Rolling Meadows’ Umacamon Japanese Kitchen upholds the suburban izakaya tradition | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Rolling Meadows’ Umacamon Japanese Kitchen upholds the suburban izakaya tradition 

And capably covers all the bases, with sushi, ample comfort foods, and uncommon specialties from the island of Kyushu.

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click to enlarge Top left: salmon and ikura don; bottom left: JP-style beef curry and salad

Top left: salmon and ikura don; bottom left: JP-style beef curry and salad

Nick Murway

Most people in Chicago don't consider Japanese food in regional terms, but when Koichiro "K.C." Kimori was plotting to open Umacamon, his Rolling Meadows restaurant, he was thinking about his hometown, Fukuoka.

Five years ago he was a typical salaryman working at the Elk Grove Village branch of seafood megadistributor True World Foods. That's when he and coworker Kazushige "Kaz" Homma conceived of an izakaya by night, diner by day specializing in the signature foods of the southwestern island of Kyushu.

Kimori—who came to the U.S. to study at the age of 19 and worked in a number of restaurants in Seattle before embarking on a 13-year stretch in the fish business—longed for the foods he'd grown up on, like soft Hakata-style udon noodles, vinegar-marinated deep-fried chicken nanban, and the Nagasaki-style oddball ramen variant known as champon.

The partners barnstormed the island before opening, reacquainting themselves with the origins of panfried gyoza, Hakata ramen (better known as tonkotsu), and the restorative beef offal stew motsunabe. But they also had their eyes on what was trending among younger chefs. Adopting Kumamon—the roly-poly ursine mascot of Kumamato Prefecture—as their own, they opened in Rolling Meadows amid the asphalt sprawl northwest of O'Hare, in the suburbs where the region's Japanese expat community established itself in the 70s, and where a taste of home can be found in long-running izakaya such as Sankyu and Kurumaya.

There are plenty of Kyushu favorites, but Umacamon isn't simply a specialist. With more than a hundred items on the menu, it offers a dizzying selection of sushi, yakitori, and shareable drinking dishes. At lunchtime the focus narrows to sushi and homey comfort foods—donburi, noodles, curry rice plates, and a few yōshoku (Western-style) dishes such as the demiglace-glazed burger patty, more meat loaf than sandwich, and the fried rice-wrapped omelet omurice.

click image CHAMPON, NAGASAKI-STYLE RAMEN
  • Champon, Nagasaki-style ramen

Fukuoka is the historic home of the unctuous, bone-rich ramen style known the world over as tonkotsu, but while Umacamon offers it, the restaurant's signature is Nagasaki's champon, a bowl of relatively lighter chicken-pork based broth swimming with noodles, seafood, vegetables, and pork. Keen observers of the soupiverse will recognize the resemblance of champon to its Korean cousin jjamppong, and though its profile is mellow, it can be ordered spiked with curry or miso. Whether you choose the small or the large, it's an ample bowl, more than a meal, but nothing compared to the current winter special—a huge tureen of the soup, a half size larger than the regular large.

Abundant portioning is the MO at Umacamon, even among the izakaya-style "appetizers," which include a large plate of panko-breaded tuna belly, a molten spicy-mayo-saturated crab salad piled atop avocado halves, and a signature sesame-dressed spinach salad whose wholesomeness is balanced by strips of crispy burdock root and fried chicken nuggets.

In a pinch Unacamon's version of okonomiyaki—the beloved Japanese street pancake glossed with Kewpie mayo and a mix of ketchup, soy, and Worcestershire sauce and showered with shimmering bonito flakes—could sub for a manhole cover, and its elevation is boosted by scallops, fat shrimp, and chunks of pork. But even more minimal bites are generous, such as slabs of grill-kissed rare beef tongue or planks of salted crispy-skinned mackerel, an inherently assertive fish, here with a lusciousness that suggests Kimori and Homma's enduring connections in the fish distribution business. (Seafood is delivered each Tuesday and Friday, and the restaurant also puts together the takeaway sushi offerings at the nearby Mitsuwa Marketplace.)

The spirit of generosity is certainly lubricated by welcoming hot towels, a lagniappe of silky tofu, Asahi and Sapporo beers on draft, and especially the selection of mostly Kyushu-distilled shochu. But it also demands a certain reciprocal consideration from the guest. If, say, you don't take advantage of the free iceberg salad bar at lunch, or can't finish everything you've ordered, the servers at Umacamon give off a very tangible sense of concern that they've disappointed you. You don't want to worry them.

"People in Fukuoka like large," says Koichiru. "I like big stuff too. You want to feel like you get more than what you paid." v

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