One way to think about an izakaya is as a Japanese gastropub. Another may be as the Japanese version of tapas bars. Hillcrest's Ramen Izakaya Ouan (3882 Fourth Ave.) is perhaps best understood in that latter vein.
Take, for example, the wasabi octopus with cucumber and lemon zest. Like the most exciting tapa, the dish has an infinite capacity to surprise. Spicy, briny and acidic flavors dance on the tongue as the contrasting textures of the wasabi-marinated octopus, sesame seeds and scallion strips take turns coming to the fore. It's a dish that intrigues as much as it delights.
The edamame might be a bit easier to pigeonhole, but garlic hints at another dimension, and yellowtail-stuffed shishito peppers work as a cross between tempura and jalapeño poppers. Not quite so successful was the avocado with spicy tuna tartare. The attractive appearance of the dish on the plate wasnít echoed in either textural or flavor contrasts.
One thing Ouan uses very well is offal, those parts of the beast that Americans tend not to want to think about: organ meat, extremities, etc. Of course, if you tasted the beef-tongue steak without knowing what it was, you probably wouldn't think offal. Sliced thin, rare in the middle and nicely caramelized on the outside, it's everything we love about a good steak. Topped with a scallion nest and soy-based sauce, it was offal as comfort food.
But what about gizzards? Surely, those must have been scary, right? How could one possibly make the supplementary stomach of a bird tasty? Why, fry it, of course. What's not to love about deep-fried anything with mayonnaise? Ouan's fried chicken gizzards were surprisingly tender yet still toothsome, meaty and irresistible. The dish didn't read as overtly Japanese in style but, rather, once again, as a tapa.
Ouan also prides itself on its ramen. Offered in a number of variations, the best are the black and the red. The black ramen features homemade black garlic oil, chashu pork (marinated, braised pork belly) and, for an additional $1.50, a perfectly poached egg. The depth of flavor of the broth may not have been at the level of Kearny Mesa's Yamadaya, but it was not far off. The red version is not exactly spicy; instead, it's painted and perfumed by the chile oil.
Somewhat oddly for an izakaya, Ouan is at its best when there are the fewest people there. While the kitchen's talent is obvious, it seems to struggle when it gets busy. Happily, quality does not suffer, but the wait times get excessive.
Part of it may be the size of the menu. Ouan also offers sushi—nigiri (the horse mackerel is particularly good), rolls and chirashi—as well as sashimi, other noodles (both soba and udon) and donburi rice dishes. It's an extensive menu. But, then again, Ouan doesn't necessarily do its izakaya thing the way that others do. It's at its best with its "snacks" and specials, when it's playing izakaya-as-tapas-bar, one surprising taste coming on the heels of the next.