Aki Japanese Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

Aki Japanese Restaurant
745 Thurlow Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 682-4032

Since 1963

Granted I wasn’t even born then, but pretty amazing to realize just how long this business has been around. I’d love to see images from its early days (probably in a different location) and visualize in my mind of how it was probably one of the early (and few) restaurants offering Japanese cuisine in this city during the sixties, but that is now filled with so many of them (the majority being very poor in quality and taking too many creative liberties in the kitchen and behind the sushi bar).

Aki is a tried-and-true place to experience an authentic, neighbourhood-style, izakaya in Vancouver, coincidentally the favourite of my good friend from Japan, who’s name also happens to be Aki. Whenever he’s in town, this is a place we try to hit up and catch up on each other’s lives. Something about cold Asahi beer and comforting food makes the setting perfect for such occasions, and so we did once again on his most recent visit to the coast.

In town, there are clearly some other izakaya establishments that are of higher scale, do fancier things with their menu, and have spent more money on getting the best design elements to attract customers. Aki on the other hand, just seems to stay with what has worked for them, retaining its old school charm and welcoming interior.  Obviously, the formula works and appeals to many, judging from the approximately fourty minute wait we had to endure to get a table for four on a Friday evening.  For me, its the open robata that makes Aki so appealing and me nostalgic for my past experiences in Tokyo’s izakaya.

Down to good eats.  The tamagoyaki (grilled egg) was a touch on the sweet side, perhaps it was just a cook in the kitchen who added too much mirin and sugar this time around, but it was nicely formed with its delicate layers.  The yakisoba (fried noodles) is a timeless dish and Aki’s variety is right on with the home-style feel to it, no pretentious special ingredients included.  The grilled asparagus right off the robata, giving it its mouth watering charred scent and flavour, cut up into bite size pieces.

The stomach-filling udon was a very basic interpretation with a mild flavoured broth.  Our only deep fried dish on the night was  a plate of tebasaki (chicken wings) karaage, which had a delicious crispy coating but the meat remained moist and tender inside.  The o-chazuke (rice with dashi) was well done and quite a bit in terms of volume, as I was half expecting a more delicately proportioned amount.  And from the grill, a few skewers of chicken tsukune (minced meat), which were done in a sweet, rich teriyaki sauce.

You may have noticed the lack of raw dishes in the images and commentary above.  I know there are sashimi and maki (rolls) on the menu, but for me, Aki is not the place for that and I stick to the kitchen and robata.  Just a personal preference is all.

The boisterous, sometimes smokey (if you sit at the bar) and energetic atmosphere coupled with the honest, tasty and no-frills presentation make Aki one of my favourite spots downtown to relax with good friends.  I thought now would be as good a time as any to spread the word about this place – for those of you who have never been – as I’ve kind of kept it under wraps til now, but have noticed its been harder and harder to just show up and get a table without a reservation.

Other recent izakaya related posts…
CoCoLo (Vancouver, BC)
X-talk: izakaya reflections
Manzo (Richmond, BC)
Kakurenbou (Vancouver, BC)

Aki Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

17 thoughts on “Aki Japanese Restaurant – Vancouver, BC

    • I’ve only ever had it in Alberta, in Calgary, at Blowfish when Chef Mitsuno was still there and had it on his ‘secret menu’ if you asked about it. It was superb!

  1. Aki used to be on Powell St by Oppenheimer Park. It was and still is frequented by Japanese ex-pats (eg JAL employees – often still in their work attire). Across the street from this old location was The Japanese Deli – probably where many people in Vancouver tried their first sushi…hoping to catch a glimpse of a young Johnny Depp who was filming 21 Jump Street in this area. (He frequented the Japanese Deli – he ate there almost daily).

    I haven’t been to Aki in almost two years now – I really must rectify this. I used to work on Thurlow St and I ate at Aki once or twice a week for a number of years. I love to sit up by the robata bar and watch the cooks in action.

    • Good to know the history, the Powell Street connection definitely makes sense given the pre-war history of this community before it completely disappeared after internment.

      • It was a pretty funky old place. It definitely didn’t feel like you were still in Vancouver when you entered the doors. This, of course, was way before the Guus, Hapa, et al. normalized the Japanese-style izakaya dining in Vancouver. I was also incredibly smokey – from both the robata and the chain smoking Japanese ex-pats.

        I’m trying to recall exactly when they moved to Thurlow St. I remember going to the Thurlow St location for the first time about 12-15 years ago(??) (I worked in the building that had Raku – the first place that actually called itself an izakaya in Vancouver. It eventually became Guu). It is possible that Aki had the two locations operating concurrently for a while. It’s all pretty fuzzy now.

        • Another thing – there was an elderly itamae – Hirotada, I believe was his name IIRC – who was the man behind the coals. Long shot – but do you happen to know if he is still there? I didn’t see him in your pics. Come to think of it, he must have retired by now. He said he wanted to go back home to Japan to retire.

        • I remember Raku too!

          The two men in the “pit” as shown in the image above were the only two working on that night at the grill. I think the older one was in his fifties, perhaps too young to be this master you are referring to?

  2. shokutsu, thanks for blogging about this place. Since I work in Downtown, I have walked past by hundred of times but never considered it – though there is a reason why: a really bad experience in Samba years ago. As a result, I have avoided that area as much as I can. I guess I shouldn’t have. Now, if I can only get some volunteers…

    • Glad to have created a spark to try out a place you pass by but haven’t ventured into yet. I guess that’s what makes the local blogging community so great, a view into places that you’d never think of going to until you read and see about it online. 🙂

  3. I’m so thrilled to find out that Aki is still around. We used to go to the Powell Street location when I was a kid and I thought it was closed for good. I used to order Beef Butter Yaki every time I went – I hope it’s still on the menu!

    • Nice to hear another old school patron of Aki’s is still around. Perhaps you can check out their current location and let us know how is compares to your memories of the Powell place?

  4. Aki memories here too — I haven’t been since they moved but do remember the old restaurant well. Seems to me it was one of only a couple of Japanese restos there for a while. The other one I remember was Koko on Hastings. I read this post today because I’m attending an event at Aki on August 10 and was wondering what the blogosphere had to say about it.

    • Thanks for stopping by grayelf, see you on the CH boards often. 🙂 Its good to know others have been around town long enough to know Aki in its formative days. Stop by again and let us know what you had and your experience later this month…

  5. Oh how fondly I remember the Aki on Powell, we used to go at 5:00pm that is when they opened otherwise we couldn’t get in at all without reservations. Mama San used to go around with an empty glass from room to room looking for her favorite scotch. It didn’t have a liquor license in those days, so we all brought our own.
    I have moved from Vancouver to the Gulf Islands and the only thing I really miss is the AKI Restaurant.

    • Thanks Tug for that personal anecdote from the days of the original Aki. Seems there are quite a few folks who remember its early days, appreciate the memory, can picture the scene vividly in my mind. 🙂

      On an aside, do you have any eating recommendations to share from the Gulf Islands that we (and our readers) should keep in mind for the next time we’re there? I’m there in the spring/summer buzzing around in my boat, relaxing and doing some fishing around Gabriola, Galiano and Salt Spring mainly, and really need to dock and get onto the land. 🙂

  6. The “new” Aki is a funky room for sure. Very smokey, but luckily we had one of the tatami rooms which was a bit clearer. Overall not blown away by the stuff we ordered (the tsukune was not good at all, mealy and too big I thought) but the grilled Spanish mackerel was tasty, and the onigiri one of the best I’ve tried.

    • Hi grayelf – having never been seated in one of those rooms, its nice to know there are other options for those that want to be away from the rest of the crowd. I didn’t experience a lot of the smokiness on my last visit but could picture it, perhaps for me though thats part of the appeal of this place. 🙂 I’d say Aki’s pretty solid, not outstanding and hope I conveyed that in my report. Its more atmosphere that drives me here, if I want something more refined (izayaka) in terms of the food, there are certainly other places in town. I know some folks who aren’t thrilled with grilled mackerel so nice to know there are others like me out there that find it delicious.

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