Jun
11
2009

Japanese Jump Around Dining

Hot spots for Izakaya, otherwise known as over-the-top dining

THERE ARE NOT enough small, crazy, jump-around joints. I mean the kind of place where you order gigantic bottles of beer and eat scolding octopus balls and marinated tongue off a dozen tiny plates. Where the bartenders wear samurai bandanas and knock back shots of shochu[1]  and leap over the bar, racing to the kitchen to point and laugh at a busboy who’s dropped an armload of tiny plates on the floor. There are not enough exclamation marks for the exuberance of these places.

You find them on 32nd Street in Manhattan (the ones on St. Mark’s Place are too subdued to qualify). San Francisco’s supposed to have a few. As a beacon to Asian trade and cultural infiltration, Vancouver owns it.

In Japan, the tradition is known as “izakaya,” and loosely translates here as exuberance for the sake of exuberance. Or japa-tapa. Or anything-goes food.

At the Guu in Richmond[2], between plates of marinated eggplant and raw tuna drowned in wasabi mayo, you might comment on a teacup adorned with kitschy fish taxonomy and diabolical Japanese script. “Yours for six bucks,” the hostess will tell you with a mischievous grin. She’ll wrap it
delicately when you pull out the cash.

Proper jump-around workers are proper maniacs, over from Japan on a short-term work/study visa. They speak clipped kung fu film-English and have a style somewhere between geisha grunge and inflated anime. They scream “Irashaimase!” when they see you. (Don’t worry; it means “Welcome!”) And screaming it repeatedly does not tire them out. On the contrary, they gain power with every scream—with every kind of weird over-the-top act they see or commit.

To gather this power yourself, you must nibble on paper-thin lotus root and drink a little bit too much plum brandy. You must scream your own lungs out. You must do this in as many places as you can at the same time. Or as close to the same time as you can. In Japan, this is known as “ladder drinking”—the kamikaze pub crawl from the office to the train, where you pass out and somehow wake up at home in time to have dinner with your family.

In Vancouver, you’ll begin this climb at the intersection of Denman and Robson. At Kingyo Izakaya (871 Denman St.; 604-608-1677), they’ll hand you a hot towel, and if you sit at the bar—and you should always sit at the bar—a chef named Makoto Kimoto will ask: “Would you like a drink?”

You will reply: “What do you recommend?”

He will say: “Everything.”

You will shake your head and ask what he drinks. He will tell you he likes beer. And you will say: “I like beer too.”

Now it is he who will shake his head. Because even though you may like beer, you will not convey so with enough sincerity. (It’s true: you’re still eyeing the sake list, which is almost a full page, and includes a version made locally on Granville Island.) And so Makoto Kimoto will look deep into your soul, and his voice will crack harmoniously as he strains for you to understand: “I liiiiike beer.” And the beer he brings you is called Dude beer. It disappears quickly and Makoto Kimoto nods excitedly, eyes wide, clapping his hands.

“I like beeeeeeeer!” he shouts.

“I like beer, too!” you reply. You had forgotten how much.

A big hot rock comes out with some delicious stew inside. And then oysters with cheese. And more Dude beer.

And then you will be at Charcoal Grill Diner Zakkushi (4075 Main St.; 604-874-9455). You are with your vegetarian friend, ordering edamame and agedashi mabo tofu. Behind the charcoal bar, a master griller plays air guitar. Another air-drums. Another jumps in one spot. Frantic music comes from an iPod. You ask: is that meat in the mabo? And the charcoal masters fall over themselves to see. They destroy the meat dish. They apologize; three times, six times—a dozen times in total. So much shame! They bring out new tofu. On your way out, they scream “Goodbye, veeeeegetable!” This makes you smile.

You jump from one place to the next, smiling. Miso black ramen noodles at Motomachi (740 Denman St.; 604-609-0310). Chinese dumplings at Gyoza King (1508 Robson St.; 604-669-8278). Hot dogs jammed with daikon, seaweed and wasabi at the Japadog cart (845 Burrard St.). Don’t get hung up on stuff like “true Iazakaya” or even Japanese cuisine[3]. You don’t even have to drink beer or sake—the alcohol-free Tokyo Marble Pop is even more profound. You are out in Vancouver for a night, seeking only reckless Asian kids. And a happy feeling.

FIGHTING FATIGUE

Chris Koentges: “Do you get tired of shouting all the time?”
Guu chef: “No.”
CK: “Never?”
GC: “I see shouting as one of my exercises.”

GUU'S JUMP-AROUND DRINK

CK: “What’s a jump-around drink?”
Guu hostess: “It’s called a jump-around drink because of the way it changes colour and flavour as the ice melts. The turquoise jump-around drink has vodka, capico, soda and a lemon-flavoured ice ball. When you drink it, order salmon with seven friends.”

Footnotes:

[1] Shochu is a low-calorie Japanese alcoholic beverage with vast food-pairing potential, commonly distilled from barley, sweet potato or rice.

[2] At some point on your ladder crawl, you will end up at one of the Guus (guu.izakaya.com). Guu is the sound the stomach makes when you’re hungry, and it also sounds like good. The meal ends with frozen grapes. It’s a tiny thing. But it makes you smile. No two Guus are alike: Guu Original (838 Thurlow St.; 604-685-8817); Guu with garlic (1698 Robson St.; 604-685-8678); Guu otokomae (105, 375 Water St.; 604-685-8682); Guu sushi (2790, 4151 Hazelbridge Way, Richmond; 604-295-6612). This one’s upstairs in the Aberdeen super mall—close enough to the airport for a quick lunch while you wait for your flight.

[3] One notable omission is Vancouver’s beloved, award-winning Hapa Izakaya (1479 Robson St.; 604-689-4272, or 1516 Yew St.; 604-738-4272) in Kitsilano. It lacks the nobody-knows-English-but-they-all-shout-loudly kamikaze style of the Guus. But it’s good for a more subdued introduction to the style.
 

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