It’s been nearly 19 months since patrons last dined inside Izakaya Mita, the Bucktown Japanese pub that showed Chicagoans a different side of Japanese cooking. The seven-year-old restaurant, known for housing one of the city’s largest and most comprehensive sake collections, is at set to reopen in early October at 1960 N. Damen Avenue with an updated menu (say goodbye to soup ramen) and refreshed decor.
Founded in 2014 by owner Helen Mita and her son, chef Brian Mita, the casual restaurant is a tribute to their late husband and father Shiyouji Mita, a former general manager of Ichiban Japanese Steakhouse. The city was then in the midst of a ramen boom but izakayas — casual Japanese pubs that traditionally feature beer, sake, and snacks like kushiyaki (grilled skewers) — were hard to find.
Izakaya Mita was among the first spots in Chicago to fill that gap and introduce novices to the fun and festive style; it opened about two months after Boka launched its distinctly nontraditional Izakaya at Momotaro downstairs from the more posh Momotaro in West Loop. Last summer, the partners behind Michelin-starred Omakase Yume introduced their own izakaya-style spot, TenGoku Aburiya, in the same neighborhood.
The reopening is a hard-fought victory for Brian Mita, who has spent the long closure balancing the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and his own colon cancer diagnosis. When the restaurant reopens, the chef will not be around for day-to-day operations, as he needs to focus on his health. Though Mita had teased the reopening on his personal Facebook page, it wasn’t a sure thing.
“I want to maintain a legacy — that’s the whole thing,” Mita says. “It has my name is on it. We’re almost synonymous with izakaya in Chicago.”
Izakaya Mita’s revamped menu will continue to feature fan favorites like takoyaki, chawanmushi, and okonomiyaki, but the team has nixed ramen with soup in favor of broth-less and pan-fried variations, and added a new mapo tofu ramen that aptly represents Mita’s Chinese-Japanese heritage. Chicago and the rest of the country have seen the ramen trend wane in recent years, and Miya says he never really wanted to serve it anyway; he just felt obligated because so many patrons asked for it.
Other new offerings include what Brian Mita calls experimental items that he honed during the pandemic, like white pepper ice cream and a Japanese Italian beef sandwich featuring nikku tofu (a simmered stew of beef, tofu, and onion) topped with giardiniera on a milk-bread bun. There’ll be more seafood, like oysters motoyaki, and Mita left room to add specials. He also plans to resume the bar business, distinguished by custom sake flights, and add some new cocktails too. All the front-of-house staff are taking a class to become classified as “certified sake professionals.” Many classes offers this accreditation for those who want to be come serious about sake; Mita’s aim is this will help patrons create customized sake flights.
Mita went public with his cancer diagnosis in 2019, acknowledging his struggles with fatigue, digestive problems, and anxiety and sometimes showing off an incision scar on his stomach left over from surgery. Now, two years later, he’s a Stage 4 patient and shares fewer details about his health as he doesn’t want to create stress for his staff. Still, he sometimes posts musings to his personal social media about his grueling treatments and his commitment to positive thinking.
For Mita, the reopening is about more than a tweaked menu or fresh coat of paint. It’s a key item on his “bucket list” — a piece of his family, and his gift to the city. “We want to be that standard bearer for what izakaya is, in Chicago and really in the Midwest.”
Izakaya Mita, 1960 N. Damen Avenue, Scheduled to reopen the first week of October.