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Origin Story: Binchoyaki


Craig Takehara. Photo by Wes Davis.

How did Craig Takehara, a JFK High School grad who grew up in the Pocket neighborhood eating “nostalgic dishes” like his mother’s version of goulash, end up a James Beard Award nominee with a wildly popular Sacramento restaurant? He has his dad to thank.

“I was living on my own at age 19 when he made me an appointment at a culinary school that he’d seen on a work trip to LA,” recalls Takehara. “I was like, ‘Dad, what are you doing? Why are you making me this appointment?’ But I checked it out and ultimately enrolled. I hated sitting at a desk and was always good with my hands, so cooking was a good outlet for me. Without even really trying, I ended up one of the top five students in my class.”

At culinary school, Takehara not only perfected his beurre blanc but also met his future wife, Tokiko Sawada. “She’s a chef in her own right and definitely more well-rounded than I am,” he says. The couple toiled in restaurants around Southern California for several years, managing kitchens and dreaming about the type of place they’d open someday.

Takehara did turns at several white-tablecloth establishments but ultimately decided that his heart wasn’t in fine dining. It was during a cooking stint in Japan in 2005 that he found his calling. “Seeing how they did barbecue there and the culture of the food was exciting. That really stuck with me. I liked the casualness of it,” says Takehara.

Finally, in 2016, he and Sawada opened Binchoyaki, a barbecue-centric izakaya restaurant in Sacramento’s relocated Japantown. (The city’s original Japantown was destroyed in the 1950s, the victim of redevelopment.) The small-plates format and the thrill of cooking over hot coals suited Takehara.

Photo by Wes Davis

“I’m not a big-entrée kind of an eater,” he explains. “I like to pick at different things, and there was nothing like Binchoyaki in Sacramento at the time. What we make here is almost like what my mother’s or my grandmother’s food was to me: soul food, comfort food, unpretentious but with good flavors.”

Diners soon fell in love with what Takehara and Sawada had created (inventive dishes served in a low-key setting), and so did big players in the local hospitality scene. “In the days when we stayed open late, we used to get a rush of industry people coming in after their shift—executive chefs, bartenders, general managers,” says Takehara. “It was a bit nerve-wracking, but it was also the biggest compliment to have their support. I’d much rather have that than a Michelin recommendation or a James Beard award.”

Building upon the success of Binchoyaki, Takehara and Sawada recently opened a takeout only ghost kitchen, Kizuna by Binchoyaki, at The Line near Sacramento State. “It’s a smaller menu for now with none of the barbecue items,” he says, “but we’ll be expanding as we’re able.”

Although the James Beard nomination did not materialize into an award, Takehara is content. “It’s nice to get some recognition for the hard work that we do, and it’s good for Sacramento. We’re just so happy to be part of the restaurant scene here.”


2226 10th St, Sacramento, CA 95818


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