Gastropubs are all the rage. And why not? Beginning in the 1990s with The Eagle pub in London, an odd idea took root that the food in a drinking establishment could actually be both tasty and good for business. A decade on, with foodie culture in full flower, the movement arrived on these shores. Across the big pond, the Japanese were wondering why it took so long.
Japanese izakayas are, essentially, the original gastropubs. Casual eateries that grew out of drinking establishments, the word "izakaya" is actually a portmanteau of the words for "to stay" and "sake." They're places where Japanese businessmen go to drink sake, with tasty food to keep them there. Izakaya culture is somewhat akin to the Spanish tapas tradition, with food having been offered originally to induce drinkers to stay longer.
One of the best izakayas in San Diego is Sakura (3904 Convoy St., Suite 121, in Kearny Mesa). Look for the small "121" on the window as it's the only sign identifying the place. It's that secret and that cool. The menu at Sakura is long, varied and good. From sushi to yakitori to hot and cold appetizers, ramen and udon, Sakura's menu draws from the full range of Japanese culinary traditions all adapted to soaking up alcohol. It does what it says on the label.
Sakura's grilled offerings are excellent with the chicken-skin yakitori being a standout and the grilled beef tongue a close second. Sakura loves uni and uses it in many different ways. The uni don is a major success, with the creaminess and sweetness of the uni dominating, but the supporting players doing their part. The uni spaghetti, it must be said, was a bit less worthy. Also on the winning side was the udon, featuring a deeply layered broth.
If Sakura isn't the best in San Diego, then Izakaya Masa (928 Fort Stockton Drive in Mission Hills) must take that prize. Located in the corner of a little strip mall, Masa offers a more focused menu. The standout at Masa is the hakata ramen, featuring a broth coaxed from roasted pork bones that leaves you with no doubt about the source of that deep flavor. Another superb choice is the ankimo—pressed monkfish liver that barely tastes of fish and might be a doppelganger for foie gras. Masa's classic offering—with chopped chives, spinach and ponzu—inspired in me a sense of forgiveness for the people who brought us the foie gras ban that I never thought I'd achieve.
The winner: In the end, it is the ambiance that tips the balance to Masa. If you're not looking for the place, you won't find it. And if you do, where you'll be is a world apart, a little piece of Tokyo tucked away in San Diego. This tiny eating-and-drinking establishment wouldn't be remotely out of place in Japan. If food has the power to transport, Masa realizes that power.