Izakaya — Japanese gastropubs serving up small, drink-friendly bites — are only becoming more popular in the East Bay, and restaurateurs are finding new ways to set themselves out from the pack.
Located in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, the new Hina Yakitori is doing just that by specializing in chicken — more than 15 whole chickens are broken down each night into various skewers that are then grilled over Japanese-imported binchoton coals.
Hina Yakitori, which has been in soft-opening mode for the last two weeks but is gradually starting to add more operating hours, is a more refined, contemporary izakaya. Translation? Elegant plates in small portions.
The restaurant is actually restaurateur Jonathan Moon’s second incarnation of an izakaya. Moon, who also owns Blackwater Station, originally opened Kushido in Hina’s space on Telegraph Avenue, but closed it after about a year in business to make room for an Asian fusion restaurant. After several months of development, Moon announced that the restaurant would once again become an izakaya, this time with an emphasis on chicken yakitori. He brought on Tommy Clearly (Ippuku and AS B-Dama) to man the grill — a smart move.
The opening menu is mostly limited to its focus on chicken. You’ll find skewers made from everything from the neck, wings, and thigh “oyster” to the skin, liver, heart and cartilage ($4-5). When visiting during the soft opening, I found the chicken skewers nicely seared and balanced in flavor. The oysters offered a particularly good balance of crisp edges and a juicy, fatty interior.
Also on the menu are a couple of deep-fried items: menchi katsu (fried minced chicken patty, $12) and tori nanban (fried chicken breast, $12).
For vegans, Clearly offers around seven different vegetable skewers, such as asparagus and shishito peppers ($3-5). Small plates (ippin) include daikon salad ($9), chicken liver pate ($7), and tomato sanbaizu (marinated diced tomatoes, $4). For something other than chicken, there’s also a grilled duck breast. The menu is rounded off by couple of rice dishes (shime) meant to be eaten at the end of the meal ($8-12).
From the small plates menu, I tried the hiyashi wonton ($7), delicate won ton dumplings served cold with a light ponzu sauce. Its refined presentation reflected the restaurant’s upscale approach to pub food.
To drink, you can’t go wrong with sake and shochu, offered by the bottle and the glass. Beer and wine drinkers can also choose from a list of bottled Japanese beers and short list of wines.
If you’re a chicken lover, Hina Yakitori is the place to be — it clearly honors the animal by not only preparing tasty food, but also by cooking from head-to-tail.
Essential East Bay Izakaya
Visit these other local izakaya for a look at the growth and diversity of the popular Japanese gastropub concept.
A refined izakaya for the college crowd, this tiny mom-and-pop spot not too far from the UC Berkeley campus opened four years ago and offers a mix of traditional grilled items and specialties like corn tempura with green tea salt and Bluefin tuna potstickers. Don’t skip the tender braised beef tongue that’s finished on the grill. Kiraku is at 2566B Telegraph Ave. (between Blake and Parker streets), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
Probably the place that introduced the word “izakaya” to East Bay diners, Ippuku opened nearly six years ago and has been buzzing ever since, serving up copious amounts of shochu and smoking all sorts of animal parts on its charcoal grill. The Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant got a Survivor-esque reputation early-on as the only restaurant in the area willing to serve chicken tartare (tori yukke), but nowadays you can just sit back and relax with bites like bacon-wrapped mochi or grilled Hokkaido squid (ika yaki). Ippuku is at 2130 Center St. (between Shattuck Avenue and Oxford Street), Berkeley. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
From the people behind Geta, the cult hole-in-the-wall sushi joint on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, AS B-Dama is a food stand inside Swan’s Market in Old Oakland. Serving up curry and udon for lunch, its menu expands during happy hour and dinner with hot pots and sashimi. Look for the white tuna tartare or anything with uni on the daily specials menu. AS B-Dama is at 907 Washington St. (at Ninth Street), Oakland. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
This two-year-old pop-up restaurant with a punk rock vibe is all about Japanese-style fried chicken (karaage). The chef coats chicken thighs in shio koji, a fermented rice marinade, and dredges them in cornstarch before frying — twice. Abura-ya currently pops up at The Hatch Oakland (402 15th Street, Oakland) for lunch and at 380 15th St. (at Franklin Street), Oakland for dinner. Connect with the pop-up on Facebook and Twitter.
The izakaya trend finally made its way to downtown Walnut Creek last year with the opening of Izakaya Jun, a tiny restaurant with a long counter. The menu, which is in Japanese and English, offers sushi and sashimi, in addition to a few izakaya-style fried and grilled dishes. If you like spice, try the grilled spicy pork belly. Izakaya Jun is at 1552 Locust St. (between Civic Drive and Bonanza Street), Walnut Creek. Connect with the restaurant on Facebook.
Benjamin Seto is the voice behind Focus:Snap:Eat, where he dishes on food at restaurants and shops in the Bay Area, in his kitchen, and from his culinary adventures.