Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sayonara Sushi: The Rise of Izakayas in America

Sayonara Sushi: The Rise of Izakayas in America 

Ten years ago, the idea of eating slices of raw fish dipped in soy sauce was a completely foreign concept to most Americans.  Fast forward to the present, and sushi has become a fixture in mainstream American dining, with a plethora of Japanese restaurants in every major city.  Now, the newest up-and-coming Japanese dining trend is the izakaya.   

Izakayas are Japanese drinking establishments that specialize in serving small dishes meant to be shared by everyone at the table.  Initially, izakayas catered to Japanese male blue-collar workers as places to unwind and drink after work.  However, now these Japanese-style pubs attract a larger demographic, including college students, travelers and workers of both genders.  Izakayas are immensely popular in Japan.  Wherever I went in Tokyo, I could not avoid the trademark red paper lanterns hanging in the doorways of the myriad izakayas lining the streets.  It's understandable why people keep flooding these izakayas given their simple yet effective concept: a wide selection of delicious and inexpensive Japanese food served in a casual, congenial atmosphere.
Recently, the izakaya model has spread to America, with New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco being hotspots for these drinking destinations.  On my last trip to New York, I stopped by St. Mark's Place, where most of the izakayas in the city arelocated.  On a Tuesday night, I had to wait in line for a table at a tiny, hole-in-the-wall izakaya called Yakitori Taisho, which was as crowded as any izakaya in Tokyo, albeit much more boisterous and not as clean.  Judging by the sheer number of people that I saw walking in and out of different izakayas, however, it is clear that Americans have fully embraced the izakaya.  Their rise in popularity stems from the current tapas (small-plates) trend combined with the surge of sushi and Japanese restaurants on the dining scene - a fusion of both crazes into one.   

Another reason why izakayas are so appealing is the vast range of dishes they offer.  At Yakitori Boy in Philadelphia's Chinatown, selections include sushi, yakitori, soba, tempura, oden (fish cakes), teriyaki and donburi, just to name a few.  The encyclopedic menu, with page after page filled with pictures, can be exciting but also overwhelming to choose from.  Luckily, since the dishes are meant to share, there is no need to be too picky - just order a number of items that you want to try, and have a little bit of everything.  True to its name, Yakitori Boy is known for its yakitori (skewered chicken) and kushiyaki (non-poultry skewers).  When you walk into the restaurant, the first thing you see is the open kitchen, where the chefs cook the skewers over charcoal grills.  There is a dizzying selection of yakitori - with everything from chicken skin and short ribs to squid legs and yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls).  The quail egg wrapped in bacon, one of their most popular yakitori, is fantastic - soft, chewy and savory.  There are some dishes on the menu that many people probably are not familiar with, including okonomiyaki, a seafood and vegetable pancake, and takoyaki, fried octopus ball-cake, but izakayas are all about trying a range of creative dishes, and that is what makes them different from your typical American pub or bar.  

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