Izakayas Are the New Food Trucks

Forget food trucks. The Bay Area’s latest food trend is the izakaya – they’re opening up so quickly that I can hardly keep track anymore. Not that I’m complaining. I ate at a few izakayas during my trip to Japan a couple years ago, but it wasn’t until last fall when food writer Michael Bauer wrote a review on Berkeley’s Ippuku, that Bay Area izakayas began to get on my radar.

Located just a few steps from the Downtown Berkeley BART station, Ippuku is less than a year old and prides itself on a waste-not-want-not ethos when it comes to ingredients, and a shochu menu unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I met my cousins there one evening for dinner, and was immediately impressed with the inviting atmosphere the proprietors have created amid the concrete walls and intimate booths.

We started with a flight of shochu while we checked out the offal-friendly and chicken-centric menu. It must have been a busy night, because Ippuku was out of every single offal-based item on the menu that we were interested in. Hearts, gizzards, necks, tongues, everything. Apparently you have to show up early to get the good stuff. Our very friendly and informed waiter made some alternative suggestions for us, and we started with the chicken gyoza.

Relegated to the frozen food aisle, gyoza have gained a bad wrap (pun unintended). But these were among the best I’ve ever had, and the dough was especially smooth and well, perfect.

Next, we had the grilled mountain yam, which can be hard to find. I’d never tried mountain yam before, and it was light and crunchy, but not very flavorful. I thought of this dish as a palate cleanser.

The chicken wing yakitori came next, which was my favorite of the chicken dishes we shared that evening. Wings are one of my favorite cuts of chicken, and the dark, flavorful meat was so satisfying.

We tried the nori-wrapped grilled mochi next. The mochi itself was flavored very sparingly, so the nori was where it was really at. I would have liked more seasoning on the mochi itself (shoyu perhaps?) but the chewy, sticky texture was fun.

Then came the chicken thigh yakitori wrapped in chicken skin. This tasted pretty similar to the wings, but I appreciated the creative twist on making sure to use every bit of chicken.

Our favorite savory dish of the meal was the raw duck on a bed of miso and green onions. Maybe it was the beautiful presentation, or maybe it was the interactiveness of mixing the raw duck at the table to make sure the coals didn’t burn the meat, but honestly I think it had to do more with the taste. The salty sauce was incredible, and I love duck, so this dish was a winner.

We ended our meal with a bowl of ume ice cream, which was perhaps the most surprising dish of all. I love pickled and sour foods like ume, but the vanilla ice cream and pickled plum combination was a little too sweet and a little too vinegared at the same time for my taste. I love the idea though.
I’ve been meaning to return to Ippuku since they were out of most of the dishes I was meaning to try, but even with that disappointment, their menu and service was solid. Next time, though, I’ll make sure to arrive extra early.

Mariam Hosseini is a Bay Area native who has been writing about food and travel for seven years.  She blogs regularly at yogurtsoda.com.

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