Suika – Vancouver, BC

1626 W Broadway
Vancouver, BC
(604) 730-1678

Generally in life, I abhor queues and lineups.  Chalk it up to immaturity or impatience.  But mainly I hate wasting time doing nothing. That and I have a very short attention span.

So when I spot new places in and around town, I’m often torn about when to go and check them out.  When I first saw Suika open its doors during its first week, I had noted that I should go early and beat the crowds that would no doubt be keen on exploring the menu of an izakaya setup that was not located in the downtown core.  Quite refreshing for that aspect alone and with the pedigree of its Kingyo backing, the word of mouth was sure to spread like wildfire.  Looking back at the year that has passed, its clear that’s exactly what has happened.  Good on them I say.

So recently I finally made my virgin pilgrimage to their busy West Broadway location, even managing to squeeze into a table just at opening and avoiding the need to have had a reservation.  I should clarify.  I have been here a few times before attempting the “let’s get a table on a busy night and hope for the best” approach, only to get turned away at the door by one of the friendly staffers.  The chillier weather, a light rain, I think contributed to my favorable venture this time, although by thirty minutes after opening, the place was pretty much filled to capacity.

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Hapa Izakaya – Vancouver, BC

Hapa Izakaya (Robson)
1479 Robson St Map
Vancouver, BC
(604) 689-4272

Clearly, with all of the attention this long standing location has received over the years in local publications as well as by online bloggers, it would perhaps seem strange to some that there has not been a post made here on foodosophy, despite our group’s well known love for the izakaya genre.

I cannot attest to the experience of the other contributors here, but personally, I must have passed by the front of this business 20~30 times over the last several years.  And among these, I can only recall stepping inside to check out the scene and/or consider dining inside, mainly out of curiosity, a handful of times.  Its just never really struck me as a place I need to check off my dining list.  For whatever reason.

Further, I can count on one hand the number of occasions when I made my mind up to really taste the food/sample the drinks here, but decided to turn around after some very spotty service – mainly the lack of attention from any of the staff upon stepping inside and vocally/visually making signs that I wanted to be seated.  I can clearly recall this happening at least three times now.  And on this last visit, it happened again.

But we stuck around trying to get someone to see us waiting, going beyond my usual patience level.  Even flagging down one of the wait staff and being told she’d be back, only to be ignored again.  After literally grabbing the next girl that came near us and demanding we get a table (there were several open), we were finally seated.

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Zakkushi – Vancouver, BC

Zakkushi Charcoal Grill
4075 Main Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 874-9455

As the boom in interest for the izakaya genre exploded in recent years on the Canadian west coast, there were a few that stood out for me in terms of offering something that I strongly felt would appeal to the local market and tastes.  Zakkushi was on the top of this list, especially when you consider their base premise is something that North Americans can relate to – that being charcoal barbecue and grilled meat-on-a-stick.  For the newbie, it is a lot more understandable and palatable than say someone just getting introduced to say sushi for the very first time as their initial foray into Japanese cuisine.

So it was quite fitting that I visited the Main Street (one of three outlets of this business that is fast becoming a growing chain) with a friend of mine who self-admittedly noted that he didn’t grow up with a lot of “ethnic” food in his parents’ home in rural Saskatchewan, and even today, his folks aren’t that adventurous but he’s learning to branch out his eating repertoire now that he’s based in Vancouver.  I thought I’d try and shock his system by introducing to him something that I was positive he would find odd and wonder why anyone would want to eat it.

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Guu With Garlic – Vancouver, BC

Guu With Garlic
1698 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 685-8678

It would seem I’m slowly making my way to checking out all those izakaya that I’ve heard about the past five years or so that I’ve subconsciously been avoiding deliberately since I perhaps harbor some  bias in that I will no doubt mentally compare them to all the great ones I’ve been to in Japan.  Alas, Guu seems to have won me over as I’ve now been to several of their stations and will perhaps make my rounds to them all one day.  This particular visit was the back end of a night out with an old friend visiting Vancouver for a short business trip.  In reality in keeping with true Japanese salaryman tradition, we should have reversed the order, but oh well.

Immediately after our hearty meal, I’m surprised we were able to down a short but steady stream of nama beeruAsahi was the pick on this evening.  A visit to an izakaya just wouldn’t be the same without some cold ones, so once again, glancing over the the folks seated at the counter bar with us who were just drinking water just made me shake my head.  Its like dressing up to go to the ball, but not engaging in any dancing, I just don’t understand.   🙂

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Gyoza King – Vancouver, BC

Gyoza King
1508 Robson Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 669-8278

Again, as noted in yesterday’s update, my full attention was not paid to this dining experience, as I was there mainly re-hashing old times with a friend that I had not seen in over a decade. Hence this post will be brief. My other visits to this perpetual favorite of Robson Street’s eating scene were a while ago now, so my memories of even past meals are faded. Alas, I guess this means I need to make another trip to Gyoza King in the future and really flush out how I feel about this place.  Foodospher, you coming for a Vancouver visit anytime soon? 🙂

Some other dishes were ordered by the “third wheel” at our table as she was less inclined to want to listen to old stories of our drunken youth, but I only shot this solo shot (with my cell phone to boot) of a ten-plate of genso gyoza, just so I’d have something on the record.  Of course, the cold bottles of Asahi kept flowing.  I must say the thing that first and foremost stands out for me of Gyoza King’s gyoza is how tight the skins are and well packed the inside ingredients are but without bursting at the seams.

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Guu – Vancouver, BC

838 Thurlow Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 685-8817

In the past, I’ve touched on various reasons why despite the surge of popularity (which is a good thing) and the burgeoning mainstream acceptance of this concept of Japanese drinking-dining in Vancouver that I don’t regularly frequent them, in particular the better known ones that have been exposed in major media outlets.  I won’t rehash them all here for the sake of brevity and for not sounding like a broken record.  And let me add that it is just my personal feel and thoughts on this topic, not to say they shouldn’t be enjoyed by everyone out there and I’d ask you continue to support the businesses out there that serve this transplanted, albeit North Americanized-style of going out on the town.

So when an old friend and his colleague visiting from the east coast (Washington, DC in fact) that I hadn’t seen in over 12 years let me know he’d be making a short business trip to our fair city on the other side of the continent and would be housed up in a hotel not far from Robson Street, he asked me to give him some ideas of where to eat while in town.  Better yet, he wondered if there were any Japanese places that could help us relieve our brief time together spent in Tokyo oh those many years ago.  That instantly brought back some flashbacks of too many crazy nights in the local izakaya around our flat, and the mad dashes to catch the last train home when we ventured a bit further out for some binge-focused evenings of drinking and eating.  Ah, to be young again.

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Nan Chuu – Richmond, BC

Nan Chuu Japanese Izakaya
1160-8391 Alexandra Road
Richmond, BC
(604) 276-8391

Its been a while since this visit to Richmond actually took place, but as with many restaurant experiences, something that happened remains strongly ingrained in my memory that I just can’t shake and its what I’ve come to associate with Nan Chuu as a result.  Marketing and branding experts would call this a touch point or moment of truth – when a customer comes into contact with any dimension of the restaurant and something is noticed, assessed and interpreted about the enterprise.  For me on this particular weekday evening (incidentally not too early or late enough to avoid the horribly inadequate parking situation near this part of town), it was the a flurry of awkward service interactions that disrupted the enjoyment of an otherwise decent array of dishes sampled. 

It stemmed from an apparent lack of training or preparedness on the part of both the experienced Japanese-speaking veteran servers and those who clearly had no idea what a waitress is supposed to do.  The language barrier between the Japanese and Chinese speaking staff was apparent to me.  From what I could overhear from the obvious floor manager/lead wait staff member, there was also a new girl who had recently come to BC after a working-holiday stint in one of Banff’s better known Japanese restaurants.  She seemed to know what she was doing from the get-go, but was getting some finer tips from her team lead.  There were two other girls who looked identical to eat other with their dark colored hipster glasses and long dark hair, and my guess would have put them at barely being legal to serve alcoholic beverages.

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Guu in Aberdeen – Richmond, BC

Guu in Aberdeen
4151 Hazelbridge Way
Richmond, BC
(604) 295-6612

I’ve come out and said it before but my personal desire to explore the full realm of the Vancouver izakaya scene is not exactly the strongest.  Again, its not that they are bad or a terrible bastardization of this unique genre of dining out found in Japan, but that the context is lost on me and my memories of many izakaya outings overseas has ruined me and thus nothing will ever compare.  I’m sure I’d say the same for other specific segments of popular national food from around the globe if I had the similar depth and breadth of experience such as say in the diverse Liguria regional cuisine of Italy or the so called ‘rainbow cuisine’ that is reputed to be available in Southern Africa.  Any transplanted replica outside of those regions would just seem, well, how can I put it… “off”?

I suppose I should relax this hesitation I feel whenever I hear the names of well known joints such as Hapa, Kingyo, and so on.  Believe me I’ve tried.  And a pair of visits to the Guu chain should be proof that I’m not all that stubborn in my beliefs.  This particular post is about the Aberdeen location, found in that shopping mall in Richmond best known for drivers in the parking lot who feel that there is nothing wrong with holding up a long line of cars just to secure a precious parking spot near one of the mall entrances.

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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).

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CoCoLo – Vancouver, BC

CoCoLo Japanese Casual Dining & Sake Bar
#202 – 1926 West 4th Avenue
Vancouver, BC
(604) 732 4676

So with all of that in mind, I cannot even rationalize why it was me, who boldly suggested to an acquaintance that we venture out to what I’d heard was yet another place riding the izakaya wave.

Figuring to keep up with the local way of experiencing an izakaya, I went with the mindset that I would eat more than drink.  But in the end, we did put down a few bottles of Asahi, so all was not lost.

Located across the street but on almost the same block as the excellent Zakkushi, and next door to the highly lauded and recently opened Maenam, is CoCoLo – which bills itself as Japanese casual dining plus sake bar. Open since the early part of June, CoCoLo took over the long standing Kitsilano institution for high end sushi, Shijo.  After apparently shifting to new management in 2008, the apparent decline in food quality and business lead to an unfortunate end to their operations.

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Foodosophy of Izakaya – personal reflections

[The following is part commentary and part personal reflection on a specific dining out genre.  All thoughts and opinions are solely mine (shokutsu).  It is followed immediately by a related post.]

Although we’ve covered many visits to restaurants in the greater Vancouver area, some of you may have been aware and perhaps wondering, why the limited coverage of izakaya [inserting pet peeve here: please people and writers, don’t pluralize this word]?  Other than Manzo (in Richmond) and Kakurenbou (downtown Vancouver) which could fall into this Japanese genre, discussion to this point on what is a popular segment of the dine-out scene here on the west coast and often a source of envy from North American diners outside Vancouver, have been few and far between…

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Manzo Japanese Restaurant (Itamae) – Richmond, BC

Manzo Japanese Restaurant (Itamae)
120-9020 Capstan Way
Richmond, BC
(604) 821 9834

Manzo Japanese Restaurant (Itamae) on Urbanspoon

What’s in a Name?   An oft repeated phrase, but one that always comes to mind when I recognize something familiar (or unfamiliar) in the facade of an establishment.  And with ethnic restaurants, the deployment of some investigative action or fact checking research usually comes into play as a result…

When I first laid eyes on the “Manzo” lettering on a random drive past this building, and then saw the “Japanese Restaurant” noted below it, I thought how odd.  Isn’t Manzo (and perhaps the occasional Foodosophy commenter of the same name can confirm) an Italian surname?  I know I’ve come across it being attached to pizzerias in other cities.

Then I remembered that its also an old (eg. in that no mother would use it anymore to name their child) male given name used in Japan.  In fact, history recalls that the first Japanese to be documented to have arrived in Canada was a man with that first name.

Another part of me wondered if they were using part of the word, “manzoku“, which would mean “satisfied”, and can be used to describe how one feels after having a wonderful meal.

Not knowing the ownership group involved, this is all speculation.

And whoever it is, its clear they were not adverse to spending a good chunk of change on the interior aesthetics.  I’d even suggest that they have taken some cues from the likes of the Japanese izakaya chains such as Tsuki No Shizuka or Wan, with their use of wood paneling, dim lighting, and overt displaying of large sake bottles.  Although it did not incorporate the high value and historically significant authentic elements of Kakurenbou, overall it was still visually appealing and contributed to the relaxing and quiet mood we had that evening.

As I lament the great izakaya that I’ve left behind in Tokyo, I must say that the best for kushiyaki (or more specifically yakitori) in Vancouver still remains, at least for me, Zakkushi on 4th.  But despite this, I was interested in trying the offerings here, and with a willing and able dinner partner, I selected some of my old standbys.

And that means, none of the usual Canadian-friendly yakitori suspects like negima (breast meat and green onions), tsukune (minced meat), or tebasaki (chicken wings).  Nope for me, a good yakitori-ya must have the likes of  gyutan (beef tongue), sunagimo (chicken gizzard), hatsu (chicken heart), and even nankotsu (chicken cartilage)!

A recap of some of these pictured selections would be that the beef tongue ($6.95) was nicely grilled, not overly so that it would entirely lose its chewy texture.  It could have used some more salt, though the dash of acid from the lemon did give it the required punch.

The hearts ($3.95) were a big disappointment.  To the unknowing eye, they might have slipped it by, but they should not have been sliced in half thus revealing the two chambers, and trying to spread things thinner than they should be.  The key part of these kinds of parts is the texture and without the plump morsel intact, it lost its luster.

Lastly, the sunagimo ($4.95) was simply okay, not a complete bastardization like the gizzards were, but again under seasoned.  Texture-wise it is a bit stringier than the hatsu, so its often a case of which you prefer – the more velvety smoothness of the hatsu, or the jaw-ache inducing “toughness” of the gizzards.

Shifting to the seafood portion of the menu, the Ayu Shioyaki ($6.95) was again properly grilled and the quality was reasonable.  Being a fish with less fat than other popular salt grilled fish, the meat texture held up through the cooking process, and the flavor suggested it was fresh.  I think we could have easily stomached a pair of these, I should have remembered that the Ayu is generally on the smaller size compared to Sanma (pike mackerel).

The highlight of our dinner (and the most expensive at $24.95) was easily the above pictured Aji Sashimi.  When we spotted it in the menu booklet, it just stood out.  I just don’t see it on many other menus around town, perhaps I am just looking in the wrong places?  Being a year-round fish that remains in season, I do hope Manzo continues to keep it on their menu, as I’ll definitely be back for this refreshing, light fish with its distinctive flavor.  Coupled with the freshly grated ginger and green onions, it really is fantastic.  For those who are unfamiliar with this, I suggest you try it out.

To our surprise, our server inquired if we wanted to have the bones of our Aji, deep fried.  With an elated smile on my face, I replied why not.  I think I was taken back by his suggestion, but really pleased that he offered to do this.  A few minutes later they came back, with a crispy coating and salted.   I know many of you might cringe at this, but the brittle bones that result are a great tasty treat.  No better way to get your calcium intake either. (SMILE)

To close our our meal, the traditional zousui (a chicken one, they had others) is basically a rice porridge that is made from a dashi broth, although in this case, there was something “off” about the flavor combination.  I felt it had a thicker consistency than it should have and the dashi didn’t taste right.  I’m not sure what their base broth is (perhaps they use it in their udon dishes, etc.) but I was not entirely happy with it.  Thus regrettably, the closer was a let down, but we were both quite full by this point.

With an extensive menu of typical small plates found in an izakaya, I think there are some others that I am interested in trying, and given the comfortable mood of this place, I think I will make an effort to come back.  If not just for the Aji.  Perhaps its my advancing age that is making me stray away from the boisterous izakaya scene that the likes of Guu provides, but I did find I welcomed the relative peace and quiet of Manzo.  But I do realize that the noise and confusion of an izakaya is also a key ingredient to making them so fun with friends.

Manzo Japanese Restaurant (Itamae) on Urbanspoon

Kakurenbou Japanese Dining – Vancouver, BC

Over the past year, I’d seen online postings announcing openings for staff at this restaurant last fall and also this spring, so I was aware that something was in the works for a while, but never quite sure when the doors would actually open.  Kakurebou Japanese Dining is another addition to the increasingly crowded izakaya scene on Robson Street, and opened at the end of June.  Two months have passed which I thought was ample time to allow them to work out any growing pains with the menu and service, and thus made my first visit only recently.  Incidentally, Kakurenbo means Hide-and-Seek in Japanese, though the characters they use on their signage is not the same as for this children’s game.

The Japanese owners are reputed to have brought over seven hundred year old wooden pillars and beams, used in traditional Japanese homes and buildings, as well as a partial Japanese-style roof structure made up of interlocking clay-plate shingles (that are often seen on rooftops of temples in Japan) to create the overall aesthetic.  It is certainly a visually appealing design for an izakaya, I’ve probably seen a few like it in Tokyo, that also used ancient wood within modern buildings to emphasize traditional “Japanese-ness”.  The main entrance way sits next to a counter bar on the right, which apparently is used as a waiting area as well.

From there, customers file past the open kitchen on the left before reaching the open seating area filled with dark brown wooden table seating  It was a conservative use of the limited physical space as the designer did not feel the need to make it feel incredibly cramped amd fill in as many seats (max. 70) as possible, compared to other izakaya in the area such as Guu (which is a more casual izakaya setting).   As such, this place probably will appeal to a maturer crowd, is more date friendly, and a place where conversations don’t have to be held at a near-yell.  The main back wall was turned into a piece of art, made of a layer of concrete into which a willow tree was engraved, as well as a section that had the front panels of a traditional lacquered Japanese cabinet.

Knowing our stop here was more exploratory in nature, my table of friends ordered some drinks to start off, with the choices being draft beer (Saporro, $6), some freshly squeezed fruit-based cocktails ($6.50), Shotsu-based cocktail ($7) and Umeshu ($4.50 for 1 ounce).  I checked out the Nihonshu/Shochu list, there was probably about ten choices, including a good, easy-to-drink selection in the Kubota Senju (from Niigata, rice, dry).  Also noteworthy was one of my personal Shochu favorites, with a wickedly fun to pronounce name, Tantakatan, which is made from Shiso leaves, and has a refreshing, light taste profile.

From the special menu, we chose the Salmon & Avocado Mille Feuille ($6.80).  Cubes of lightly seared salmon were marinated in a mayonnaise sauce along with avocado and stacked in layers between some rectangular chips to re-create the image of a Mille Feuille puff pastry, and garnished with some carrots.  One of my friends noted that there was a fishy scent to the salmon, suggesting it was bad, and I did pick up on this as well.  Not a good start to our sampling trial.

The regular menu booklet was nicely laid out, with visual images of each dish beside a description of the dish.  From this, we chose the Toro Katsu ($10.80), that came with a side salad of greens, some deep fried potato chips, and a soy dipping sauce.  The tuna had an outer crust with a thin layer of breading that had mixed in with it some ground up leaves or herbs giving it a slight scent.  This dish received some good praise from our table, but I found it nothing spectacular.

Lastly, we ordered a five-piece skewer set of Chicken Tsukune ($13).  The volume here was pretty good, as once each meat-on-a-stick was cut up into bite size pieces, there was more than enough for the four of us.  Each one had a different flavor component: plain, a spicy ketchup, a yuzu mustard, shichimi togarashi (seven flavor chili pepper), and teriyaki.  While the condiment on each created a different flavor combination, the chicken itself was identical on each stick.  The meat was tasty however, nicely seasoned with a crunchy exterior.  For someone who loves variety, the same-ness of the meat itself perhaps got tiring even after a sample of each of the five flavorings – a mixed yakitori set would be trumped this easily.  But overall, still a tasty dish.

As one would expect, the prices probably reflect the investment made to design the room.  In general, most customers will probably come away thinking that the “bang for the buck” is lacking.  Portion sizes are more controlled, drinks are priced a rank higher, etc.  It has always been my feeling that prices charged in Japanese izakaya here in Vancouver are high, relative to the same in Japan.  I know that probably sounds surprising, but my friends from Japan also always make that comment, and before heading to any izakaya in town, a meal at home or at a less expensive and more filling place is a prerequisite before going to one later for the main purpose of drinking.  I think its more of a psychological thing or perhaps I just reserve my izakaya experiences for when I travel to Japan, not really sure.  Lastly, the mindset of the drinking side of going to an izakaya being the priority, rather than the eating aspect, comes into play.  Just as they say in western cultures that wine is meant to complement the food, in Japan, food is meant to complement the sake (Nihonshu).  In this respect, I think Kakurenbou still has some tweaking to do, to match up to what appears to be a limited but decent Nihonshu/Shochu list.

Kakurenbou Japanese Dining
793 Jervis Street
Vancouver, BC
Tel: (604) 696-9965
Hours: Mon to Sun, 5:30pm to midnight

Kakurenbou Japanese Dining on Urbanspoon