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Grilled skewers are at the heart of this new downtown izakaya.
Binchoyaki, the quaint izakaya-style restaurant that opened last spring in the city’s Southside neighborhood (across 10th Street from Osaka-Ya, for you shaved ice lovers), is proving to Sacramento diners that there is far more to Japanese fare than the sushi and teriyaki that dominate the local dining scene.
Husband-and-wife owners Craig Takehara and Tokiko Sawada had dreamed of opening a restaurant together since they met at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena in 2001. Although their culinary training was in the French tradition, the couple settled on the izakaya format because, as Sawada says, “it’s like comfort food to us, something that we’ve always grown up eating.”
Basil gindara miso yaki
In Japan, Sawada explains, an izakaya is a lively tavern where salarymen go to enjoy a drink and a nosh after work or late at night. The atmosphere is casual and convivial, a place where people can linger and relax with friends. Stateside, izakayas are spirited establishments where tapas-like small plates show off the breadth and creativity of Japanese cuisine.
“Being in an izakaya is comforting,” says Sawada. “You start talking to people you don’t know. Our food is so unique that when a person sits down next to you at the bar, they’re like, ‘Ooh, what’s that food? What are you drinking?’ And then they’re all talking together.”
Binchoyaki doesn’t have the boisterous atmosphere of a pub, but it still manages to be inviting. The storefront dining room consists of a handful of tables and a small bar where diners can observe live drama: the kitchen’s bustling charcoal grills.
The restaurant is named for bincho, the special Japanese charcoal that fuels the super-hot grills where cooks keep watch over bite-size skewers of chicken, salmon, Wagyu beef, bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms and more.
“It takes some time and labor and love to cook on that grill,” which is controlled by opening and closing a small door and fanning the coals with a small fan, explains Sawada. “Controlling that heat is about using all your senses: looking with your eye, getting that perfect smell.”
The other half of the tightly curated menu is made up of more complex dishes that trickle out over the course of the meal. Standouts include ebi shinjyo-age, an alien-looking crispy shrimp fritter; tori karaage, nuggets of Japanese-style fried chicken; and basil gindara miso yaki, a succulent black cod served with mushrooms, leeks and a want-to-lick-the-plate miso emulsion that shows off chef Takehara’s experience as a saucier.
Sawada says her husband brings “all the technical skill” to the operation, while she contributes her “eccentric way of thinking.” Part of her job is to taste and give feedback on how to improve a dish. “I like to push my husband farther, over his limit as a chef,” she says with a laugh. Sawada also manages the front of the house and is responsible for Binchoyaki’s house-made desserts, including soy-based ice creams made with jidori eggs.
So far the restaurant, in spite of being a tremendous amount of work (especially for the parents of a toddler), is everything the couple dreamed of. It has brought the two chefs closer together. As Sawada puts it, “We are really good partners, not just as life partners, but we know how to push each other to create a better restaurant.” 2226 10th St.; (916) 469-9448; binchoyaki.com