By Kate Bernot
July 18, 2012
2 for $25: Kai Zan
2557 1/2 Chicago Ave. 773-278-5776
Cheap Japanese food is ubiquitous, but you're generally making a big sacrifice, either in the quality of the sushi or the hipness of the dining room. Kai Zan makes no compromises. This matchbox of a restaurant in Humboldt Park opened without fanfare earlier this summer, but word already is spreading about the romantic, whimsical interior and creative, affordable menu. Add a BYOB policy ($5 corkage fee), and couples are saving money on drinks too. While the portions aren't huge, small price tags mean you can order a solid sampling of the menu.
Main attraction: Creativity. The restaurant is owned by twin brothers Melvin and Carlo Vizconde, who sharpened their knives at venerable sushi spots Kamehachi and Kyoto before opening Kai Zan. It shows: Tako wasabi ($6) pairs perfectly cooked octopus with a house-made wasabi dressing so spicy it tingled my nose ... and then made me come back for more. A cauliflower miso skewer with soybean paste ($3) is complex and flavorful, and served with a side of ginger slaw I'd like to order by the pint. On the pricier side, Orange Rush ($8), a pair of citrus-glazed salmon-wrapped scallops, packs a richness I didn't expect from sushi.
Best value: $4 maki rolls. Yes, you read that correctly. Eight-piece rolls are crazy affordable, though on the smaller side. Still, the quality is there. An unagi roll (barbecued eel) is neither too salty nor syrupy, common criticisms of this type of maki. Likewise, an escarole roll is pleasantly bright. In an adorable nod to Japanese hospitality, piping hot green tea is complimentary.
Sample order: Unagi maki + tuna maki + tako wasabi + tofu tororo + green tea = $23.60 with tax and tip
Tip: Thanks to its teeny tiny size and lack of signage, it's easy to miss Kai Zan. Look for the restaurant directly east of corner boutique Komoda. Reservations are recommended: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Wednesday.
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