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Chef Brian Mita on Japanese Soul Food, Shōchū, and Staying Positive

Cover Image for Chef Brian Mita on Japanese Soul Food, Shōchū, and Staying Positive
By Sophie Brochu
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Categories:DefaultInterview

After nineteen months of closure, Izakaya Mita has finally reopened. With new dishes, interior upgrades, and an impressive shōchū and saké program, Chicago’s original izakaya continues to lead the charge in Japanese comfort food. We caught up with chef Brian Mita, who runs the restaurant alongside his mother, Helen Mita.

Tock: First off, congrats on the recent reopening. How does it feel to be back up and running?

Mita: It’s a relief. Part of mentally getting through the pandemic was getting this project up and running and reevaluating what was working for us before, and what will help us get through going forward. Of course, we had a chance to renovate a little bit. There were changes I’ve always wanted to make with the back bar and the dining room. That’s just giving our customers a good new visual experience.

The renovated bar at Izakaya Mita.

Tock: What does Japanese soul food mean to you?

Mita: Well, part of it is to kind of encapsulate izakaya-style dining, which is essentially Japanese cuisine without rice, as you are drinking your rice when you drink saké. It also refers to okonomiyaki, which is known specifically as Japanese soul food, but it also applies to how the Japanese adapt other cuisines, as they adopted Portuguese with tempura, Cantonese with yaki soba, and Indian cuisine with curry. Foods that took on their own identity within Japan.

Tock: In what ways does the restaurant pay tribute to your late father, Shiyouji Mita?

Mita: Most people called my father, Mita San, so we added his family name to the restaurant. But when he revealed that the izakaya was his favorite type of Japanese restaurant, and that he would love to bring one to Chicago, we had our mission right there.

Wafu-chuka braised pork belly.

Tock: You have one of the city’s largest and most comprehensive saké collections. Can you talk about the difference between saké and shōchū?

Mita: Well saké is Japan’s national drink, which we all consider rice wine, and it should be evaluated like wine here, from aromatics to body to finish. Ironically, as it’s brewed, comparisons to craft beer are also legit.

Shōchū, on the other hand, is a single distilled spirit that has origins in the South. It’s been largely undiscovered overseas, but is rising in popularity nowadays. It’s not malted, but saccharified using koji, a macrobiotic used in soy, saké, and shōchū. Barley, sweet potato, rice, and sugar are the base grains to some wonderful spirits.

 

“Who knows what miracle might be lying around the corner?”

Tock: Do you have a favorite dish or ingredient on the menu right now?

Mita: Oh, wow, so many. I’m really proud of our pork belly, but really, izakaya-style dining is more about traveling through and exploring the menu with all the flavors it offers.

Binchō-tan grilled hamachi skewers.

Tock: You’ve shared some details publicly about your ongoing fight with cancer. Can you speak to the importance of staying positive?

Mita: Well, in the light of any adversity, why give it an advantage?  I try to be positive every day, meet new people, and just stay optimistic, no matter what. Who knows what miracle might be lying around the corner?

Tock: Is there anything you’d like to say about the state of the hospitality industry?

Mita: Just that it’s the one I know and love, so let’s try and get everything back to normal so we can have nice things again.

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