Everything You Need to Know About Eating at an Izakaya
Here are a few tips to help you navigate your way through these Japanese taverns.
PHOTOS: STEVE CZERNIAK
A couple from Lebanon flipped through the extensive menu at unassuming Sushi Izakaya Gaku on South King Street with a look of desperate confusion.
They were hungry, they wanted Japanese food, but what the heck was all this? The woman leaned over to my table, already covered with small plates of deep-fried kabocha, crisped beef tongue and bone-fish chips, and shyly tapped me on the shoulder. “Can you help us?” she asked.
Yes. Yes, I can.
Photo: David Croxford
Dining at an izakaya—here or anywhere—isn’t at all like dinner at a typical Japanese restaurant. You normally can’t order teishoku, a set meal different from a plate lunch only because it comes with miso soup and a salad, or bowls of ramen. You have to make choices. But most izakaya—including Gaku, the reigning Hale ‘Aina-gold-award winner for Best Izakaya—employ helpful, well-informed servers who don’t mind offering suggestions or explaining the comprehensive menu.
An izakaya is a Japanese-style gastropub of sorts. While traditional ones offer tatami-mat seating, most modern taverns have tables and chairs and counter seats at the sushi bar. The menus—usually full of photos and waiting for you on the table or displayed on the walls—feature an assortment of sushi and small plates, similar to Spanish tapas.
And, of course, there’s alcohol. Sake, shochu, beer, sometimes wine.
If you’re new to the genre, we’ve got a few tips to help you navigate your way through these Japanese taverns.
It’s easy to see a menu packed with a multitude of items—hand-rolled sushi, skewered meats slow-grilled over hot charcoal, deep-fried whatever you can think of—and to go overboard with ordering. Don’t. Look over the entire menu first. Start with a handful of dishes, more if you’re sharing with a large table, and order as you go.
Try the Specialties
Every izakaya offers specialties: Sushi Izakaya Shinn in McCully serves a dish called genki jurushi, a bowl packed with an eclectic mix of ingredients, from natto to okra to a quail egg; and Izakaya Naru in Mō‘ili‘ili has Okinawan-inspired dishes including stir-fried bitter melon and taco rice served in a hot-stone pot. At the always-inventive Gaku, chefs scrape fresh hamachi off the bones to create the popular spicy negihamachi tartare dish ($9.50). The meat is topped with green onions, tobiko (flying-fish eggs), Gaku’s signature spicy sauce and a raw quail egg, which you mix together and eat with slices of crisp nori. Or try the eihire ($9.50), slices of dried stingray fin that pair well with a cold brew. It’s not something you often see.
There’s a reason izakaya serve alcohol. Not only do libations pair well with deep-fried, slow-grilled, salty offerings, but a dose of sake may relax you enough to try something out of your culinary comfort zone. Knock back that uni shooter ($13.50 at Gaku) you always see on Instagram or a dish showcasing stringy, stinky natto—Gaku has the omatsuri natto ($15.50), with uni, ikura, ‘ahi, ika, yamaimo, okra and a quail egg—that just might change your mind about fermented soybeans.
Try the House-Made Tofu
Most of us have eaten store-bought tofu, which comes in plastic boxes and keeps for days in the fridge. But, whenever you have the chance to try house-made tofu, take it. Making fresh tofu can be laborious but typically results in a creamy, subtly sweet tofu. Gaku takes it a step further with its tofu jelly ($4.50) dish. House-made tofu is topped with a layer of salty dashi shoyu jelly. For added texture and dimension, order it with ikura ($8.50) or uni ($11.50).
Know Your Roe
Sure, you know that roe are fish eggs, but they show up in a variety of dishes at izakaya. Ikura, or salmon roe, are large, reddish-orange orbs that burst in your mouth. Tobiko is flying-fish roe, smaller than ikura and crunchy. Masago, or smelt roe, are even smaller than tobiko. Mentaiko, which originated in Korea, is pollock or cod roe and is often marinated in a spicy pepper sauce. An approachable way to sample mentaiko at Gaku is the jaga butter mentaiko ($6.50). Jaga butter (or jaga-bata) is a dish of potatoes broiled in a lot of butter, with a dash of salt and shoyu. Gaku tops these decadent potato wedges with salty mentaiko roe.
Eggs Are Not Boring
In fact, many aficionados judge a sushi bar by its dashimaki tamago, a seemingly simple rolled omelet that’s ubiquitous but requires skill and experience to master. The omelet requires the right balance of dashi and egg, with a melt-in-your-mouth consistency. At Gaku, the dashimaki tamago ($5.50) is served in four sturdy blocks, proudly branded with kanji. And, while uncomplicated to eat, the omelet is a skillful blend of just a few ingredients that transform it into something worth Snapchatting.
DASHIMAKI TAMAGO ($5.50).
Don’t Skip Dessert
You may not immediately think of desserts when you’re eating in what’s essentially a bar. But izakaya often surprise you with their sweet endings. Gaku offers a tangy house-made yuzu sorbet ($5.50) that’s the perfect meat-ending palate cleanser for a rich meal. Its original custard pudding ($4.50) is a glossy, wobbly flan topped with fresh pineapple, strawberries and blueberries. And the warabi mochi matcha ice cream ($5.50) features an interesting combination of a jellylike confection made from bracken fern paired with green tea ice cream. Dinner ends the way it started—an adventure.
Sushi Izakaya Gaku, 1329 S. King St., 589-1329