How to Izakaya
Izakaya dining, for me, is one of the most enjoyable experiences I can have in a restaurant or bar or tavern. Essentially an izakaya is a Japanese tavern. But it’s also Japanese tapas. And it’s a Japanese gastropub. So perhaps the way to think of an izakaya is as a Japanese gastro-tapas-pub. Don’t plan on having a 45 minute meal before a movie. Don’t plan on going and having a starter, a main, and a dessert. Go planning on having a long, lingering meal over good drinks and better conversation with a group of great friends. Make an evening of it. Once you’re in that mindset the rest is easy.
There is a bifurcation here though. Some people, me included, like to tuck into an izakaya for the night. It’s possible, after a 3 or 4 hour meal that we’ll head to another late night izakaya for “one more” before heading home. Of course, one more can turn into three more so be careful. Others prefer to izakaya hop. Hit your first one for a quick drink and snack to get the night started. Head to another for something else. And perhaps a third or forth or fifth destination before calling it a night. This can be fun too, but I prefer the first approach. I love the feeling of sitting in someone’s dining room, making conversation, no sense of movement. Just bliss. It’s really relaxing. But by all means try out an izakaya crawl and see how it suits your fancy. I’m much more likely to do this when I’m out of town and hope to hit as many izakayas in the destination city as I can. In my home town of New York, I’ll stay put for the evening. I can always go to the next place next time.
Eating at an izakaya can be an intimidating experience. Even when the waitress speaks good English the menu can be overwhelming. Some places make it easy on you by having a short menu, but most have extensive menus with specials pages as long as many menus in Western restaurants. Asking for suggestions is not always helpful since Japanese waitstaff expect Westerners to want what other Westerners have enjoyed. Usually this amounts to yakisoba or kara age (fried chicken). They’re delicious dishes, but if you eat those two things every time you go to an izakaya you’re missing out on a plethora of extremely interesting dining options.
Most izakayas have sushi, but this isn’t what they’re known for. This seems to be why Yelp reviews are almost resoundingly tepid for izakayas that carry sushi. American diners expecting a sushi joint will be disappointed. There’s almost never a sushi counter. The sushi, while fresh and well prepared, is never going to be amazing compared to the sushi you’ll find at a restaurant dedicated to raw fish. Izakayas that forego sushi seem to be better reviewed, because customers go there knowing they’re not getting a sushi dinner. But sticking with sushi, this is a great way to start your izakaya dinner.
The basics of izakaya dining are really pretty simple. The first thing you do is order a beer. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t planning on drinking beer for the evening. Have “a beer in the meantime” to give your waitress something to do while you peruse the menu. If you’re going to stick with beer then your job for drinks is done. If not, you should peruse the shochu or sake (nihon-shu) list to decide what you’ll be drinking next. She may expect you to know when she returns with your beers.
The first decision you have to make it whether to order a bottle or go by the glass. Before you decide, ask the waitress if they have bottle keep (more on this later). The bottle is always more cost effective, but you may not want to commit to a single type. You may want to pair your sake or shochu with your dishes as you order. Or you may just want to try different kinds. If you’re a relative novice to by-the-glass isn’t a bad way to go since it lets you try more varieties in a single evening. However, if you’re planning on drinking a fair amount you may be setting yourself up for pain the next day. In my experience sticking with a single shochu all night is much less likely to result in a hangover than moving around the menu (or mixing in some sake) will do.
Once you’ve picked a booze, turn to the food menu. If the waitress is back with your beer and you haven’t decided on anything, don’t worry. Put her to work with your bottle or glass shochu/nihon-shu selection and ask for an order of edamame. While it’s ubiquitous in every Japanese restaurant in the U.S., it’s also a legitimate and authentic Japanese drinking snack. That should keep her busy for a few more minutes while you enjoy your beer and pick a few more dishes.
Here’s where things get interesting.
Izakaya menus usually have something for everyone. You could visit the same place every night for a week and not repeat a dish. But you’ll also likely have your favorites and have some sense of what you’re in the mood for. If part of that is sushi, you’d best order it at the beginning of the meal. Sushi is a light, delicate dish compared to most other izakaya food and if you order it later your tastebuds will likely be dulled by the alcohol or overwhelmed by the more richly flavored foods. This is the traditional way to start an izakaya meal – a plate of sushi.
Oh wait. Plan on sharing family style – think tapas. Izakayas aren’t places with dishes easily amenable to ordering as a starter and a main as western restaurants are usually organized. Basically, almost everything on the menu is a starter and the big dishes are still probably smaller than you’d expect as a main elsewhere. Go into it knowing this and you’ll be much happier. Too often I hear people complain that they liked the food, but the portions were too small as if they’d been ripped off. The portions are supposed to be small. They’re meant for a taste, not for filling you up and sending you on your way. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be there long enough to enjoy it.
By now your shochu or sake has arrived and your beer is close to empty. You may be tempted to order another, but I’d encourage you not to. Mixing beer and one of the shus all night long is a recipe for pain. But if you haven’t ordered a bottle then by all means, order another beer. And don’t forget to ask for a glass of water. Izakayas do not usually routinely provide customers with water as many Japanese customers do not drink water while also drinking alocohol (another hangover recipe).
Explore the menu. Take your time ordering. There’s no expectation that you’ll order everything at once so pick 1 or 2 or 3 dishes at a time. This is what the kitchen expects so if you order too many things at once they’ll start showing up and you won’t have room on the table. The kitchen plates it and the waitress delivers it when it’s ready. There’s no organization to the service like in a western restaurant so if you order 8 plates and they’re all finished with in a few minutes of each other you’re going to be wrangling 8 plates on your table trying to eat everything before it gets cold. So order fewer dishes at a time and consider ordering cold and hot dishes so that if they come together you can leave the cold ones until there’s a break in the action.
What to order? This is completely personal, but that’s why I said explore the menu. Nothing is too big or too expensive so if you try something and aren’t crazy about it you can either ignore it or manage to wash it down with your drink. You also might find that the different foods change the character of what you’re drinking. That’s always fun to discover.
But you may be looking for specific dishes so here are some of my favorites.
tako wasa. According to many of my Japanese friends this is an “ojisan” dish. Something only “old Japanese men” eat. In fact, when I order it in a new izakaya the waitress always does a double take. Americans tend not to order nor enjoy raw wasabi marinated octopus. But I can guarantee, it’s an absolutely perfect pairing with mugi shochu.
ei-no-hire. You’ll variously see this spelled as “ei-hire” and “ei-no-hire”, but it’s the same thing. Dried skate fin. Again, a delicious drinking snack.
oshinko. These Japanese pickles are lightly vinegared and come in a variety of unexpected kinds of vegetables. Lots of root vegetables such as daikon or carrot. Some places make it better than others, but great for a palate cleanser while drinking.
ohitashi. Cold boiled spinach in a light fish broth. It’s flash boiled so don’t expect soggy mush. Some places sprinkle it with sesame seeds, others with bonito flakes (dried fish). It’s a tasty way to get your veggies.
takoyaki. Fried octopus balls, an Osaka specialty, are actually balls of grilled batter with chopped octopus inside. They’re topped with a dark sweet/savory sauce, Japanese mayo, seasoning, and dried bonito flakes.
buta-no-kakuni. Braised pork belly is most commonly found in Southern Japan (Kyushu or Okinawa), but is popular in U.S. izakayas. The fall-off-the-bone tenderness of the braised meat and the sweet-savory sauce it’s simmered in are really a treat. This is a very rich dish, though the fat is pretty well rendered and melts in your mouth.
yakitori. Technically grilled chicken, many izakayas have grilled vegetables, mushrooms, fish, shrimp, beef, pork, duck or other meats, poultry, and seafood. You can often order it with salt (shio) or sauce. I prefer salt for most things since it’s lighter, but you may find you prefer sauce.
Order and eat your dishes at a leisurely pace. Take your time. Savor the food, drink, and conversation. If you’re reaching the point where you’re starting to feel full, or the hour is getting late, it’s time for the final course. Traditionally, Japanese diners will finish off an izakaya night with a rice or noodle dish.
ramen. This noodle soup is always fun. I prefer tonkotsu ramen, which is a slow stewed pork bone broth. Rich umami and oh so decadent. There are also soy, salt, and miso broths. Explore. Find which one you like best. Some places will also have dry ramen or even cold dry ramen in summertime.
fried rice. Always popular, if you like fried rice at Chinese restaurants it will blow you away at Japanese restaurants. Just as ramen at a restaurant is nothing like the package at the grocery store, fried rice is not fried rice. Izakayas know how to do it right.
yakisoba. Fried soba noodles. Usually have some meat or seafood in the stirfry. Always tasty.
okonomiaki. An Osaka spin on yakisoba, the soba noodles and ingredients are mixed into a pancake using eggs and starch to hold it all together. Topped with the same toppings as takoyaki.
ojatsuke (spelling may vary). This is a “tea” soup of rice and usually fish roe. The tea is actually a light fish broth. This is a great choice if you’re nearly full, but want a bit of carbs to top off the evening.
Some izakayas offer dessert as a nod to their western customers, but I’d suggest you forego this unless you’re lucky enough to find a shiso sorbet. Shiso is a Japanese herb – the leaf usually accompanies sushi arrangements and is not just for decoration. It’s a delicious relative of mint or basil, but tastes nothing like either of those. Some izakayas will house-make a shiso sorbet and it’s definitely worth trying. Absent that, I’d suggest you consider one of the more unique shochus as an alternative. My favorite dessert shochus are Akanone Ninjin (carrots), Beniotome (sesame), and Tenshi no Yuwaku (sweet potato shochu aged in sherry casks, which pairs amazingly well with shiso sorbet).
So how did you do on that bottle? Is there some left? Depending on how many people are in your party and what they’re drinking you may have found you went through several bottles, but do have some leftover. If it’s shochu, hopefully you do have some left for two reasons. First, a bottle of shochu is equivalent to two bottles of wine. And second, if they have bottle keep – most real izakayas do – you don’t have to finish it. You can leave your bottle there with your name on it and drink it next time. Sake may not keep this way unless you’re back soon since sake is not a distilled alcohol.
How was it? Are you hooked? Izakaya dining is my favorite way to pass an evening. You may find it fast becomes your favorite way too.
Please do me a favor and write about your own izakaya habits or experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear how others enjoy this unique experience.