Why you should care

It’s “Japanese tapas” cooked right under your nose.

A peek into the crowded Sumika restaurant in Los Altos, California, reveals steaming charcoal grills, bottles of sake galore and patrons gobbling juicy chicken skewers. These izakayas, or Japanese-style pubs, are cropping up all over California, offering an authentic taste of Japanese culture — way beyond the standard staples of sushi and ramen.

Think “Japanese tapas” cooked over open flames in front of customers, explains restaurant owner Kuniko Ozawa. Sumika specializes in yakitori, bite-sized morsels of meat and vegetables on short, wooden skewers. Ozawa says the small-plate dining movement is spreading fast and has taken hold of Bay Area palates hankering for some serious Japanese eats. “People want the authentic, true Japanese food, not the American version,” she adds.

From the heart to the liver to the neck, chefs will grill it, skewer it and serve it with a sour plum sauce, coconut milk or wasabi.

These informal eateries first appeared in 19th-century Japan as basic teahouses that laborers would frequent after work. Now, however, they are wildly popular among foodies, families and anyone looking for a casual, late-night place to dine and drink. Dozens have opened up in California in the past two years, and they range broadly from cheap taverns to upscale bars. But the concept remains the same: small plates, good eats and a tall drink of chilled sake, beer or shochu (a vodka-like spirit).

At Sumika, customers’ favorite dishes run the gamut of yakitori fare: fried octopus, enoki mushroom rolls, pork cheek and seared scallops, to name a few. For the restaurant’s popular chicken skewers, no part of the animal is spared. From the heart to the liver to the neck, Sumika’s chefs will grill it, skewer it and serve it with a sour plum sauce, coconut milk or wasabi.

Ozawa opened Sumika eight years ago and estimates that the 48-seat restaurant sees more than 200 visitors every day. She attributes much of its growing success to the sheer variety of yakitori skewers and the laid-back nature of izakaya pubs. In Japantowns across Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, these late-night pubs appeal to “Americans that are sophisticated enough to go to the next level, the next-generation [of Japanese] food,” explains Ozawa.

But it’s not for everyone, says Misako Sassa, a Japanese culinary expert in New York. “It really depends where you are … Someone in the Midwest is not going to know what izakaya is or like it,” she adds. But at least near Saint Mark’s Place, where you’ll find New York’s “Little Tokyo,” Sassa says the izakaya scene is booming among foodies who risk getting carried away: “Every dish is not that heavy, so they can just keep eating.”

No wonder Sumika goes through three tons of chicken every month. Once you eat one skewer, it’s hard not to try them all.

Photography by Jun Seita.

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