(This article appeared in South Bay Accent in winter, 2011)
American bar food is often so grim that it’s more pleasant just to get blotto. Limp pretzels, stale peanuts and a dusty bowl of mysterious “snack mix” that might date from the Clinton administration — avoiding such options is simple self preservation. Such an edible vacuum in our drinking culture has helped fuel the popularity of imported pub cuisine traditions. The wonderful tapas concept from Spain has flooded the South Bay in recent years, while the mezzes of the Mediterranean region are another tasty way to separate local imbibers from a potential hangover. However, the most recent non-native small-plates bar grub is so delicious that many fans are seeking it out, drinks optional.
Luring diners with mouth-pleasing bites in a casual environment, Japanese izakayas have been quietly popping up all over the South Bay and elsewhere. Part drinking hole, part eatery, izakayas are hugely popular in Japan. In fact, this is typically where Japanese office drones go for an evening of drinking, snacking and camaraderie before heading back home. The name is a compound of “i” (to sit) and “sakaya” (sake shop) and are known in Japan by the red paper lanterns that hang outside. In a metropolis like Tokyo, these lanterns and the izakayas within are everywhere, from chain izakayas to little mom and pops. Guests either sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables in the Japanese style or perch on chairs and eat and drink from tables. Both styles are found in South Bay izakayas, which are often small, dark and noisy, just like their Tokyo brethren.
Before the current izakaya craze, the best-known type of Japanese eating spot in our region has been sushi bars, which remain popular and plentiful. However, these two kinds of eateries merely snip the surface of Japanese dining, which features a multitude of specialized restaurants dedicated to such food as noodles (soba-ya and ramen-ya), grilled chicken (yakitori-ya), fresh eel (unagi-ya), deep-fried dishes (tempura-ya), beef soup (gyudon-ya), self-cooked main courses (sukiyaki-ya) and seemingly esoteric eateries serving just rice curry (kare-ya), fried pork cutlets (tonkatsu-ya) and pan-fried cabbage with toppings (okonomiyaki-ya). And let’s not forget the apex of Japanese dining, the artful, costly, multi-course kaiseki meal that balances the taste, texture, appearance and colors of the ingredients included.
As interest in Japanese cuisine has grown in America and Asian populations continue to expand in the South Bay, the stage has been set for the emergence of izakayas, whose tapas often echo what one might find in Japan. All kinds of grilled and fried chicken parts are an izakaya staple, including skewers of grilled gizzard, heart and other meats. An isakaya mainstay, karaage, is a batter-dipped, fried chicken morsel that when done right, is juicy, crispy and addictive. In fact, the deep fryer is an essential tool in izakaya kitchens, so don’t go to one while dieting. However, there are plenty of other less-damaging choices like hamachi kama, succulent, salt-roasted morsels of yellowtail from the collar area, and edamame, tasty little boiled, salted soybean pods.
Some traditional izakaya fare might be a tad off-putting to uneducated Westerners, such as gyu-tan, chewy but tender grilled beef tongue, and ankimo, steamed monkfish liver. A dish called noresore is for the adventurous, featuring whole baby eels in a clear, ginger-spiked broth in which the tiny, metallic eyes of the eel stare out at the diner. These dishes and many more are served at South Bay izakayas like tiny Yume-Ya in Sunnyvale, Dohatsuten on the southern edge of Palo Alto, and Mountain View’s Kappo Nami Nami, which focuses on the tapas dishes of Kyoto. At all these izakayas and the ones profiled below, beverages include sake, beer, sometimes wine and shochu, a fiery drink distilled from grains. Don’t drink too much or you’ll order dishes with too much abandon and regret the final tab when it comes.
Gochi Fusion Tapas
Operated by skilled chef Masahiko Takei, Gochi is hugely popular and shows off the experience of “Masa” in combining Japanese and Western cuisines. The restaurant’s name is Japanese slang for “good food,” which is well deserved throughout a menu of more than 100 items that includes salads, rice dishes, soups, raw and seared items, clay pot dishes and more. Among some of the more inventive offerings are tasty Japanese pizzas with thin, rice-paper crusts topped with choices like pork and mushrooms.
The “carpaccio” items are standouts, particularly pristinely fresh seafood paired with oils, herbs and other ingredients. For a delicious, multi-textured mouthful, order shiromaguro tataki, which combines seared albacore drizzled with garlic oil and ponzu sprinkled with garlic chips. Gochi has many specialties, but its clay pots are popular Japanese comfort food, such as grilled eel with rice, mixed tableside. The cognoscenti plop a raw egg yolk on top.
Regulars are addicted to the crispy-exterior, soft-inside croquettes and standard izakaya fare like beef tongue, but Gochi has many Westernized house creations that tantalize non-Asian palates. Try the umami-rich ribeye in which tender meat is notched up a bit by the miso coating.
Not much to look at from outside, the restaurant has a comfy interior featuring low-table tatami seating in the main room and private rooms along the side. The usual beverages, including an extensive sake selection, are offered.
19980 W. Homestead Rd., Cupertino; (408) 725-0542; www.gochifusiontapas.com
Monday-Friday, 11:30-1:30; 6-10. Saturday, 5:30-9:30. Closed Sunday.
Opened in early 2010, the newest addition to the local izakaya scene, Bushido — named for a samurai’s code of conduct — is also the sexiest looking by far. Soaring ceilings, a long, low bar and fabric screens provide visual appeal while chef Steve Futagaki’s sublime cuisine hauls in throngs of delighted eaters. With a broad background that includes a stint with Wolfgang Puck, the chef adds high-quality ingredients and a creative touch to items that include fried, grilled and raw tapas, nabemono (steamed, one-pot dishes), salads, noodles and vegetable dishes.
Blissed-out regulars gravitate toward the kushi-katsu offerings — skewered, deep-fried items served with lemon and sauce — and a variety of specialties. These include crispy-gooey mochi with cheese — like fried eggrolls — heavenly black cod in miso sauce and various grilled meats popular with Japanese eaters such as chicken innards and beef tongue. The less adventurous won’t be disappointed by Japanese-style linguine with clams, baby back ribs in Asian sauce, teriyaki salmon and Western-leaning grilled ribeye steak with mushrooms and onions. Anyone would enjoy some killer Japanese oyster varieties — kumamoto and miyagi — on the half shell or utterly decadent pork belly lettuce wraps with a thick, rich sauce.
In addition to the usual beverages, including flights of sake, Bushido has also developed some signature cocktails such as a super-fruity sake sangria. This drinks menu sets it apart from many other izakayas. For the trendy clientele, this is a hip addition to downtown Mountain View’s restaurant row.
156 Castro St., Mountain View; (650) 386-6821; www.bushidoizakaya.com
Tuesday-Friday, 11:30-2; 6-10. Saturday, 5-10. Sunday, 3-9. Closed Monday.
One of the South Bay’s first izakayas, teensy Saizo is appreciated for its slightly lower prices than some and straightforward, non-trendy recipes. But be warned: It’s not easy to find, tucked away in a big strip mall next to an Indian take-out joint. Inside, the restaurant primarily features a long wooden bar with stools and a row of small tables against the opposite wall. The mostly Hispanic cooks might not have the right eastern pedigree but know what they’re doing when it comes to the traditional izakaya fare, which is cooked behind the bar. Say, a multitude of skewered items, often fried and highly popular with the largely Japanese crowd. The skewer of pork belly (butabara) is a favorite, as are bacon-wrapped scallops, crisp pork katsu, asparagus and green onions, and peppers and mushrooms on a stick. The garlic lamb skewer also gets kudos.
Of enduring popularity with those who ignore their cholesterol level is torikawa –deep-fried chicken skin with ponzu sauce that has the crunchy, fatty appeal of fried pork rinds. Another local winner is stir-fried pork kimchee, with charred meat nicely paired with the funky heat of the fermented cabbage.
More restrained choices that still get high marks are the beef tataki salad and spicy tuna salad. In the latter, tuna sashimi sits on top of mixed greens with a creamy mayonnaise dressing that has some bite and avocado garnish. Another traditional, less-fatty choice is the tofu and seaweed salad. The simple, cozy interior and authentic dishes make Saizo a favorite of homesick Japan natives or Japanese visitors who want familiar, tasty food.
592 East El Camino Real, Sunnyvale; (408) 733-7423
Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11:30-1:30. Dinner, Monday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30; until 10 Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Japanese office drones flock to places like Tanto in the homeland. Maybe that’s why the restaurant’s two locations — in Sunnyvale and San Jose — are like a quick trip to Tokyo when it comes to cuisine, staff and ambience. Reportedly, local Japanese natives with a taste for home head here for their food fixes. Non-Japanese might find the service lacking, however. (It helps to speak the language, guests say.) Of the two locations, the stand-alone, cinderblock spot in Sunnyvale is the most popular, where strong aromas of deep- fried food greet visitors. In addition to tables and booths in the main area, there are small private rooms down the hall.
“Home cooking” is the common description of Tanto’s menu. For izakaya/small plates, visit during dinner hours and select from a medium-sized menu offering fried and simmered dishes, salads, sashimi, stir fries, grilled items and a few desserts. The sashimi offerings get good marks, but what many locals come for is the traditional izakaya items like shiyoki-style meats and fish, which means salt grilled. Absolutely try the shiyoki pork — juicy, meaty and paired with green onions — and the outstanding hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) shiyoki. Another standard Japanese item that even Westerners will enjoy is takoyaki, a fried dumpling first popularized in Osaka containing octopus, pickled ginger and onion wrapped in batter and served with a mayo-based sauce.
The Japanese take their rice preparations seriously and Tanto passes muster with dishes like yaki onigiri, which are grilled rice balls topped with ikura (fish roe) that are crunchy outside and soft inside. Among the most popular tapas are crab gratin, grilled eel and shrimp, pork stew pie and seared duck breast that is greasy but tasty. Traditional but less scary for Westerners is “asari butter yaki,” which is basically stir-fried clams.
1063 E El Camino Real, Sunnyvale; (408) 244-7311. 1306 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; (408) 249-6020
Tuesday-Friday, 11:30-1:30; 6-11. Saturday-Sunday, 6-9. Closed Monday.
This attractive spot hits a double homer, specializing in both small plates and sushi. In addition, Gokaku also offers omakase meals — seasonal creations based on the chef’s whim — demonstrating that cooking is taken very seriously here. Many popular traditional izakaya dishes are on the menu along with alluring, modern items such as “seafood pizza” — assorted fish in spicy sauce on a tortilla — seven-spice tuna seared and served with wasabi sauce, rock shrimp in a toasted rice coating with cream sauce, and shredded salmon skin and cucumber “spaghetti” with vegetables in a creamy, spicy sauce.
Discriminating diners praise the chef’s version of such delicacies as gindara (broiled black cod), burdock-root fries cooked in pork fat and, in particular, ankimo, which is salt-rubbed monkfish liver that is steamed and served with radish and sauce. It’s got the delicate richness of foie gras. But many other dishes would appeal to anyone, like grilled hamachi steak with garlic, or “tropical salmon” that pairs the fish with mango, fish roe and scallions. Meanwhile, the long list of outstanding, creative rolls gives diners even more items to choose from.
Not particularly enticing from the outside, Gokaku has low-key elegance inside, with soft lighting, a green color scheme and relaxed jazz. The serious sake offering is appreciated by the many regulars, while more health-conscious guests like the kitchen’s lighter hand with the deep fryer. At Gokaku, there is less of the heavy, greasy, batter-coated cooking style that often defines izakayas.
10789 S. Blaney Ave., Cupertino; (408) 973-0722; www.gokakurestaurant.com
Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30-1:45. Dinner, Tuesday-Friday, 6-10:30; Saturday, 5:30-10:30; Sunday, 5_30-9:30. Closed Monday
While not a traditional izakaya, Sumika is still a delightful, handsome spot to quaff a few while nibbling on tasty, relatively healthful food. Technically, Sumika is a kushi-yaki — where meats and vegetables are skewered and grilled, in this case, over imported Binchoutan “white” charcoal from Japan. High-quality ingredients are cooked and served with a choice of Hokkaido sea salt or soy-based marinade. The long list of skewers includes such items as chicken parts and innards, pork cheek, “Kobe-style” beef and various veggies.
While the kushi-yaki part of the menu is the focus, Sumika has a surprisingly large selection of other popular dishes like rice bowls teaming with different enhancements, nabe “hot pots,” soups, salads and several izakaya-like tapas. Notable among the latter are eel and mushroom bacon wraps, shrimp cakes, and agedashi tofu (deep fried and served with a flavorful broth) featuring house-made tofu. However, what gets unanimous raves is the restaurant’s karaage, a staple from the izakaya scene. Made from organic chicken that is marinated, coated and deep fried, the karaage here is reportedly the best around. It’s called “famous fried chicken” on the menu, which is well deserved. No surprise, really, since the Japan-born chef previously ran an artisan chicken restaurant in his homeland.
Sumika is decorated in the dark wood style found in Japanese izakayas but with a clean, modern look. Guests can watch the cooking and grilling done by the all-Japanese staff while sampling an impressive sake selection. Stick with the grilled items in order to save room for desserts like black sesame panna cotta, yuzu cheesecake and green tea tiramisu.
236 Central Plaza, Los Altos; (650) 917-1822; www.sumikagrill.com
Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30-2. Dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 6-10; Friday, 5:30-11; Saturday, 5:30-10; Sunday, 5-9. Closed Monday.
Happily chaotic, this little izakaya is sometimes known as “the train place” because of the toy train circling around near the ceiling that passes by hanging model airplanes, photos of unknown notables and other decorations — it’s like an Asian TGI Fridays. Those looking for a Japanese small-plates fix appreciate the fact that Isakaya Mai is open later than any of its competitors on weekends. Popular with local Japanese, the restaurant makes things easy for the less informed via photos on the crowded walls of every menu item from among grilled, fried and broiled dishes, sushi and sashimi, donburi (one-pot meal), noodles and more. The translation errors add to the charm.
Regulars praise the izakaya dishes for authenticity and flavor, such as salt-roasted yellowtail collar (hamachi kama) and yaki onigiri — Japan’s sandwich equivalent — in which salmon is stuffed into a rice square that is then lightly fried. Izakaya Mai is most notable for its champon, a big bowl of noodles in a heavy broth with meat and vegetables that is popular with sumo wrestlers needing to bulk up. Other specialties include perfectly grilled squid, flaky miso black cod and potato croquettes that are served right out of the fryer so they’re crisp on the outside and creamy inside.
The authenticity, crowded charm and friendly attitude attract loads of patrons to Izakaya Mai, so making reservations is wise. This is the place for late-night Japanese comfort food.
212 2nd Ave., San Mateo; (650) 347-2511; www.izakayamai.com
Lunch, Tuesday-Friday, 11:30-2. Dinner, Tuesday-Sunday, 6-12. Closed Monday.