How long are we going to continue hearing izakayas described as "Japanese tapas"? With the undwindling popularity of these eating and drinking establishments in Vancouver, there are now probably more people familiar with izakaya than tapas and it's probably only a matter of time before we start hearing tapas explained as "Spanish izakaya". Really, they're entirely different beasts and if you aren't sure what an izakaya is, the best way to find out is, of course, to go eat at one! The dishes are conducive to sharing and accompanying drinks so an izakaya is the perfect place to spend an evening with friends, hopefully sampling a large chunk of the varied menu and often creative beverage offerings. The Lower Mainland - and especially the West End of downtown Vancouver - has been spawning a seemingly endless renaissance of great izakayas and, if local popularity is any indication, they've likely popped up all over the west coast if not all of North America.
As is the case with all Japanese cuisine, freshness and traditional ingredients are vital and Vancouver's proximity to the ocean (as well as, I suppose, Japan) is definitely a key factor in the success and high quality of local izakayas. I've personally been frequenting the izakayas of downtown Vancouver since 2005 but did not until recently make it to Kingyo Izakaya on Denman street even though it's been open for two or three years. Due to its decor and the exterior of the building, I assumed it would be on the higher end price-wise and potentially suffer from too much style over substance like some of the other "trendy" izakayas I've visited.
Photos by Jun Matsumoto, from the Kingyo website
However, the majority of dishes are under $10, comparable to the other izakayas in the surrounding neighborhood. There are also a lot of more deluxe items on the menu; wagyu (kobe) beef is closer to $20 and sashimi platters will obviously run higher but the value is competitive. The atmosphere in Kingyo is a really good balance between Aki's humble, traditional, classic look and the careful sleekness of modern restaurant design options. It feels very modern yet avoids the problem I have with some other izakayas that try to be so trendy and "nightlife-y" they feel more like a lounge or nightclub than a comfortable dining establishment (Hapa Izakaya, for example, I feel crosses the line into a kind of snobby lounge that can't back up its style with high quality food). Food should be the most important thing about a restaurant and everything I've tried during two extensive visits to Kingyo have impressed me...but enough talk, here are our photos:
Stone Grilled Beef Tongue
I can't find anything to criticize about the food at Kingyo, everything was just right. It's a lot of fun to cook the meat on a stone (next time I want to try their Wagyu beef in a similar format) and all the items tasted really fresh, of course. I was surprised to see the fried squid listed as calamari and not ika karaage but it really was a Japanese flavored calamari, prepared perfectly. Every dish was really balanced and just the right amount of food for two of us to get enough of each item, it's the kind of place that makes you feel like ordering one of everything! It was also my first time trying duck and I'm definitely a fan now. We were too full for the decadent pork miso soup which I really liked on my first visit. Kingyo is great value and a fun place to eat and drink (oh yeah, Kingyo means goldfish and their sake is served in handmade, raku ware-style [Japanese earthenware pottery] goldfish, very nice touch) and has definitely found a place on our izakaya rotation.