Wrigleyville has a forgotten history as a Japanese American community hub and a new business selling food inspired by Japan’s famous snack-laden convenience stores and sake and shochu will add a new chapter to that story with a shop a few doors from neighborhood Malört dealer Nisei Lounge.
Konbini & Kanpai, a Japanese American bottle shop founded in Lakeview that channels the storied history of Chicago slashies, is debuting a new location in Wrigleyville inside the former Dark Horse Tap; that bar closed in 2020 with ownership citing the challenges of the pandemic as the culprit. Konbini & Kanpai’s founders and spouses Naomi Hattori and Jun-Jun Vichaikul are adding food to their repertoire thanks to Hattori’s brother.
The new shop at 3443 N. Sheffield Avenue is slightly larger than the original store and includes a full kitchen. Chef Eric Hattori, who previously owned a pan Asian food truck called Piko Street Kitchen, is creating a selection of fun and nostalgic dishes like udon and egg salad sandos on milk bread, as well as bento and other grab-and-go items.
“The key thing that Jun-Jun and Naomi have done at Belmont is become an educational hub on Asian spirits,” Eric Hattori says. “So if we can do that — with food — it’s as good as it gets.”
Neither founder expected to become business owners when Naomi Hattori and Vichaikul purchased the space that housed a boutique liquor store at 1433 W. Belmont Avenue. When that shop closed in 2020, the couple found themselves the proud owners of a vacant storefront. Undaunted, the duo keyed into Hattori’s Japanese-American heritage and transformed the location into a testing ground.
“[We wanted] to get our feet wet in retail and in the industry to see if Japanese beverages — sake, shochu, beers, and nonalcoholics — could be the foundation of a store themselves,” says Vichaikul.
The shop has become a go-to destination for its wide array of sakes and 180 types of canned Japanese beer, as well as Vichaikul’s cocktails, which are designed to highlight smart ways to use the spirits in combination with other ingredients. In short order, “kanpai,” a common word used to toast in Japanese, became well-covered ground for the couple, but the Belmont store didn’t include a kitchen. That meant the element of “konbini” — the aforementioned convenience stores known for excellent fried chicken, sandos, and packaged snacks — was limited to cups of instant noodles, bagged Asian chips, and boxes of Pocky.
Vichaikul plans to feature an entirely distinct lineup of spirits and beers in Wrigleyville and is designing a cocktail menu that riffs on drinks that have proved popular on Belmont, like a sake-based Old Fashioned with ginger simple syrup and barley shochu (Japan’s most popular spirit) with Filipino cappuccino rum. He’s opting for a similarly minimalist design to the original, which allows the flexibility to host Asian American pop-ups and community events and can seat more than 70 between an indoor area and an outdoor beer garden.
The Hattori siblings are fourth-generation Japanese-Thai Americans with deep roots in Chicago’s hospitality industry and a potent connection to the new Sheffield Avenue location. Their parents, Pia and Hiko Hattori, were restaurateurs who once owned a spot called Pan Asia at the same address. “It’s a full-circle [moment], which is really cool,” Eric Hattori says. “My sister and I grew up here and it’s pretty crazy to be coming all the way back and seeing how different [the neighborhood] looks.”
The area was once an important gathering place for Japanese Americans, many of whom were forcibly relocated to Chicago by the U.S. government following their incarceration in internment camps during World War II. Eric Hattori recalls a once-bustling corridor of Japanese American-owned businesses, which numbered up to nearly 150 in the ‘60s and ‘70s but shrank over the subsequent decades.
Stay tuned for more coverage in the coming year.
Konbini & Kanpai Wrigleyville, 3443 N. Sheffield Avenue, scheduled for a spring opening.