| Customers have been known to drive right past Niki's Tokyo Inn on Hildebrand to the Asian Tokyo Mart that sits in the parking lot behind the restaurant. But the fading shingles and nondescript paint job conceal a delicious time-warp dining experience. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
It's apparent as soon as you open the peeling white wooden door of Niki's Tokyo Inn that this is a sushi place for hard-core traditionalists - the sort who regard even the most benign changes with resentful suspicion. The hand-lettered board posting the hours for potential patrons is fading and adds to the drive-by impression that Niki's is a former business of indeterminate wares (a faintly glowing sign atop the roof is as much Japanese as English). The building appears to slump slightly into the surrounding asphalt, and with the vaguely pagoda-shaped windows boarded up in the daytime, it is receding rapidly into the ubiquitous inner-city backdrop of abandoned storefronts. As further evidence of its near-invisibility, I cite a friend who, when invited to dinner there, said he frequented the popular Asian store that sits in the parking lot behind Niki's and never realized that there was a restaurant next door.
Inside, the nubby red carpet and pink Naugahyde bar chairs likely haven't been refurbished since the restaurant first opened in the early '70s. On a recent Tuesday night, one of those comfy swiveling chairs was occupied by the owner of Luigi's on San Pedro and La Foccaccia in Southtown. To his right, three Japanese businessmen lined one end of the counter. No amateurs they, their plates prominently featured large fish heads whose glass eyes gazed vacantly at the wood shingles of the faux pavilion awning that juts out over the bar. Departing a short while later, the trio smiled contentedly and delivered what sounded like enthusiastic compliments to the sushi chef.
Luigi, too, had an unidentified whole fish on his plate, a special fried dish ordered for him by the chef, for whom he had brought tiramisu. "It was delicious!" he said, having devoured it to the bones, although he didn't know what it was, either. He's been coming to Niki's, ever since he opened his first restaurant in 1972, whenever he needs a break from Italian cuisine or has had the kind of day in which a chimney is stopped up and the keys have been left at home.
| Niki's Tokyo Inn
819 W. Hildebrand
Not handicapped accessible
It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss Niki's wood-paneled walls and vinyl-covered bathroom floors in favor of the sleek interiors of Sushi Zushi's multiple locations. The cafeteria-issue orange juice glasses in which they serve the cold sake, and the wedding-hall rental chairs belie the most traditional sushi menu in town, served up at the bar with a smile and a refined "Hai!"
The elegant lady sushi chef for whom Niki's is well-known cuts generous strips of Hamachi (Yellow Tail) and Maguro (Tuna), draping them over the rice balls like luxurious silk wraps. (Her rice seems to me to have a little more vinegar in it than other sushi bars in town, and the Hamachi hides a small strip of cumin-flavored leaf that a dinner companion said is grown in the restaurant's garden.) "She gets pissed if you order rolls with cream cheese," warned another diner.
The chef declined an interview through her daughter, who also works at Niki's, saying that her wrist hurts and she can't handle any more business. So, like a well-instructed member of the jury, strike what you've read here from the record, and don't darken their doorstep. You might be taking my seat at the bar. •