JAPAN Part III: The Izakaya
Yes, you've heard me speaking in sparkling terms about the Japanese IZAKAYA many times before. I've lamented their almost non-existence here in the United States (well, Los Angeles anyway). Yes yes, there are a few, but it isn't quite the same if you don't take off your shoes and deposit them in a little wooden shelf or take a drunken train ride home from your outing. The real izakaya experience starts off with a hearty "IRASHAIMASE!" from the staff and ends with you and your friends either racing toward Shinjuku Station desperate to catch that 1:00 AM Yamanote Line or hunkering down for a few (or ten) more rounds until the first train at 4:30 AM. Ah, those were the days......
Why do I love the IZAKAYA so? Let me count the ways. First of all, it's cheap but good eatin'. I love that you can get a little bit of everything. If you're having one of those days where you're craving a bit of sashimi, a nugget of golden fried shrimp, a grilled slice of salted beef, fried rice, potato salad and simmered tofu skin, well the IZAKAYA is where you'd go to get all of that and more. I have so many great memories from my outings to various izakayas. An izakaya in Shibuya was the site where my fish-hating friend Josh discovered that he actually liked fish when he was served a thick filet of yellowtail covered in grilled onions all sizzling on a cast iron skillet. What's so special about Josh converting to pescatarianism, you say? Try hanging out for a year with an anti-fish person in Japan and you'll get the idea. Josh, I love ya but your fish-hating days were rough on me and Miks. Anyway, an izakaya called Tengu (one of a chain) was where I'd spend many a Girl's Night with my good friends Nozomi and Megumi, noshing on katsuo no tataki and pumpkin korokke. I can't even count the number of work drinking parties we'd have in the private room of an izakaya in Shinjuku. If you haven't gotten it by now, get it- I Heart Izakayas!
Naturally, I was eager to hit as many izakayas as possible on my recent trip to Japan. Now, dear reader, I must be honest with you. My drinking-until-the-first-train-days are probably long over (read: I am not 22 anymore) but I was excited to get back to my old haunts. I have to admit, I am usually not a fan of chain restaurants but the chain izakayas in Japan are quite good. More importantly, they all serve the same goodies and have HUGE menus featuring lovely, color photos which come in handy when you, er, read Japanese at the level of a kindergartner. In addition to the aforementioned Tengu, I also love Irohanihoheto, Watami, Uotami....the list goes on and on.
The first night we arrived in Tokyo, we hit an izakaya in Shibuya with my old boss/friend and coworkers. It was packed, smokey and loud- just like I remembered! We ordered hiyayako (cold tofu), korokke, Caesar salad with a soft boiled egg, yakisoba, sashimi and quite a few other things I can't remember. Washed down with some ice cold reishu, it made for a great beginning to our trip.
A couple of nights later we went out with my former schoolmate Marc in Shinjuku. We met him at the station and navigated through the crowds for about 15 minutes until we came upon an izakaya that he discovered through his coworkers. Since I met Marc at cooking school, I knew I could trust him and he didn't disappoint. Like at many izakayas, we took off our shoes and were seated at our own private booth, enclosed by paper doors. Where in the States can you get ambience like that at super low prices? Nowhere, I tell you! Moving on....we ordered a million things and everything was delicious. They even had bi bim bap, served in the hot stone bowl! We ate delicate rolls of halibut sashimi topped with ponzu and ginger, a large plate of four kinds of sashimi, perfectly fried egg rolls stuffed with a mixture of mochi, kimchee and shiso leaves, tsukune (ground chicken) yakitori accompanied by the traditional raw egg yolk, salad and Japanese pickles. I know what you're thinking- I'm a glutton!!! I can't say I can deny that 100% but each plate at an izakaya is nice and small- the point is to eat a little bit of everything instead of a lot of one thing. Works for me!
Mochi kimchee egg rolls- YUM
We need something to wash all of this food down with!
Mixed steamed dumplings
We decided to really revisit one of my old stomping grounds- Nogata, where I lived for five years. During our stroll through the city we started to get hungry so we ducked into a small izakaya and had the most amazing saba (mackerel) simmered in miso, cold tofu with freshly grated ginger, Japanese fried chicken topped with grated daikon and tako (octopus) mixed with kimchee. Everything was just so fresh, tasty and again, cheap and the perfect match to the mug of ice cold Japanese beer that I ordered.
Saba miso in Nogata
Kimchee w/ cucumbers and cold tofu
On our last night, J and I hit Uotami in Osaka. It was great to see the familiar chain izakaya in a city that I had never lived in. We again took off our shoes and were led to a nice, quiet and dimly lit private booth. The mini gyoza, California roll (don't laugh, we ordered it by mistake!), edamame wrapped in wonton skin, sesame chicken salad and an enormous tuna collar came in a flash and we dug in. Surprisingly, the California Roll was one of our favorites. It was coated in little bits of crispy rice which made it nutty and crunchy. As always, all of the food was satisfying and we had fun trying a bunch of different things. All of that food, plus an order of sashimi and mentaiko (spicy cod roe) wrapped in wonton + 2 bottles of cold sake came to just $40.00. $40!!!!!! I rest my case. Izakaya is KING.
Mentaiko-cheese wontons- don't knock it til you try it!
California roll with KEWPIE!!!
Hitokuchi (one-bite) gyoza
Edamame in wonton skins
In addition to the izakaya outings, we ate similar small-plate fare at an old-school yakitori house in Kichijoji where I had the best shumai (steamed dumplings) I've ever had. We also hit a yakiniku, or Korean BBQ place in Osaka and I've included a couple of photos of the gorgeous meat in this set since it sort of has the same theme.
Meat for yakiniku (Osaka)
Best shumai EVER.
Yakitori in Kichijoji