Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The L.A. Treasure is BACK! Yakitori Bincho REOPENS... as Izakaya Bincho

Earlier this year, a wonderful hidden gem of a restaurant was discovered on Chowhound in Yakitori Bincho, a small mom-and-pop restaurant literally run by 2 people, Tomo-san (the Yakitori Chef) and his wife, Megumi-san, who ran the front of the house. They arrived from Japan in the hopes of opening up a Yakitori (Roasted Skewers of Meats and Vegetables) restaurant that truly excelled in that discipline. After multiple visits, Yakitori Bincho exceeded all my expectations and delivered THE best Yakitori in the L.A. / O.C. area (no hyperbole).

Unfortunately, they were closed down by the City due to lack of certain Fire Permits, and disappeared for almost 5 months. I had nearly given up hope, but they finally reopened this week(!)... with a slight hitch:

They are now known as "Izakaya Bincho," with their slight name change reflective of the unfortunate restrictions the City of Redondo Beach has placed upon them: According to Tomo-san, after their neighboring shops complained about the charcoal smoke coming from their restaurant, this prompted the Fire Dept. and other City Departments to shut them down. In the end, it was deemed that using charcoal was too dangerous and a nuisance (uhm... have they ever seen the numerous Yakitori restaurants all over L.A. and O.C.??).

As a result, Tomo-san and Megumi-san have switched to an Izakaya (Japanese Pub / Small Plates) Menu, while hoping to earn enough money to move out of this location to a new location (and new city) that allows them to cook their dream cuisine: Yakitori / Kushiyaki skewers. Megumi-san confided in me that she hopes they can get enough business and move within "1 year" or so.

From my previous visits, they were always down-to-earth, humble and delivered truly great food, so I had no qualms about paying them a visit immediately. (^_~) I grabbed one of my Japanese Cuisine Hounds and off we went for their Grand Re-Opening!

Izakaya Bincho is still in their same location, right on the Redondo Beach "International Board Walk" portion of the pier. They have no sign installed yet, so if you're visiting, be on the lookout for a simple, homely open restaurant with a dark wood bar, just north of Quality Seafood).

We were immediately and warmly greeted by Tomo-san and Megumi-san, who remembered me from previous visits. They bowed and thanked us for visiting and seated us immediately. :) Looking over their menu, they retained all the items they could from their Small Plates Menu previously, but added a bunch of new items that fit with a traditional Izakaya (Japanese Pub focused on Small Plates / Food). We placed our order and waited with anticipation.

One nice note: Tomo-san continues to use a special Jidori (Free-Range, Hormone-free Chicken) for all his Chicken-based dishes that he used to use for the Yakitori. The taste and quality was evident in each Chicken dish we had.

The first dish to arrive started off with a bang! Sunagimo Oroshi Ponzu (Fried Gizzard with Daikon Radish Sauce). Tomo-san crisps up the Free-Range, All-Natural Gizzard first, before serving it over a house-made Ponzu Sauce with fresh-grated Daikon Radish, and Negi (Green Onions).

This mouth-watering crispness and slight (good) chew from the Sunagimo (Chicken Gizzard) lends an additional fragrant aroma that only roasted Chicken can provide, and when mixed with the light sweetness and tartness from the Ponzu and Green Onions and Daikon Radish... we were totally blown away! Outstanding. (^_^)

Next up was a dish that Yakitori Bincho had mastered: Agedashi Tofu ("Deep Fried Tofu in a Soup"). This is a classic staple of many Japanese restaurants, and I was craving this dish ever since my last visit to Yakitori Bincho (almost 5 months ago). Since then, every rendition of this dish has fallen short, and I was curious and hopeful to see if Tomo-san could still capture the magic.

The dish arrived and smelled fantastic: A light, fragrant aroma from the Silken Tofu and the Dashi Broth. After one bite, all I could do was smile. (^_^) It was just as wonderful as before. The *crispy* crust gave way to fresh, Silken Tofu, with their house-made special Soy Sauce / Dashi Broth providing a light sweetness behind the beautiful savory Broth. This is the best Agedashi Tofu in So Cal (again)! My J-Hound could only smile as well.

The next item was a new item from their Izakaya Menu: Geso Yaki (Roasted Calamari with Salt or Soy Sauce Base). Roasted Squid is another classic dish, but now, without the Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal Tomo-san used to use) the Squid simply lacked the flavor that only roasting with Charcoal can give. :( The result was a rubbery, crisped Squid, lacking the depth of flavor that is the balance and main draw of this dish. Tomo-san is now forced to use a Salamander for these type of dishes, and the loss is apparent.

Our next dish arrived soon after: Tebasaki Pirikara-age (Spicy Chicken Wings). Despite the boring-sounding English name on the menu, this dish was anything but; we were in for a big surprise.

The Tebasaki Wings arrived with a gorgeous, glistening coat, and we could smell the roasted garlic well before Megumi-san brought out the dish. This was essentially a Japanese-style (or Tomo-style :) Fried Free-Range Chicken Wings with a house-made Spicy Marinade (just slightly spicy), and encrusted with fresh Garlic! The comparisons to Kyochon (the Korean Fried Chicken) immediately came up in our conversation after taking a bite. Izakaya Bincho's version is only mildly spicy (which I prefer) and while there's a beautiful Garlic aroma and bits of Garlic on each Wing, it wasn't anywhere near the overpowering version at Kyochon. The Chicken itself also tasted very fresh, and clean, and overall, this has become my favorite version of Japanese Tebasaki to date. Excellent!

Their Renkon Nikuzume (Stuffed Lotus Root) was a great item from their Yakitori Menu that they carried over. Only this time, it was cooked via the Salamander. Like the Squid, you lose something without the Binchotan (Japanese White Charcoal), but surprisingly the freshness of the ingredients and Tomo-san's earnestness came through: The Marinated Ground Chicken was so delicious, with their outstanding Tare (pronounced "Tah-Reh") Sauce. A touch of sweetness from the Mirin, but with a depth of flavor (from the Soy Sauce, Sake and other ingredients) that most Tare Sauces fall short on. It paired beautifully with the Lotus Root, and even without the charcoal, this dish turned out to be delicious!

Continuing on, I just *had* to get one of their Onigiri (Rice Balls). For me, Onigiri is a true comfort food; a properly made one is just *soul-warming* and brings great happiness. (^_^)v At Yakitori Bincho, they delivered the best Japanese Rice Balls I've had outside of Japan, and I missed them dearly (especially with so many disastrous versions I had in the passing months since my last visit).

We ordered one of their Ume Onigiri (Japanese Ume Plum Rice Ball). I was so happy to find out it was just like before: Made fresh-to-order, with *the* perfect Warm Rice, and plenty of filling, so that we got a beautiful taste of Ume in every bite! This was so... natsukashii (wonderfully nostalgic)! This was straight from obaachan in Tokyo! (^_^) Good, homemade Rice Balls are my favorite comfort food! (along with a few other items :)

As if things couldn't get better, the next dish represented another great comfort food: Zosui (on the menu oddly as "Japanese style Risotto"), which it's not quite. It's more like a Japanese Rice Porridge Soup with Chicken.

And like before (thank goodness), Tomo-san makes his Zosui *from scratch* when you order (most places that serve Zosui have it partially pre-made or completely pre-made with a quick heat-up before serving). Tomo-san takes some fresh chunks of Jidori (Free-Range) Chicken and starts putting together this Zosui. It took about ~30 minutes+ for it to come out, but it was worth it. So light and fresh, that only comes with a freshly stewed Chicken with fresh Rice and Egg! It still remains the freshest and best Zosui I've had in So Cal! Truly soul-warming goodness! (^_^)

The next dish unfortunately couldn't come close to the greatness of the Zosui: Ingen to Chi-zu no Kurobuta Ro-ru (Black Swine Rolls (with Green Beans and Cheese inside)). I'm always interested if a restaurant can make some great dishes with Berkshire Pork, so I was hoping Tomo-san could create something delicious with this dish.

Sadly, it was ~OK at best. There was a nice crispy exterior (not overfried, and with a fresh oil), but surprisingly that was all you could taste(!). Inexplicably, while visually you could *see* the Cheese, Ingen (Green Beans) and Pork, it tasted like... "crispy fried breading" more than anything. There was some texture change biting into the Berkshire Pork, but it was flavorless. Definitely disappointing.

The final dish of the evening sounded intriguing: Sakana to Yasai no Miso Fuoiru Yaki (Baked Fish and Vegetables in Foil (Miso)). Today's fish was Karei (Flatfish). Essentially this was a simpler version of a classic dish like Gindara Saikyo Yaki (Black Cod with Saikyo Miso). It was a nice effort, but ultimately it was average: Nothing standout, but nothing bad about the dish. The Karei (Flatfish) tasted fine, but nowhere near the buttery goodness of a Black Cod or Chilean Sea Bass.

Izakaya Bincho features Beer, Wine, and 6 different types of Shochu, along with 4 types of Sake and Plum Wine. We enjoyed a couple bottles of Karatamba Sake, from Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. Out of the 4 Sakes they serve, it's my favorite, with a nice aromatic nose, and a clean finish. It's not Kubota Manjyu, but it's pretty good. :)

Service is fine with Megumi-san being the 1 person that takes care of all the tables and serving food. She's as humble and sweet as can be. Dishes range from $2 - $11. With all that food and Sake, our total came out to be ~$38 per person (including tax and tip).

There's no denying that the new Izakaya Bincho isn't as strong as its former self (Yakitori Bincho). With Tomo-san being hamstrung by the City, not allowed to cook any Yakitori items (which is his true forte), there's a loss in greatness in the menu. But Tomo-san and Megumi-san were asking all the customers tonight for advice on what new Menu Items we would be interested in, and we had a long talk about some of the great dishes at Izakayas in Japan (and his favorites and mine). Tomo-san mentioned that he would be adding new dishes and expanding his Izakaya Menu based on input, and that shows a lot about them.

While they may lack the greatness that was their Yakitori (Roasted Skewers) Items, they still serve some of THE best items in certain categories that I've experienced in L.A. / O.C. From the wonderful comfort food of those freshly-made Japanese Rice Balls, to the Zosui (Chicken Porridge Soup), to the Agedashi Tofu and more, Izakaya Bincho has a great foundation to becoming one of the top Japanese Pubs around (at least until they can earn enough to move to a new location and city that allows them to cook their outstanding Yakitori skewers again). Here's to hoping this happens soon! (^_^)

Rating: 8.6 (out of 10.0)

Izakaya Bincho (formerly Yakitori Bincho)
112 N. International Boardwalk
Redondo Beach, CA 90277
Tel: (310) 376-3889

* Note: They only have 4 Tables and a long bar that seats 8 more people, so call ahead for reservations!

Hours: Tues - Thu, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Fri - Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:30 p.m.
Closed on Mondays.
Also Closed on the Last Tuesday of Every Month.


Secret Asian Man said...

THANK GOD! These people are heroes for what they've endured at the hands of mindless bureaucracy.
Their fortitude is amazing! I'm glad they've rebounded in good form. Now, its up to us to support them into their new location.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Secret Asian Man,

Yah, I'm really glad they finally reopened! Hopefully they'll be able to move out soon and bring back the amazing Yakitori. :)

T said...

Thanks for the post! I completely agree with you about the agedashi tofu. They somehow outshine any other rendition I've had to date.

Mr. Gohan said...

Thanks Exile Kiss! I only wish I got to try their yakitori :( Sadly they closed before I got a chance to dine there. I'll have to try the "new" place, but I can't wait till they reopen in a new location.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi T,

Thanks. :) I'm glad you found their amazing Agedashi Tofu just as delicious! It's a simple dish, but it's something I could eat every day if need be and never grow tired of it! (^_^)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Mr. Gohan,

That's unfortunate, but hopefully you enjoy their new Izakaya Menu in the meantime. Definitely try some of the dishes I mentioned above - especially with your love of Gohan (^_~), I think you'll find their Agedashi Tofu (w/ fresh Gohan, mmmm! :), and Onigiri, just down-to-earth and wonderful.

ila said...

yaaaaaah! i must pay Mama and Tomo-san a visit soon... we missed them oh so dearly.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Ila,

Yah, I'm really happy they're back again! :) Let me know if you end up going and what dishes you tried. :)

Pepsi Monster said...

Hi Exile Kiss,

Just to let you know in that I did go to Izakaya Bincho recently. I loved it and probably will go back a few times more to get more photos before I posted up my review.

My favorite dishes are the braised pork belly and their homemade ricotta cheese tofu. Those two are the highlight of my evening. I missed out on agedashi tofu. I think my dining mates want meat all night long. LOL

Will definitely be back. Thanks for the writeup!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pepsi Monster,

Thank you, and Yokatta! (^_^) I'm so glad you enjoyed your time with Tomo-san and Megumi-san. Aren't they the best? :)

Definitely! I love their Buta no Kakuni (Braised Pork Belly) and their Ricotta Tofu was nice as well. Definitely give their Agedashi Tofu a try, as well as their Zosui and for the best, humble, simple Onigiri (Japanese Rice Balls), don't overlook those either. :) Enjoy!

Mark said...

Thank you Exile Kiss for the review and recommendation - However, this is one that I will not visit ever again. The staff there was incredibly rude and we were even denied entrance on an empty Friday night at 7pm. The waitress gave us little reason and closed the "tent", turned her back to us, and put the "closed" sign up. I guess the economy isn't hitting this place very hard - to turn away customers on an empty Friday night.

This is not a reflection on your recommendations Exile, I've loved every review and recommendation that you have given - but I just cannot let this awful experience pass.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for the report back. I have no idea what would cause them to close their shop on Friday night; my condolences!

I've never run into any problems there before. I know that English isn't their native language (by a long shot), so that may have led to part of the lack of explanation to you, but it still doesn't excuse their action as you describe it. In my ~10 visits, they've always been courteous to me and other guests whenever I've dined there (not defending them, just stating my experiences). Take care~

Anonymous said...

We ate there last night and I loved the chicken wings and especially the mayonnaise shrimp! The stuffed mushrooms were very good. Try the roasted garlic as well.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the report back. Glad to hear you enjoyed your meal. :) Yes, their Tebasaki (Chicken Wings) are delicious, as are their Shiitake Nikuzume (Stuffed Shiitake Mushrooms). :)

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