restaurant values quantity over correct execution and consistency, so I braced myself accordingly. A bowl of their signature ramen and several of their sushi rolls made up my entire order.
The meal was quick, comforting, delicious, and familial. Kameya’s style is difficult to describe. It is a strange combination of two sensations. For my ramen, there was nothing surprising or even remotely impressive about what I tasted. I daresay that connoisseurs would jeer at it for not being ramen at all. It was just a simple bowl of noodles, a light pork and chicken broth, some vegetables, and a few succulent slices of pork. However, I don’t think I’ve come across a bowl of ramen as nourishing as that one in all of Chicago. It wasn’t the most flavorful, most innovative, most “authentic”, or even the best bowl I’ve ever had, but it was satisfying on a different level. It reminded me of home. I can almost promise this bowl of soup is the sort of thing your Asian friend’s mom might make for you.
I agree, that is an experience that will not resonant with everyone, so here I need change the tone a bit. So far, here in Chicago, I have not come across many restaurants with sushi that kicks quite as much ass as the sushi at Kameya. Where the ramen struck me with a sense of sentimentality, the sushi was something new, full of vigor and excitement. When the three pieces of nigiri came (they had yellowtail, sea bream, and Aji mackerel that day), I was so enthused that the pieces were gone before the camera had a chance to come out, so we had to order a whole roll just for your viewing pleasure.
The interesting thing about the sushi here, and part of what sets Kameya apart from the typical utility sushi restaurants that litter Chicago is the execution. Most people have the impression that sushi is nothing more than raw fish sliced off the bone of the animal and then hurried to its perch on top of some rice to preserve maximum freshness and that the quality is therefore a simple equation of freshness and locality. Not true at all. Yes, there are some varieties of fish that are best served untouched and unmanipulated, but the list of techniques at the disposal of the chef is as extensive, perhaps even more so, than any book on French cookery. The meat can be cured, brined, marinated, lightly smoked, dry-aged, charred, cooked with acid; the list extends on and on, down to the knife cuts that highlights different aspects of the fish’s texture and mouthfeel. When first pulled from the ocean, the flesh is pristine, cold, and full of life. By the time a craftsman has handled it, the fish practically glows.
Now none of this is to suggest that Kameya is a hidden temple of sushi craftsmen. In reality, it is humble little building owned by humble people who are serving simple but delicious food. But what I loved about their sushi is that it was part immensely pleasurable dinner and part learning experience. I knew once I put the piece of mackerel in my mouth that it didn’t simply go from Pacific to palate. Somewhere in between, it passed through the hands of someone who knew how to coax something out of the fish that most people wouldn’t even think of. It tasted of the faint iodine salty sweetness of the ocean, a quality which was accented by, we were told, a cure of salt, comb seaweed, sugar and citrus zest. The fish felt almost buttery on the tongue with a faint hint of spicy horseradish, a sort of pun on the fact that the fish is called “Horse” Mackerel in Japan. The rice resisted you for a bit before breaking into addicting little pearls that walked a fine line between creamy and waxy, hitting the tongue with just a mild suggestion of sweet vinegar.
The good thing about food is that spoilers aren’t possible, but nevertheless I will stop myself here. Perhaps the thing about Kameya that makes me the happiest is that I will always be able to return to this restaurant. It’s accessible, not focused on the wallet, skill or even personality of the chef, but on how easily people can enjoy themselves. No pretense, no whiff of self-importance. It’s refreshing to think that this is a place where I can form happy memories for as long as I’m in Chicago. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough to the friends who come from out of town to visit, and I make the utmost effort to be sure that I can steal a meal here when they do agree.
Drop by will ya?
Review by Sean Quan