Izakaya Explosion

Guu/Guu with Garlic/Guu with Otokomae 838 Thurlow St., West End, 604-685-8817; Guu with Garlic, 1698 Robson St., West End, 604-685-8678; Guu with Otokomae, 105-375 Water St., Gastown, 604-685-8682. Guu-izakaya.com Tasty shared plates reign supreme in these rooms teeming with hungry ESL students and thrill-seeking foodies. Like a bullet train to Tokyo, the authentic Japanese tapas come fast and furious—plunge into spicy hot pots ($6), grilled pork cheek with ponzo sauce ($4.80), and black cod with miso mayo ($6.30) that will have you calling for another bottle of sake. The best seats at all three locations are at the bar, which provides an entertaining glimpse into the frenetic kitchen.

Gyoza King 1508 Robson St., West End, 604-669-8278. The house favourite is, of course, gyoza—plump Japanese dumplings. Choose among chicken and vegetable, pork and chives, or a veggie version with spinach (about $4 for six, $7 for ten). Ramen or udon soup is popular, the nabeyaki udon tops—it’s packed with pork, egg, prawn and fish cake for $8.95. Japanese students and tourists frequent Gyoza for an authentic taste of home.

Hapa Izakaya 1479 Robson St., West End, 604-689-4272; 1516 Yew St., Kitsilano, 604-738-4272. Hapaizakaya.com Hapa blends casual Canada and young Tokyo with a soundtrack as modern and loud as the dark, super-cool room. Young, homesick ESL students and local foodies seek out and share homerun Japatapas like the negitoro (spring onions mixed with roughly chopped tuna belly). Must haves include the ika, a grilled whole squid marinated in garlic teriyaki. The drinks list is fine, and the quality of the food hasn’t wobbled since expansion.

Irashai Grill 1368 W. Pender St., Coal Harbour, 604-688-8697. Irashaigrill.com Nestled among the glass-and-steel towers of Coal Harbour, Irashai Grill is the sleek counterpart to its casual Kerrisdale cousin. Imaginative sauces accentuate the fresh sweetness of raw-bar selections: shochu amaebi is Pacific prawn marinated in premium Japanese vodka; hama wasa is yellowtail sashimi drizzled in a delicate wasabi dressing. Artful sushi rolls like the Irashai Black Eel (cucumber, mango, and avocado topped with tempura eel) incorporate organic five-grain Japanese rice. Give two days’ advance notice for multicourse omakase (chef’s tasting menu) and its wealth of culinary surprises. If you’ve got room for dessert, try the matcha crème brûlée.

Kakurenbou 793 Jervis St., West End, 604-696-9965. Kakurenbou.ca Kudos to owner/architect Kay Kaneyoshi (who also designed Kingyo) for a sleek room with leafy bamboo that ensures a little playful privacy. (Kakurenbou means “hide and seek.”) Daikon salad with plum dashi dressing ($6.30) unfolds in layers of flavour, and the Japanese omelette ($10.50) with enoki mushroom and snow crab sauce is an unctuous delight. Upscale offerings like stone-grilled Kobe beef (market price) and premium sakes that top out at $20 per shot may be a tad ambitious for the beer-snacks crowd, but the stellar food and extensive list of hard-to-find sakes still make this a must visit.

Kingyo 871 Denman St., West End, 604-608-1677. Kingyo-izakaya.com This West End upstart sets the standard for Japanese tapas with efficient, friendly service, sake-fuelled conviviality and a diverse menu of delicious small plates. The sleek room, all lacquered wood and stone walls, conjures romantic images of feudal Japan; the communal table at its centre is surrounded with green bamboo, creating privacy in a boisterous space. Ex-Guu chef Koji Zenimaru turns out grilled beef tongue ($6.50), chicken kara age ($5.80) with three types of salt, and fresh assorted sashimi (three kinds for $15) artfully presented on bamboo.

Nan Chuu 1160-8391 Alexandra Rd., Richmond, 604-276-8391. Nan Chuu—literally “southern kitchen”—is the Richmond child of West End izakaya institution Gyoza King and a worthy successor at that. Learned preparation of prawn, pork, and chive gyozas ($5.25) and juicy tori no karaage (fried chicken, $5.75) keep the classics timeless, and new items, such as the maguro yukke (albacore tuna tartare served with a quail egg; $6.25) and atsugiri gyu tan (grilled beef tongue, $5.95), are also great.

Ping’s Café 2702 Main St., South Main, 604-873-2702. Pingscafe.ca With virtually no signage, anyone passing through this stretch of Main would have trouble finding Ping’s. (They only recently added a sandwich board out front.) But once inside and through a heavy grey curtain, find a minimalist 30-seat space of zinc tables fronting grey, pleated banquettes under a hundred amber-emitting cones of light (courtesy of local designer Omer Arbel) suspended from an intricately pressed ceiling. The food concept is a salable cross between Japanese homestyle yoshuku (Japanese-style western food) and irreverent izakaya. Find dishes like a hamburger-wrapped hard-boiled egg coated in panko crumbs served on mismatched vintage dishes.

Shuraku Sake Bar & Bistro 833 Granville St., Downtown, 604-687-6622. Executive chef Masahiro Omori’s menu focuses on izakaya-style small plates and his culinary skills shine in exquisitely crafted dishes like barbecue back ribs—perhaps the best barbecue you’ll ever eat. They are succulent and fall-off-the-bone tender. Omori’s inventive sushi creations include the roulette roll: spicy chopped scallop, avocado, and cucumber topped with negitoro and lotus-root chips, accented by a dramatic stripe of nori soy sauce. Complement spectacularly fresh sashimi with a selection from the impressive sake list.