Jul. 29th, 2009

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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.


The bartender at Kingyo recommended Zakkushi, and my paper said it was open until midnight, so even though it was 23:10, we decided to give it a shot. We poked our heads in and asked if the kitchen was still open, and were welcomed in warmly.

Zakkushi, as the name indicates, specializes in food on a kushi or skewer, such as yakitori. At this point we decided we had done enough drinking, so we all asked for water.

This is one of the specials, and it's a kind of mushroom on a skewer... I think it was $1.30/piece with a minumum order of two pieces? LOL sorry I can't pin it down any more closely. It was a strongly flavored mushroom, very earthy, with a mild ginger garnish. Very nice after all the meat and fish we had been eating.

Not that we were tired of meat and fish! We ordered two cheese tsukune ($1.90 each). Tsukune is a chicken meatball, and these were topped with mozzarella. Ever since I went to Kintaro I've been a little obsessed with putting cheese on Japanese food, haha. This was a great combination. I loved the spices in the chicken.

This is another special that I neglected to write down the name of. I fail as a food blogger, lol. It's salmon and dill cooked atop the grill in a foil packet. So moist and delicious! The sauce is shoyu and vinegar, IIRC.

Since this was the last stop of the night we decided to get dessert! On the left is Dorayaki Ice Cream and on the right is Banana Gyoza, each $2.80. Dorayaki is a kind of sponge cake with red bean paste filling, and the ice cream is topped with a dusting of matcha powder. The banana gyoza are, of course, gyoza skins filled with sliced bananas and vanilla, mmmmmmmmmmmm, and its ice cream was topped with chocolate sauce.

The banana gyoza were amazing, but the ice cream for both was kind of icy, sadface. I'm not a big red bean fan so I left that one to my two companions, who both adore red bean.

The music here was pretty good too. More modern stuff, but a lot of it was stuff that we all liked and sang along to, even if some of them were guilty pleasures like "Lady Marmalade" lol.

All in all, this was a lovely end to the night. I'd love to come back here for dinner sometime with three other people; we'd hand the menu back and say "Yes, we'd like two of each kushi please". That would be 42 skewers altogether for $72 (assuming one was smart and ordered two of the kushi sets). We could eat the meaning of life, the universe, and everything! It would be awesome.

Name: Zakkushi
Location: 823 Denman St Vancouver, BC (604) 685-1136
Prices: $1.30 to $2.20 per kushi, with a minumum order of two per variety; several other Japanese grill options; probably $15 to $20/person for dinner.
Service: Low-key and warm. Definitely not the frantic energy here of Kingyo and Guu. Definitely a good place to make your last stop on your crawl.
Food: Delicious meat on a skewer. Mmmm. There were vegetarian items, but this is a place to take the meat eater in your life.
Recommended?: Great for a crawl or for a meal.

Zakkushi Charcoal Grill (Denman) on Urbanspoon
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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.

I can sum up the biggest problem we had at Gyoza King by telling you that their website does not have an English version. Yes, this is a Japanese expatriate hotspot. Weirdly, I felt like I was transported back to Hong Kong, trying to order from a street vendor who didn't speak Mandarin or English well. A conversation my roommate had with the waitress, as verbatim as I can remember:

"Does this come with rice?"

"You want a rice?"

"No, I mean, does this come with rice?" *points*

"You want a rice?"

"Yes, I want rice, but does this come with it already?"

"You want a bowl rice? Small bowl?"

*sighs* "Yes, I want a bowl of rice."

As it turned out, the dish she was asking about, the katsudon ($3.95), did indeed come with rice:

But it was okay. The Boyfriend and I split one bowl, and she had the other. I was pretty sure that the "don" in "katsudon" meant "on rice" but I wasn't 100% sure, hence her question.

Gyoza King used to have a reputation for being very adamant about not serving sushi or sashimi. But they've now relaxed, obviously, because while there wasn't any sushi, there were several raw seafood options on the menu on our visit, including raw oysters. Very fresh, with the only garnish being a tiny piece of lemon. Yum.

Of course you can't go to Gyoza King and not get gyoza! We got six of the shrimp and pork gyoza ($4.95). A nice crispy exterior and moist, flavorful interior. What more can you ask for?

We also got drinks but for some reason I neglected to take a picture of them? Oops. We all got chuuhai, a popular cocktail genre in Japan, which is a blend of fresh juice and shochu. I had grapefruit juice and Moonlight.

Gyoza King was a breath of fresh air, or perhaps a mouthful of tasty food, after our bad experience at Hapa Izakaya. I felt better saying goodbye to my roommate here than I would have at Hapa.

I should mention the atmosphere. Gyoza King is very small, and so reservations may be a good idea. We did not wait, and we sat at the bar, Japanese style with our shoes off. Nice warm lighting and almost a cafe feel.

Oh, and something funny happened on the way out. It was my turn to pick up the bill, so I went to pay with my credit card. The decoration of my credit card is an American flag, so I often have people strike up conversations with me about where I'm from--it's part of the reason I got the design, since I like to travel internationally. But I've never had something happen like what happened at Gyoza King. Here, again, as verbatim as I can make it through the language barrier.

Me: Here's my credit card.
Waitress #1: Ehhhhhhhhhhhh?!?! Kawaii desu!!!!
Waitress #2: Oohhhhh, kawaii!
Waitress #1: Sugoi ne?
Waitress #2: Chou kawaii!
Me: Uh, thanks. :)
Waitress #1: Here you go! *hands me the bill to sign*
Me: *gets my bill back and starts walking away*
Waitresses: *chattering in Japanese with lots of "kawaii!" peppered throughout*

It's just an American flag! LOL.

Next and last stop: Zakkushi!

Name: Gyoza King
Location: 1508 Robson St. Vancouver BC 604-669-8278
Prices: Pretty cheap. You could easily eat your fill here for $15.
Service: Friendly, but not the best English ability.
Food: Very authentic and tasty.
Recommended?: Japanese food has a reputation in the West as being dainty, expensive and tiny. Gyoza King shows that it can also be hearty, filling and reasonably-priced. I liked it very much.

Gyoza King on Urbanspoon
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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.

We didn't really need a reservation here, either. We came in and they were ready to seat us right away, but I mentioned my reservation anyway.

This picture is not an exaggeration of how dimly lit the place is. I am usually a fan of dimly lit restaurants, I think the mood feels more intimate and special that way. However, I was disappointed by the overall decoration of the place. It was kinda boring. There was no flair. All minimalism.

We ordered drinks: a Harajuku Girl ($7), a blend of vodka, butterscotch schnapps, sour raspberry schnapps, Calpis (a Japanese yogurt-flavored drink) and soda; an Umeshu Tini ($7), a blend of plum wine, vodka, lemon and sweet; two pours (about 4 shots, I would guess) of Takezake, the house sake chilled in a bamboo server ($16); and a Calpis Vodka Soda ($5.25 and exactly what it says on the tin). The Harajuku Girl was really sweet, almost to the point of being sickening, but some people like that in a drink. The Boyfriend and I split the Takezake and liked it, especially the fun serving method.

We attempted to order food. We started off by saying we wanted their Goma-Ae, a blend of green beans, tuna sashimi and feta. I can't tell you how it tasted because they were out--and then the waitress went into a long, long list of all the things they didn't have. The kind of list where at the end you want to say "Well, what DO you have?" She said that the next day they were having their staff appreciation day or something like that and were closed, so they didn't have as much stock as usual. This weirded me out because you would think that when you're talking about RAW FISH and RAW MEAT, either it's so perishable that it should be thrown out at the end of the day ANYWAY, or else one day in the freezer/fridge shouldn't make that much of a difference.

So we were rather put out, especially because some of the other things she named were the things other people wanted to order. So we called a time-out and regrouped, with some discussion of leaving immediately, but since we didn't want to rush our drinks, we decided to order two things anyway.

If you can squint you can perhaps see the Beef Tataki ($7.95) that we ordered, but here's a picture that shows it better:

Tataki is very briefly seared pieces of meat with ginger. Hapa's version was served with a sesame-chili sauce. It was okay. I'm not a super big fan of meat that is still mooing. I couldn't help but feel that the garnish and sauce overwhelmed the meat.

I apologize for the quality of this picture--I took two pictures, and one of them is too dark, and the other one is washed out. I wasn't looking carefully at the picture afterwards. Anyway, this is Renkon Gyoza ($6.90): dumplings with slices of lotus root for a crunch. I liked this quite a bit, but I felt like the serving presentation was kind of deceptive. It's three gyoza cut in half. For almost $7. I know Hapa is a much fancier place than Hon's, but after getting 6 whole potstickers there for $1.37, I felt like this was overpriced to an insane degree. Ground pork is not that expensive.

Overall we were dissatisfied. I felt bad because this was my roommate's first izakaya experience and it sucked, and she was originally planning to leave after this. She decided to stick around and follow us to Gyoza King.

Name: Hapa Izakaya
Location: 1479 Robson St, Vancouver, BC 604-689-4272
Prices: $4-12 for small plates. Probably about $30/person to eat as dinner.
Service: When you read reviews for Hapa Izakaya, you will see one thing over and over: "The waitresses are hot." Personally, when any place of business's employees are ALL sexy/a single ethnicity/men/women/young etc, without a good reason why this should be the case (eg if a place requires its employees to speak a certain language in addition to English, thus making people of a certain ethnicity more likely to know that language), I don't think "Awesome!", I think "Illegal hiring practices." But then I'm a bleeding heart stick-in-the-mud. Maybe you LIKE objectification with your sushi. For what it's worth, our waitress (who was indeed good-looking) was apologetic about the restaurant being low on, y'know, food. IE the reason that I wanted to go to Hapa.
Food: There are some innovative combinations but they don't always work out in practice. The Harajuku Girl sounded great on paper but we all agreed it was way too sweet.
Recommended?: I don't know if this place is just overrated, or if I'm not the target audience, or whatever, but I was seriously unimpressed. And even if I was the target audience, I can't imagine not being irritated by the fact that THEY WERE OUT OF EVERYTHING. Well, not everything, but everything that we wanted.

Hapa Izakaya (Robson) on Urbanspoon
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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.
After visiting three upscale places, we were getting too full of ourselves. We needed to come back to earth and get our bellies a little full instead.

Despite their gorgeous website, Hon's inside looks like a warehouse cafeteria. Absolutely huge, high ceilings, lots of tables with lots of people. The hugeness carries over to the menu, which could double as a bludgeon, and that's not including the separate vegetarian menu.

Potstickers are the signature dish of Hon's, and for their 37th anniversary they were selling them 6 for $1.37. We were mildly confused by the concept of celebrating a 37th anniversary, but we do not argue with cheap potstickers. Not much to look at, but so tasty! These ones are pork. In my opinion the vegetable ones were even better. It took me back to my time in Taipei, ordering a take-out of potstickers for 3NT each (about a dime). Hon's also sells their potstickers frozen to cook at home.

We also ordered dan dan noodles, a spicy Sichuan dish. Good, simple food.

We also received free barley tea (麥茶). My roommate joined us here and also got an order of potstickers. Altogether, three orders of potstickers and the noodles cost less than $10. Wow!

But, we had a 9:30 reservation at Hapa Izakaya, so we bid a fond farewell to Hon's and moved on.

Name: Hon's WunTun House
Prices: Huge menu, so I'll just say that it's budget.
Service: All the servers looked harrassed, but we got our food without any mistakes.
Food: Not gourmet, but tasty. Cheap and lots of it.
Recommended?: The only must-try here would be the potstickers, so long as they keep that crazy price. But this would be a good place to bring a group of vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

Hon's Wun Tun House (Vancouver West End) on Urbanspoon
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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.


After our relaxing stroll through Europe at Tapastree, we were ready to dance our way through Shibuya at Kingyo! The exterior may look all business, but inside Kingyo is as cute as a button.

See? CUTE. That was my drink, a combination of shochu, tonic, shiso (a Japanese herb that tastes kind of like mint) and a dried red pepper. Kingyo is another website that doesn't believe in putting its drinks on its menu, and I lost my notes for this restaurant, so I don't remember what the name of the drink was or how much it cost. :(

Ann ordered a glass of Osake Junmai sake, which is made right here in Vancouver (note the maple leaf on the wooden glass!). The presentation of the pour was lovely, the waiter filled the glass and kept pouring so that it filled the wooden glass too. ^_^ Since we were sitting at the bar, we decided we had to get some classic Japanese bar food: edamame! A nice portion for $3.50.

We ordered a sashimi trio omakase style, although our bartender told us ahead of time what the trio was, but again, lost my notes, not sure what it was, woe. I do remember that they were all imported from Japan, which felt vaguely scandalous, but whatever, I get to be extravagant so seldom. This was a night for pulling out the stops. (The 3-kind omakase was $21.) Despite their journey, it all tasted like it had been swimming in the ocean that morning. Identity check from anyone more experienced in sashimi, please?

We had a super good time at Kingyo, and it was our favorite stop of the night. We loved how our server went into detail about different dishes, despite how busy they were. Our bartender was also super helpful, and recommended several places in the area, including Zakkushi which was right down the street. I know I've mentioned it before, but an easy way for a restaurant to impress me is for them to recommend their direct competitors. It shows how confident they are in their quality and how much they want their customers to have a good time, no matter where.

Incidentally, and I know the ladies care about this one, their bathroom is super awesome-looking and stocked with all the amenities--mouthwash, menstrual pads, toothpicks, Q-tips, etc etc!

Anyway. We were full of good feelings when we asked for the check to make our way to Hon's WunTun House.

oh but wait there is a present

Awwwww. Cute as a BUTTON, Kingyo!

Name: Kingyo Izakaya
Location: 871 Denman St Vancouver BC (604) 608-1677
Prices: $3.50-$10/small plate. Probably about $30/person to eat until one was full.
Service: They just acted like they were pleased as punch to have us there, lol! All the enthusiasm of Guu with Garlic in terms of shouting and energy, but with this absolutely adorable earnestness.
Food: With sashimi, of course, it's all about freshness, and this was very fresh and high quality, and attractively presented as well. Delicious!
Recommended?: Our favorite place of the crawl, so yeah, big thumbs up!

Kingyo on Urbanspoon
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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.
We were surprised by Tapastree. I just copied down the names and opening times of a bunch of izakaya places in the area and printed them out. I had no idea that it was actually Western tapas. In Vancouver "tapas" actually is used more to describe Japanese food than anything else.

Tapastree is on Robson past Denman, and thus away from the hustle and bustle of the main shopping area. It's a more quiet, tree-lined feel, and we took advantage of the lovely weather by sitting on the patio. After frantic Guu with Garlic, this was a nice change of pace. We were glad that we had decided to dress up for our night out, because Tapastree definitely has a more formal air.

They brought us some bread with whipped butter containing what we decided was probably sundried tomato. Fresh bread, but not warm.

We ordered cocktails and a dish of mixed olives ($5). My cocktail, the Pan's Labyrinth, was sparkling wine, elderberry liquor, and...... something else.... dangit! I didn't write this part down, and their online menu doesn't include their cocktails! Which is a shame, because their cocktails were all fascinating combinations. Behind it you can see Ann's drink, which was called a Rock'n'Rolla and had apricot liquor in it... and some other... things?

This one was called "Ain't No Sunshine" and I know it had ginger beer in it. Man, I'm going to have to call them and ask what was in these things. I think they were all around $8 each.

Duck confit, $12. The Boyfriend has always told me that he does not like duck, but he grudgingly tried this dish and then said, "Hey, this tastes good!" So apparently he just never had duck prepared right before. The sweet, tart cranberries were a perfect balance to the rich flesh of the fowl, and a little greens never hurt nobody.

Lamb chop in a gorgonzola demi-glace, $6. I don't like gorgonzola but this sauce was amazing. At the end of the night, it was actually this dish out of everything that we each named as the most memorable. When I took my first bite, I leaned back in my chair with my eyes closed and swooned. Then I said "Everybody shut up, I'm having a moment here," just savoring that first taste.

We knew we had to keep our pace down if we didn't want to get full too quickly, so with these three dishes we said adieu to Tapastree, and walked to Kingyo to continue the crawl.

To eat here as a meal, I think you would want at least three dishes per person.

Name: Tapastree (the website kinda sucks and is out of date)
Location: 1829 Robson St. Vancouver BC (604) 606 4680
Prices: $5-13/small plate, so for a meal that would be like upper 20s/person. An extensive wine list, with by the glass being around $9, and everything up to $500 bottles of wines. A really fascinating cocktail list with most cocktails around $8.
Service: As a more upscale European-style place, the waiters are smooth and professional, not overtly friendly. Left me feeling like I ought to be discussing a terrible blight affecting fields in Provence. "Not tragic? Darling, it ruined the view from my villa! I was so depressed I flew to that little spa in Geneva I was telling you about..."
Food: The lamb chop was out of this world, and the cocktails were complex and sophisticated. My favorite was probably the Rock'n'Rolla.
Recommended?: A great place for a unique evening or anyone who's ever thought "Man, I wish I could order one of everything!"

Tapastree on Urbanspoon
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Part of the 2009 Izakaya Crawl.


We were totally pumped to start our izakaya crawl, so made a reservation at Guu with Garlic for 5:30pm, which is when they open, and arrived there at about 5:15pm, sitting outside on their wooden bench and contemplating their cell phone charm vending machines. As it turns out, the reservation was unnecessary. The place seats more than the entrance appears because there is an outdoor patio. Inside, there is the option to sit at a table, at the bar, or in a Japanese-style near the window.

Despite the name and the logo, Guu with Garlic does not use a lot of garlic. I didn't taste it in any dishes we ordered.

The energy was there right from the beginning, even when the place wasn't that full. Orders are shouted to the chefs working, and there's a lot of banter going on in Japanese between serving staff and chefs. I don't speak Japanese, but it seemed like a lot of call and response was going on, getting everyone revved up for the long night ahead. By the time we left it was full and there were people waiting outside, so if you're not getting there at opening, reservations are a good idea.

We started with drinks. I chose the Cherry Blossom ($6) for my froufrou girlie drink of the evening: peach schnapps, crushed strawberries, and ramune, a Japanese soda. The labels on the ramune are personalized for Guu, which was cute.

The Boyfriend and Ann (the friend) split 250ml of a certain kind of shochu for $25. Very tasty!

Our first dish of the evening: kurokke ($4), aka croquette! Mashed potato and chicken, deep fried, topped with worchestershire and bechamel sauces. We were all pretty hungry so this was a nice way to kick it off and soak up the alcohol hopefully.

Next up: one of the specials, scallop, prawn and squid yuzu ceviche ($7.20). A Japanese twist on the South American raw seafood favorite, this one was made with a Japanese citrus fruit for some East-West fusion. My favorite was the scallop.

The third dish in our initial order was tako wasabi ($3.50), which as the name suggests, is tiny pieces of octopus (tako) and wasabi mixed with soy sauce. This is one of Ann's favorite dishes, and although I didn't like raw tako at all the last time I had it, I liked it a lot this time. Maybe this octopus was fresher, or maybe it was the smaller slices, but the texture was a lot nicer.

We decided we wanted one more dish before we left, something that would really say "POSERS TO THE LEFT", lol. Ann and I kinda railroaded Gordon into compliance with us as we ordered nankotsu karaage ($4): fried chicken knees. Ahhhhh, night market food, I missed you! Yet this simple dish was taken to a level of elegance with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a dip into the salt and pepper. Mmmm.

That was the end of our visit to Guu with Garlic. With some food and booze in our tummies, we left for our next stop: Tapastree.

Name: Guu with Garlic
Location: 1698 Robson Street, Vancouver BC 604-685-8678
Prices: $3.50 to $10 per small plate. If you planned to eat until you were full, you'd spend at least $25 per person, is my guess. GwG is also open for lunch, where you can get a meal and a pint of beer for around $10, which is a steal.
Service: Friendly, enthusiastic and busy, busy, busy. This seems like a good place to mention that the music here was pretty fabulous too. Nothing wrong with classic rock.
Food: Tasty and served up to you quick. Putting liquor into ramune with fresh fruit is an inspired summer combination.
Recommended?: Yeah! I'd say get a reservation later in the evening, I bet it's really hopping then. Sitting at the bar looked like a lot of fun too.

Guu With Garlic on Urbanspoon
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Okay. Apologies for the massive spam, but I figured this was the best way to give "the whole experience" and be able to link to individual reviews. :) I'm posting in reverse order so that when someone loads up the page (or the tag) they can scroll from top to bottom and follow the order of restaurants we visited.

This post is the overview post.

So, the Boyfriend had a friend coming to visit from another province, and we wanted to do something that can only be done in Vancouver, for food. Her landlocked province is not a good place for sushi, so that was her suggestion.

I started Googling around looking for sushi reviews and came across the concept of an izakaya crawl. An izakaya, if you don't know, is kind of like a Japanese pub: small dishes of food, and sake and beer.

An izakaya crawl, therefore, is like a bar crawl gone Nippon.

Of course, in order to visit a lot of izakaya in succession, you have to be somewhere where there are a lot of izakaya, ideally somewhere where those izakaya are in walking distance. Vancouver is perhaps unique outside of Japan in having an area with a high density of izakaya: the stretch of Robson St. between Burrard and Denman, and then Denman between Barclay and W. Georgia. Many are true izakaya, but one can also mix it up by visiting some sushi places, some other Asian places, even a Western tapas restaurant.

Here's our timeline:
17:30 -- Guu with Garlic
18:25 -- Tapastree
19:25 -- Kingyo
20:25 -- Hon's Wun Tun House (my roommate joined us starting here)
21:15 -- Hapa Izakaya
22:00 -- Gyoza King (roommate left after here)
23:10 -- Zakkushi
24:00 -- finish line!

Altogether we shared 29 different dishes and I think I tasted 19 or so different alcoholic beverages, of which 5 were actually mine, but because it was all spread out I never got more than buzzed, which surprised me. In fact we didn't bother with a taxi home, we took public transit.

Alcohol was easily half the bill in the places where we drank, and non-alcoholic specialty drinks were often expensive too, so if you want to save money and still have the excitement of an izakaya crawl, drink water at most places.

Best overall restaurant of the night was without a doubt Kingyo, and worst was hands down Hapa Izakaya. Best value was the potstickers at Hon's; biggest splurge was the sashimi trio at Kingyo. Best and worst atmosphere was Kingyo and Hapa once again, but Guu with Garlic probably would have given Kingyo a run for its money if we had gone later in the night. Best service goes to Kingyo for the individual attention we received despite sitting at the bar and how busy they were, and worst was probably Gyoza King, due to a language barrier more than anything. Best drinks is a tough one. Guu with Garlic had the best Japanese drinks, but Tapastree had the best and most interesting cocktails. And one last star to Zakkushi for having the sweetest music, and also for seating us and being patient with our indecisiveness when I know they just wanted to close the kitchen and go home, lol.

I'd recommend any of these for your own crawl except Hapa Izakaya, and I'd recommend a crawl to anyone who like trying lots of dishes and drinks. I think you could probably fit more than seven places into your crawl if you were willing to keep going past midnight (several places are open until 1 or 2am). We debated hitting Toratatsu at that point but decided we would rather take public transit while the buses were still running more frequently.

Another recommendation is to sit at the bar whenever you can. Watching stuff being prepared is part of the fun.

A third recommendation is to wear nice socks, because if you choose to sit Japanese-style at a place, you'll take your shoes off.

If you have any questions about making your own izakaya crawl, don't hesitate to leave a comment. We did ours on a Tuesday night, so reservations may be more important on busier nights.


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