For the last 12 years, Naniwa in River North has had some of the city?s best sashimi and its worst rolls. We always thought this was Bobby-San?s punishment for stupid Americans who thought they liked sushi but were afraid to order it without mayo. Well sir, whatever changed your mind, after more than a decade, we appreciate it.
In their 12 years of existence, Naniwa has come a long way. It has always been common knowledge that a spicy tuna roll was the restaurant?s way of getting rid of fish that didn?t make the cut, so to speak, for an order of sashimi. Belly meat is easy to turn into a delightful order. Often it?s billed as toro and sold for multiples more than regular old maguro. It melts in your mouth and is mostly worth the price. But the closer one gets to the tail of the venerable fish, the more ugly white tendons and sinews one has to cut around to keep the customer from chewing gristle. These precise navigations around unappetizing connective tissue usually makes for pieces far too small to present as stand-alone. So what to do? Being the shrewd economists that the Japanese have always been, they rolled these scraps into the now-famous tuna maki. I have no idea who was the genius that also made it spicy but I tip my hat to him.
In any case, Naniwa used to present spicy tuna rolls with not only the scraps but also, the tendons themselves. They filled it with gobs of spicy mayonnaise hoping we wouldn?t notice. We always did. Nearly all of their rolls used to follow the same discipline. Or lack thereof. It was the greatest disparity in Chicago sushi. How could a restaurant serve A+ sashimi and complement it with rolls that would make for better pet food? Thus, not wishing to be gagged by long fibers of sinew stretching down our throats but unwilling to give up the sashimi, we would routinely order sashimi delivered from Naniwa and rolls from somewhere else. Naturally, this became tedious as it involved 2 disparate arrival times, 2 delivery fees, 2 tips, etc., but the sashimi was worth it. However, in 2009, things began to change.
We first noticed the new spicy tuna roll at a table next to us when we were doing a rare eat-in at Naniwa. It looked great. Unlike the thick orange paste that looked like tuna sausage without casing and was the roll?s typical texture, this one had thick chunks of real tuna with thin layers of spicy mayo between them. Could this be true we wondered? We had to see for ourselves. You can imagine our surprise when that first morsel slid past our tongues and did not bleed out on contact. The pieces we big, fresh and gristle-free. Could it be that, after 12 years of having the city?s worst tuna rolls, the head chef actually noticed? A sushi restaurant that gives the take-home crowd sashimi just as good as that served in the dining room is a rare find. And once found, seldom abandoned. For this reason, 63.98% of my 2009 sushi budget has gone to Naniwa. I only wish it could have happened sooner.
Pros: Inexpensive, fast, casual
Cons: A little too casual with service.