When I was talking to my sister last Monday in NYC (wow, was that really just LAST Monday?), we discovered how Canadians really seem to have an affinity for Izakayas. Izakaya, which literally translates to 'Stay Drink Store', is the Japanese equivalent of a pub or a sports bar (sans sports). Apparently, there are multiple izakayas in many of the Canadian cities with a quality and quantity representation that far exceeds US cities of equivalent size. The Uchipu's Canadian husband also has a high affinity for izakayas, and she thinks Canadians are more prone to enjoying any kind of food made to match beer. And match beer it does. Izakaya food does not go with wine. It goes with beer and it's excellent with sake.
In the Bay Area, we are fortunate to have two wonderful izakaya establishments (several if you count the Saratoga Tanto and Sunnyvale Tanto as separate establishments) in the South Bay - Saizo and Tanto. Although Saizo and Tanto are equally delicious, they have slightly different styles and strengths. Since Saizo was started by someone who used to cook at Tanto, I will be honoring Tanto today as my very first izakaya post.
It's actually surprising that I haven't done an izakaya post yet, since I love izakaya food very much - so much that I pretty much exclusively frequented izakayas on my first year and a half in the Bay Area, refusing to explore much of any other cuisine until I got my fill of izakaya dishs. But to tell you the truth, ever since I quit drinking, izakayas just haven't been the same. These dishes are really made to complement sake and beer, and in the absence of these drinks to wash it down with, the flavors are often too salty or too oily for me these days...
Still, I consider Tanto to be one of the best examples of how versatile Japanese cooking is. Tanto's food could very well be served in one of the posh izakayas in Japan, where college students and young professionals congregate and meet up for after-work drinks. Tanto's food has enough variety to please the middle-aged businessmen, more crudely known as 'oyaji'. There are more traditional plates, like grilled whole fish, along side adventurous interpretations of classics - such as this lotus tempura stuffed with shrimp paste.
It's easy for dinner bills at Tanto to be a bit on the expensive side, but a meal around $35-40 per person with a few beers included can be done. Making good use of rich dishes is a technique long cultivated in Japan by college students who want to dine on the dime. Tanto offers a number of cheesy dishes with various vegetable bases. These are great for filling up while keeping the costs under control. Although Tanto also has an impressive selection of fried dishes, these tend to be smaller portions and don't really contribute to the overall full-ness effect as much.
We, Japanese, like to finish our meals with carbonhydrates, and Tanto's grilled rice balls (yaki onigiri) is one of my top recommendations for this purpose. Crunchy on the outisde and soft on the inside, topped with my favorite, ikura, this dish ranks very high on my 'Best of the Bay' list, even in my post-drinking present stage...
...Sometimes, only sometimes, I do miss those rowdy drunken evenings full of the synergistic enjoyment of alcohol and food!