Monday, March 26, 2012

Late Night Booze with a Side of Food

Grilled Squid Tentacles, Kasadela
If I told you we were headed to a drinking establishment that has food, you’d probably be thinking there was a night of Bud Light and chicken wings in front of you. This would be a reasonable assumption in many parts of this country but not if I was taking you out for izakaya.   

If the Japanese know how to eat, they also know how to drink.  So much so in fact they devote an entire genre of restaurant to drinking and the foods designed to snack on while throwing back a Sapporo.

Lucky for us on this side of the Pacific, Japanese transplants have done a good job of setting up shop in cities across the US.  And where there are Japanese people looking to drink, you are sure to find an izakaya restaurant. 

In Portland, Oregon, there is no question what you are in for at Tanuki.  “No Sushi, No Kids” is the rule at this dark, often loud, cubby of a restaurant.  Small plates are served alongside large beers and flowing sake.  For the truly adventurous, the chef offers omakase- just like in sushi, you sit back and let the restaurant pick your food.  My brother, Paul, would do this frequently during a period when he was traveling to Portland for work.  Going there myself around the same time, I found much of the food to be a tad salty for my taste- soy sauce, miso, seaweed, salted plum, are used liberally.  “But all the better for drinking,” said Paul.  He has a point.

In Vegas later that year with both my brothers in tow, I had hoped to take them to one of my favorite off-strip spots to eat: the chic and spectacular Abriya Raku.  Sadly, arriving at the restaurant at 11:30 pm we were told there would be an hour wait.  When we asked for suggestions on where else to eat, the Japanese waiters at Raku directed us to Ichiza Sake House, the staff’s choice for after work drinking.  On the second floor of a strip mall on Spring Mountain Road, Ichiza was overly lit and rocking at midnight, tables crammed with dozens of people and even more drinks.  The menu at Ichiza doubles as wallpaper. Apparently the rotating list of special small plates is too many to commit a standard menu, instead they are handwritten in English and Japanese and pinned to every inch of available wall space.  From what I remember, we drank well and ate a bit too- fried rice, dumplings, a strange jellyfish salad- all for about the price of a shrimp cocktail and a martini on The Strip.

A couple of weeks ago, Paul and I yet again were in search of late night booze with a side of food, this time in New York City.  On the recommendation of our cousin, we headed deep into Alphabet City to Kasadela.  Maybe it was the remote location, but the atmosphere was a bit more serene than past izakaya outings.  That being said, a table of Japanese patrons with large bottles of Kirin and liters of sake confirmed that the priorities of Kasadela still lay firmly on the bar side of the restaurant.  Shishito peppers were deliciously charred and nicely salted if not quite as many as our appetite demanded.  Fried chicken came soggy but a pork belly and kimchi special as well as a plate of grilled squid legs satisfied, particularly alongside a Kirin Ichiban and a carafe of dry Junmai Gingo. 

Overall, the food at izakaya restaurants I’ve patronized Stateside has a record often brilliant and sometimes just meh.  But then again, that is not really the point is it?  As long as the beer and sake keep appearing, a plate of expertly fried rice and maybe a handful of grilled shishito peppers is really all you need.  At least, I’ll take that over Bud Light and chicken wings any day. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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