- Japanese izakaya
A good friend of mine, an educated eater whose opinions I usually respect, recently told me that he's not interested in going back to Suika because the restaurant serves "French Fritz" tossed in oregano flakes.
Well, la di da da.
Sure, dried oregano may be a relatively lowbrow seasoning, especially when combined with thirst-inducing Cajun spices and Lord knows what other hydrolyzed soy proteins, chicken extracts and processed free glutamic acids (a.k.a. MSG).
But as I sip on a bottle of Asahi Black beer while dipping one of said green-flecked potato wedges in a thick, musky mayonnaise dip blended with blue cheese and dried shrimp, I have to wonder: what more can one expect from a loud, boisterous Japanese izakaya where the original 1971 Kamen Rider television series is playing on a giant screen behind the bar?
Kamen Rider, as I've only just discovered, is an insect-like, motorcycle-riding masked superhero on a mission to protect the world from fascist-affiliated flying squirrels and mutant bats. The live-action series is silly and kitschy and totally over the top, yet so deeply ingrained in Japanese pop culture that the astronomer Akimasa Nakamura named two minor planets in its honour.
The izakaya genre, one could argue, has had a similarly stellar impact on the Vancouver dining scene. Its rise was meteoric - there is no other city in the world, outside Japan, where you will find so many of these casual drinking holes with small plates for sharing. Its popularity remains galactic - just try getting a Saturday night reservation at Guu, Hapa Izakaya, Gyoza King, Zakkushi, Kakurenbo, Toratatsu or Kingyo less than a week in advance.
But on the way up, some owners didn't quite know where to stop. So now we have places like Kingyo, Suika's sister restaurant, which serves a lot of fresh sashimi that is not at all typical in Tokyo. And Hapa Izakaya, where the $18 soy-and-butter marinated rib-eye filet really pushes the ceiling on what is supposed to be the cheap and cheerful Japanese equivalent of a German beer hall.
Suika, thank goodness, brings the concept back down to earth.
Yes, it looks very slick with that cool sake-bottle chandelier hanging in the front dining area and the central bar kickplate covered in mahjong tiles. But have a closer look at the black-caged back room, which looks like a UFC ring. Or the wine rack behind the bar - it's a decorative cinder block screen lined with action figurines. This is quirky design on the cheap.
The menu has quite a bit of sashimi, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. Certainly not after having tried the negitori tartar ($6.20) with its chopped tuna squares squished into a gummy mush mixed with scallions and egg yolk. It tastes like raw hamburger starter, and so be it. If you want good sushi, go to a sushi bar.
The Deluxe Suika Appetizer Box ($10) is a better way to start. "Like a jewelry box," reads the menu, extolling the virtues of this cute, bento-style box lined with nine teacup-sized portions of stir-fried lotus root, steamed egg pudding, kelp-marinated beef tongue, smoked tuna tataki, Hainanese chicken thigh and kimchi pickles. It gives you little tastes of many items on the menu without getting too precious.
Beyond kimchi, many Korean influences are to be found on the menu - pork belly bibimpab ($8.80), served on rice in a sizzling hot stone bowl and beef tendon hot pots ($10).
But believe it or not, Korean is as common as Italian in traditional Japanese izakayas. Suika's asari yaki udon ($9.80) is a buttery, lemony, Manila clam noodle dish that beats the socks off most of the linguine vongole on Commercial Drive.
Suika, which means watermelon in Japanese, is also doing some interesting meat off-cuts. "Don't try if you've never had," the menu warns of tonsoku ($6.80), a pork foot sautéed in soy butter until crispy. I've had it, but passed and went for the tontoro yaki ($5.80), a seasoned pork jowl.
It was almost as delicious as the corn kakiage ($4.80), a bundle of buttery kernels fried in tempura batter, or the Asian kakiage ($6.80), a similar deep-fried nest of prawn, squid, scallop, onion and cilantro.
Yes, it all kind of coats the mouth with a fatty layer of greasiness that can only be cut with sake, a frozen vodka shot or homemade ginger ale cocktail. And that's exactly as it should be.
If you want high-end Japanese cuisine, go to Tojo's. Izakaya food is not meant to be refined. It's greasy, salty and often thickly battered to better soak up the sake. And as long as it's done well, who cares?
In my humble opinion, Suika's lowly oregano-tossed French Fritz ($4.50) - fried to golden perfection, served steaming hot and addictively salty - go just great with beer.