Sushi has become a staple in America. Ramen spots are popping up everywhere. But now, it’s time to get well-acquainted with another pillar of Japanese culinary tradition: the izakaya.
Izakayas are like those top-notch, low-key local bars we all search for in our towns and cities. Popular across Japan, izakayas feature thoughtful and exciting wine and beer lists, bartenders who know what they’re doing but don’t feel the need to show off and a kitchen that keeps you stopping in with a certain craving at least once a week.
To make sure we get the most out of the typical izakaya experience, we turned to expert Joaquin Baca. Baca previously worked with Netflix-famous chef David Chang, cooking in some of the most-critically acclaimed institutions within his Momofuku empire. Baca recently opened izakaya-inspired Būmu in New York City’s West Village, where he’s the Executive Chef. He took the time to explain why an izakaya is an ideal place to experience the simple pleasures of eating and drinking while keeping your worries and responsibilities at bay.
Who to Bring
The casual vibe of an izakaya makes it the perfect place to relax for no particular reason or party for just about any reason. “Loosely, an izakaya is a Japanese gastropub,” Baca says. This means it’s frequented by all types of people and everyone feels welcome when they stop by “after work with a group of coworkers, with a friend, for your birthday, by yourself—the menus are perfect for pretty much any scenario. Your experience likely won’t be the same every time you come in, but the relaxed, communal atmosphere is a staple element of any izakaya.” Though as is the case with most local bars, “typically, people in Japan visit izakayas after work, so there is a relaxed, post-shift vibe. The whole idea is to shake off the day and relax with some great food and a few drinks.”
What to Drink
Baca points out that at an izakaya, “the same attention that is paid to the food is also paid to the drink menu. Guests can expect beer, wine, sake, and cocktails.” You have your pick from a long list of drinks, and can theoretically focus solely on drinking instead of eating—but good luck trying. “The goal is for people to enjoy something delicious, and to mix and match with different dishes,” Baca says. “I love that you can share bites and a bottle of wine with a friend, or a bunch of plates and a couple bottles or a magnum with a big group. I will also sit and have a beer and a bowl of noodles.”
What to Eat
Just as with the drink menu, variety is the name of the game when it comes to culinary choices at a typical izakaya. “Guests can expect shareable dishes but also menu items that are perfect for a solo diner,” Baca says. He serves small plates of raw seafood like scallops with bacon jam and pickled onion petals along with skewers of fire-roasted vegetables, or proteins like crispy pork belly with pineapple and hoisin sauce. But guests can also order larger portions of dishes like grilled mackerel with stir-fried vegetables and pickled Japanese apricots.
For Baca, it’s the signature gastronomic-theme-park vibe that sets izakayas apart and ultimately drew him in. “I love this style because you get to try a lot of different dishes, and it is easy to mix-and-match,” he says. “This versatility and playfulness with the menus makes an izakaya really special.”