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Eight Great Izakaya Restaurants in Vancouver

02.17.09
Irashaimase (welcome)! the staff shouts as you step through the door. Going to an izakaya, a type of Japanese pub where small tapas-like dishes are meant to be shared, is as much about atmosphere as it is about food. Here are eight of the best in town—translator not required.
hapa izakaya

At the trendy Hapa Izakaya, customers will wait an hour or more for a table (so try to call ahead of time).

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1. Guu Otokomae

Owner Yashinori Kitahara opened one of the first izakayas in Vancouver more than a decade ago. Guu (named for the sound your tummy makes when it rumbles) now has three locations, the hippest of which is in Gastown. Located on the second floor of a historic building—the décor is all dark wood floors and exposed brick walls—it attracts a diverse crowd of fashionistas, trendy parents with their kids in tow, and ESL students just arrived from across Asia, who plunge into steamed stew pork buns, black cod with miso mayo, and bowls of udon. Save room for the banana tempura. 105-375 Water St. (604-685-8682; guu-izakaya.com)

2. Toratatsu

Young chef Kodai Uno (his family owns dozens of restaurants in Tokyo) goes for a tapas-and-wine bar atmosphere instead of the raucous vibe usually associated with an izakaya; don’t expect a loud “irashaimase” when you walk through the door. The tiny space is decorated with flea market finds—traditional Japanese woven baskets, French café mirrors, and vintage wine racks—that stand out against the ketchup-red walls and leather banquettes. Like the look, the food perfectly blends traditional Japanese dishes with European influences (Uno trained at a French restaurant). Try the honeyed mascarpone tofu on baguette or the liver mousse with figs. And don’t miss the smoke-kissed duck. 735 Denman St. (604-685-9399; toratatsutapas.com)

3. Hapa Izakaya

This place is hot and the locals will wait an hour or more for a table (so be sure to reserve). At its Kitsilano location (there’s a second Hapa downtown), you walk down a few steps to a large room where the walls, ceiling, tables, and just about everything else is painted black. The music is cranked, and squeals of delight reverberate—you might as well be at some über-cool underground lounge. Start with the enoki mushrooms wrapped with bacon before moving on to the kabocha and walnut salad. The negitoro (tuna belly chopped with spring onions) comes with garlic toast, while the delicious Kobe beef tataki is served with a zesty dipping sauce. The cocktails, especially the Melon Oasis, are terrific. 1516 Yew St., Kitsilano (604-738-4272); 1479 Robson St., West End (604-689-4272; hapaizakaya.com)

4. Kingyo

Like a kabuki performance, the wait and kitchen staff barks orders (and who knows what else) back and forth in their native tongue while colorful fusion cocktails, sake bottles, and perfectly arranged sashimi on long shafts of bamboo arrive at your table. The food—prawn and ikura on dried seaweed, crab and clam croquette with a dipping sauce, braised pork belly stuffed in a Shanghai-style Chinese bun, stone-grilled beef tongue with green onions—is as captivating as the décor, which includes intricate woodcarvings and samurai swords hanging from the walls. Before dinner grab a drink at the bar under a traditional clay-tiled roof. Then sit at the communal table, split down the middle with tall stems of bamboo, and take it all in. 871 Denman St. (604-608-1677; kingyo-izakaya.com)

5. Ping’s Café

Don’t let the dilapidated exterior fool you; the Japanese comfort food served at this pretty little restaurant is almost eclipsed by the interior design. Just beyond the front door’s heavy curtain is a narrow room awash in soft neutral hues—brushed gray-silver metal tables, cream colored walls and mirrors, and hundreds of delicate off-white, slate gray-and-black porcelain pendants that cast a warm, ethereal glow. Legions of too-cool-for-school kids feast on edamame, kabocha pumpkin croquettes, and sukiyaki beef served on kitschy mismatched dishes. Try the Ping Dog, a grilled bratwurst with daikon and hot ponzu and Ping Fries, which are laced with mayo and a secret sauce. 2702 Main St. (604-873-2702; pingscafe.ca)

6. Yuji’s Japanese Tapas

You don’t go to Yuji’s for the atmosphere; indeed, the spare room in natural lacquered woods and bright lights leaves something to be desired. But the friendly service and adventurous menu can’t be beat. Favorites include the zucchini gyoza and the wasabi teriyaki chicken, which is served with soy ginger, curry mayo, and a spicy tomato sauce. Specials, like the matcha crêpe with crab, and the breaded Camembert wrapped in prosciutto with white asparagus, are must orders. The flowery yuzu sorbet is the perfect way to end the meal. 2059 W. 4th Ave. (604-734-4990; yujis.ca)

7. Alpha Global Sushi & Bar

While the interior of Alpha Global has very little character, the food more than makes up for it. The chef at Alpha Global likes all things fried—the deeper the better. The Italian spring roll is Alpha’s version of a classic caprese salad stuffed inside a crunchy spring roll, and a fried pumpkin croquette comes with a light and fruity sauce. If you like things spicy, try the Chicken Bomb, which is another deep-fried spring roll with minced chicken smothered in a spicy mayo and a sweet-chile sauce. Meanwhile, the Taco Rice, seasoned pork served on a bed of rice, with cheese, lettuce and a spicy tomato sauce, is his interesting take on Latin. 1099 Richards St. (604-633-0355; plusalfa.com)

8. Zakkushi

Save Zakkushi, a tiny room with dark wood paneling, small tables, and warm subdued lighting, for a more intimate dinner. This joint specializes in mouth-watering, charcoal-grilled chicken, beef or pork served with toppings like mozzarella, black sesame, and a seaweed mayonnaise. Sure, there are chicken wings on the menu, but more adventurous eaters will go for the chicken heart and gizzards or the beef tongue. If that’s not to your liking have the more traditional beef stew, which comes in a small cast-iron pot and is topped with green onions and chili. Big spenders can treat themselves to a $180 bottle of premium Yoshinogawa Daiginjo crafted in the prefecture of Niigata, which is said to have the purest water for making sake. 1833 W. 4th Ave. (604-730-9844, zakkushi.com)

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