Papajin deserves a medal or a really fat trophy with an engraved plate that reads, "Best job in not trying too
hard." Amidst Chicago's sea of drippingly-hip sushi spots, Papajin understands that you don't have to hit your patrons over the head with a cool hammer: there are no gauzy drapes, no crazy couches and no futuristic menus. It gets the "this place is stylish" point across simply, with tasteful white hanging lamps, funky neon-green sidewalk seating and a Chinese-meets-Japanese menu that speaks for itself.
Your sesame-chicken-loving friend will be plenty happy with Papajin's MSG-free Mandarin and Szechwan choices, which include specialties like twice-cooked crispy duck (steamed in spices then fried) and sauteed garlic prawns, along with standards like mu shu pork and sweet and sour chicken. If sushi is your thing, lay to rest any fears that the broad menu might stoke—fresh fish is flown in daily. Here again, Papajin impresses with its fad-free but appealing offerings. The shortlist of handrolls is a nice, often omitted, touch, and only two rolls feature those overused tempura crunchies. The rest pleasantly balances the classics (Rainbow, Dragon, Spider) with house creations (like the Tiger roll with spicy crab, salmon and avocado).
The placement of the sushi-serving sidewalk cafe may seem odd—it teeters on the edge of Milwaukee Avenue and succumbs to all the exhaust that accompanies it. Grab a seat, though, and you'll have an entirely pleasurable experience. Dining in? Papajin's absolutely massive delivery area (from Belmont south to the Loop and west from the lake to Pulaski) and speedy service makes it a no-brainer choice.
Average cost: $21-$30
Centerstage Reviewer: Kate Schwartz