Other Feature Writing
For Tapas Japanese-style, Say “Izakaya”
A "Cityfare" column for Harmony Magazine
The fish is on fire. As a techno beat thumps, conversations buzz, and sake cocktails crowd tables laden with lacquered plates, the kimono-clad waitress is blasting a slab of mackerel with a blowtorch.
Welcome to Hapa Izakaya, a frantically-lively Japanese eatery on bustling Robson Street in downtown Vancouver. Over the last two years, izakayas – often described as Japanese tapas bars – have taken the Vancouver food scene by storm. At last count, the city had more than half a dozen of these inexpensive Japanese restaurants claiming the izakaya moniker.
Izakayas in Japan traditionally serve the same function as tapas bars do in Spain – they’re casual, convivial places to drink and nibble. While they might not be threatening the supremacy of local sushi spots in Vancouver (estimates put the city’s raw fish restaurant count at well over 200), izakayas, with their laid-back “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry” feel, are influencing the flavor of the region’s dining scene.
Don’t expect to see sushi on izakaya menus, but you will find fish in other forms. At Hapa Izakaya, the blowtorched mackerel, which the waitstaff lightly sears at your table, comes with a side of head-clearing wasabi mayonnaise. Sashimi-style salmon or tuna is usually on offer, too, slices of rich raw fish paired with crisp daikon radish or tangy green onions.
Heartier appetites may opt to share the ishi-yaki, a hot stone bowl filled with rice, minced pork, garlic sprouts, and other vegetables, bound with lightly cooked egg. You may have to fight your companions for the coveted rice crust at the bottom of the dish.
A few blocks down Robson Street, Guu With Garlic is as homey as Hapa Izakaya is sleek, its rustic wooden tables rolled into a maki-sized storefront. At Guu, most of the young Japanese patrons are downing pitchers of beer, rather than sake or cocktails. But the small-plate concept is the same: an assortment of dishes each under $10, all meant for sharing.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find two kinds of cheeks on Guu’s menu. The savory pork cheeks are grilled slivers of just-fatty-enough pork in a mildly citrus marinade. Even better are the yellowtail cheeks – wing-shaped slabs of rich white fish with a perfect hint of char from the grill.
Guu’s kabocha karokke is vegetarian comfort food – a puff of pureed pumpkin wrapped around a hard-boiled egg and fried in a panko crust, while the addictive kimchi udon, thick noodles lightly coated with cod roe and studded with bits of spicy cabbage, tastes as if the chewy pasta had been gently dipped into the sea.
Like Guu, Zakkushi Charcoal Grill, on Denman Street near Robson, has a spirited-yet-comfortable ambiance, a young crowd, and a menu of tasty small dishes. Here, though, the stars are skewers of grilled meats – addictive charcoal-seared bites of pork, chicken, or beef, often paired with mushrooms, eggplant, or bursting-with-juice cherry tomatoes, that go down well with Japanese beers. Zakkushi does have a few tables, but perch at the bar to best appreciate the grillmasters at work.
No matter where you sit, just grab a few pals and say “izakaya” – for little bites, lots of fun, and of course, a few flaming fish.
Hapa Izakaya, 604-689-4272, 1479 Robson Street. Guu with Garlic, 604-685-8678, 1698 Robson Street. Zakkushi Charcoal Grill, 604-685-1136, 823 Denman Street.