Vancouver snapshot: Japanese cuisine beyond sushi

A bartender prepares drinks at Guu, one of a growing number of izakayas, or Japanese pubs, in Vancouver.
A bartender prepares drinks at Guu, one of a growing number of izakayas, or Japanese pubs, in Vancouver. (Remy Scalza)
By Remy Scalza
Sunday, January 24, 2010

Welcome to the dark side of Japanese dining: izakayas. Greasier and louder than a sushi joint, these Japanese pubs have invaded Vancouver, B.C.

Izakayas have reportedly been around for a few hundred years in Japan. Their patrons, mostly men, congregate after work to drink and snack on deep-fried tofu, chicken and savory salads -- the buffalo wings and nachos of a parallel universe -- before heading home, often roundly soused. But like the hibachi and sushi before it, izakaya cuisine has found a global following, and Vancouver, with its strong ties to Japan, is at the forefront of the izakaya explosion.

"The food is good and it's nonthreatening," says Carolyn Ali, food editor for the city's leading alternative newspaper, the Georgia Straight, rattling off a list of izakaya crowd-pleasers, from chicken karaage (deep-fried and spicy) to bacon-wrapped enoki (a type of mushroom). "And it's more of a fun, late, after-work-type atmosphere than sushi."

At Guu, in the waterfront Gastown district, the Friday night atmosphere borders on the lunatic. The scene on the floor is choreographed chaos. Servers race by with brimming pitchers of Sapporo. Others shout orders to the kitchen in rapid-fire Japanese. As I maneuver to my table, I pass large groups in progressive stages of merriment. The menu is largely dedicated to the deep-fried: pancakes, pork ribs, squid, octopus, chicken, tofu and potatoes. With all the calories and cholesterol, it's not hard to understand the appeal.

"In the last five years, izakayas have really taken off," Ali says. "I think frankly we're almost at the saturation point, if we're not there already."

But for intrepid foodies, there's a new Japanese frontier in Vancouver awaiting exploration: the postmodern quandary that is yoshoku cuisine. Yoshoku restaurants serve Japanese takes on traditional Western food. The results are unexpected and sometimes bizarre: fried-rice omelets and bunless hamburgers or spaghetti drizzled with cod roe instead of tomato sauce.

Yoshoku traces its murky origins to the mid-19th century, when a newly outward-looking Japan began importing international cuisine in the hopes that Western food would help its people grow taller and stronger. More than 150 years later, these bastardized dishes -- from secondhand British curries to pasta knockoffs -- figure just as prominently in Japanese diets as sushi.

"It's quirky to Westerners, but these are the foods you see in Japan all the time," says Ali.

The packed house in Vancouver's Yoshoku-Ya -- a standby on a downtown street lined with hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries -- is mostly Japanese, with a smattering of in-the-know Canadian Japanophiles. What looks to be a mom-and-daughter team hustles from table to table, dropping off big plates of curries, katsus -- breaded deep-fried cutlets -- and omelets. I order the hambagoo, a yoshoku classic loosely based on the hamburger. It arrives sans bun, an imposing mound of ground beef swimming in a fast-congealing demi-glace. There's a plate of Japanese sticky rice. Some overcooked veggies.

But it would be too easy to be cynical. On the eve of the Olympics, I take a loftier view of my hambagoo: as a model of international cooperation, a shining example of a better burger and a brighter future.

Well, at least until I take the first bite.

Scalza is a freelance food and travel writer based in Vancouver for the Olympics.

Guu, 375 Water St. (one of several locations), 604-685-8682, Small dishes $4.50-$9.50.

Yoshoku-Ya Restaurant, 774 Denman St., 604-687-4970. Entrees $8.50-$17.

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