Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Welcome to Okinawa, Japan! (^_^) The Enjoyable Southern Island Food of Shin Okinawa Izakaya!

I remember hearing whispers of a possible Okinawan restaurant months ago, which made me very happy. It's always good when we can get specialist restaurants focused on specific cuisines. :) And then thanks to gachimai's early report on Chowhound (and subsequent feedback from others), my interest and excitement in Shin Okinawa Izakaya only increased. I quickly made arrangements for my first visit a few weeks after gachimai's report, and over the course of multiple visits, Shin Okinawa Izakaya has turned out to be a delightful window into the cuisine of Okinawa (and a fun Japanese Pub to boot)! (^_^)

On my first visit, my 'dachi Jotaru joined me to see what Shin was all about. We arrived on a Friday evening, and upon seeing the exterior architecture - with the classic Okinawan Shisa (Lion Dogs) (believed to ward off evil), and beautiful dark wood, hand-carved sign and doors - I could tell that this had the makings of a good dinner. (^_~)

As soon as we opened the door, we were greeted with a cheerful Okinawan greeting by the entire staff (like a feminine version of Shin Sen Gumi's more gruff "battle cry greetings" :). The inside was warm and welcoming, with a giant map of Okinawa painted on one wall, and bits of Okinawan decor and a festive layout throughout. This was going to be fun. :)

Opening up the menu, the first thing that caught my eye was that they were serving Awamori! Awamori is a traditional Okinawan alcoholic beverage, made from a Thai Rice (surprisingly). I had never tried Awamori before and was excited to be finally able to try out this famous southern island drink. I decided to try the Kumesen Awamori, from Kumejima, Japan. The Kumesen had a very clean initial taste, but a strong alcohol aftertaste, more similar to a Shochu than a Sake.

We quickly placed an order for a variety of dishes and soaked in the Okinawan decor and music while we waited for our food. :)

The first dish to arrive was the Rafutei (Simmered Pork Belly - Okinawa Style). This was essentially the Okinawan version of my beloved Buta no Kakuni dish found in many Izakayas (Japanese Pubs) and Kappo restaurants. :) I couldn't wait to try it!

With one bite, I was back in Japan, sitting on a sunny beach in Okinawa, enjoying mouth-watering, super-tender Pork Belly that's been stewed for hours; a Pork Belly that was so fragrant with Mirin, Shoyu (Soy Sauce), a bit of Sugar, and Sake that it has turned out to be my new favorite version of Buta no Kakuni in Southern California! (^_^) Local versions of Buta no Kakuni sometimes hits the mark for flavor, but the Pork is extremely tough, or undercooked, or chewy (or sometimes it's tender, but lacks the right flavors). Not so here: Shin Okinawa Izakaya hit the mark perfectly under the vision of Chef Douchu Nakayama (from Okinawa). Excellent!

(On a side note, I tried this dish again on my third visit, and one piece was a little tougher than I would've liked it, but it was still generally tender and retained the amazing flavors from my first visit. :)

The second dish to arrive was A-sa Ten (Laver Tempura). This special type of Kaiso (Seaweed) was one that I had never had as Tempura before, so I was curious how it would turn out. It arrived with a beautiful green hue, but taste-wise, it was more visually stunning than anything. The subtle Laver flavor was partially lost on the batter, which was a bit too thick and heavy for something this delicate. It wasn't bad, but we tasted more Tempura batter than the Kaiso itself.

Our next dish was Yaki Tebichi (Grilled Pork Leg), which was something I'd expect to see more on a Chinese menu than a Japanese one. Two large pieces came out, with a great sear and a nice aroma.

Similar to the Chinese version of this dish, there was a lot of skin and bones to work through, with some tasty bits of meat, but mostly cartilage (unless you're one that enjoys eating the skin (^_~)). It was very fragrant, with a nice simple sea salt and pepper infusion, and the bits of cartilage were good, but it may not be for everyone.

Another famous dish from the southern islands is Okinawa Soba (Okinawa Noodles in Fish Broth Soup). Contrary to its name, this Okinawan "Soba" noodle is nothing like the more common Buckwheat Soba Noodle that we're used to seeing, but more like a thick Udon Noodle.

Still, I was looking forward to trying Shin's interpretation of this dish. I took a bite and noted a chewy, doughy texture that seemed very familiar... and then I remembered: This was the exact same Okinawan Soba I had at the 2008 Mitsuwa Natsu Matsuri (Summer Festival) from the Sun Noodle Inc. booth! :( I realize it's unfair to expect most restaurants to make their own Soba Noodles, but this one was the exact same doughy, chewy mess of a noodle that I had tasted a month earlier, sigh. Other than that, the Broth itself was a simple, clear soup with a good base of Fish and Kombu (Kelp); the chunks of Kamaboko (Fish Cake) and Stewed Pork were a nice touch. Overall, it was so-so, not something I'd order again.

One interesting thing is that Shin Okinawa Izakaya only serves a traditional Black Rice (no white rice), which the menu says is "high in Vitamins B1 and B2." The Okinawan Black Rice had a nice, slightly nutty fragrance and matched nicely with the dishes we had that evening.

Another interesting dish we ordered that evening was their Gurukan Furai (Deep Fried Gurukan (Okinawan Fish)). The menu encouraged you to "eat the whole thing," and upon arrival we saw that they had fried the bones of the fish at such a high temperature that you could eat the fins and spine portions because they had become brittle and crunchy.

Unfortunately, the Gurukan fish was very tough and had a chewy consistency. This made it hard to finish this dish and just a bit unappetizing.

Our next dish arrived at about the same time: Go-ya Champuru (Stir-fried Bitter Melon, Egg and Vegetables). This was another famous Okinawan dish, with a quick stir-fry of Bitter Melon, Bean Sprouts, Onions, Tofu, and topped with Katsuobushi (Bonito Fish Flakes).

Like some of the previous dishes, it was served in a nice, rustic stone plate, and the Bitter Melon was wonderful! :) Note, that if you've never had Bitter Melon before, it is literally what its name states: A melon that's bitter. :) It's an acquired taste, but once you get used to it, it's a nice change of pace and a different flavor for your palate. (^_~) The Egg, bits of Pork Belly, and the fragrance of the Onions and the Katsuobushi all helped to temper the bitterness of the Bitter Melon.

Their Okinawa Takikomi Gohan (Okinawan Rice Dish seasoned with Soy Sauce and Boiled with Various Ingredients) was one of the better Takikomi Gohan preperations I've had this past year, with a nice earthy and fragrant savoriness, but at $5.50 for a bowl of this special rice, it feels slightly mismatched for price.

Our desserts arrived at this time, starting with the famous Sata Andagi (Okinawa Donuts). Basically Deep-Fried Dough with Sugar, a freshly-made Sata Andagi is a wonderful thing (as are all freshly-made Donuts (^_~)), but sadly, these Sata Andagi were room temperature and tasted as if they were made that morning or the day before. They were slightly tough on the exterior and the inside was a bit dried out.

But that was soon rectified with our next dessert: Beni Imo Dango (Deep Fried Red Sweet Potato Balls covered with Sesame). According to our waitress, the Beni Imo (Red Sweet Potato) is a very popular dish in Okinawa Prefecture, and I was thinking it might've been like a Satsuma Imo, or other variation of a Japanese Yam. But instead, this turned out to be a wonderful, naturally sweet (not overly saccharin) dessert of an earthy, nutty ball of pure deliciousness! :) Wow! These were so good, and freshly made, so that they were piping hot and so tasty! Very good.

This turned out to be an enjoyable meal and I wanted to try more items on the menu, so I wrangled a bunch of my Izakaya Hounds for a second visit a month later. :)

We started off by sampling a few more Awamori labels to see if there was one that everyone would enjoy. I started off tasting their Shimauta Awamori, which had a smoother finish than the previous Kumesen, but it was still a bit too sharp and strong for my tastes.

At this point our waitress noted our disdain with the sharpness, and then recommended a classic Okinawan alternative: Shi-Kwa-Sa- Jyu-su Awamori (Shikwasa Citrus Fruit Juice mixed with Awamori). Shin labeled the Shikwasa as an "Okinawan Tangerine" on the menu, and we decided to try the waitress' suggestion. :)

We went with a bottle of their Mizuho Awamori, and she brought out a full pitcher of their Shikwasa Juice to mix it with. The result was a tangy, slightly sour, but also sweet cocktail that made the Awamori much more palatable for my tastes (and everyone at the table agreed :).

We started off the evening with an order of their Ankimo (Monk Fish Liver). It was suprisingly fresh tasting, with a nice mellow sweetness. For an Izakaya it was a risk to try this dish locally, but we're glad we did. :)

The second dish arrived about the same time: Suku Garasu (Baby Fish Pickled in Salt over Okinawa Tofu). Chef Nakayama basically takes pickled Kibinago Fish and serves them atop some Tofu, simply prepared. I found the Kibinago Fish to be strongly salty (in a good way), with a nice slight brininess, and it went well with the Tofu. My only hope is that Shin can find a way to make their own Tofu (or bring in a local, fresh version) instead of the prepackaged kind, which would really elevate this dish.

After having the delicious Bitter Melon dish last time, I was curious how their Go-ya Ten (Bitter Melon Tempura) would fare. It turned out to be curiously prepared, with multiple slices of Go-ya (Bitter Melon) stuck together with the batter and deep-fried in big "folds." It was odd, and it resulted in a bit too much breading in some pieces. Besides that, without any other ingredients present (unlike the previous version with Eggs, Onions, Bonito Fish Flakes, etc.), it made the Bitter Melon *really* stand out... this was extreme bitterness brought to the forefront. Overall, two of us were able to handle the level of bitterness :), so it was OK, but with the odd bundling of the Tempura together, it resulted in some pieces soaking up too much oil and being clumped.

Luckily, the Andansu- (Pork Meat flavored with Miso) was served next and quickly made everyone forget about the Bitter Melon Tempura. :) This innocuous-looking dish of small bits of Diced Pork marinated in a house-blend of Miso turned out to be two of my Izakaya Hounds' favorite dish of the evening! The special blend of Miso with the deep, porky goodness and bits of Sesame Seeds and Green Onion was delicious by itself, but the subtle sweetness with the unctuousness of the bits of Pork became outstanding when paired with the Awamori drinks or Sake or Rice. :) Delicious!

The So-ki Buni (Simmered Pork Sparerib, Okinawa Style) arrived next. I knew their Rafutei (Simmered Pork Belly) was delicious from a previous visit, but their So-ki Buni turned out to be just as good! The Pork Spareribs were long-stewed in a similar mixture of Mirin, Soy Sauce, Sugar and Sake, and served with Stewed Daikon Radish and a dab of Karashi (Japanese Mustard), and the result was... heavenly! The Stewed Pork Spareribs were wonderfully tender and supple, and mouth-wateringly delicious! This was tied for my favorite of the night! (^_^)

One curious dish on the menu that one of the Izakaya Hounds insisted we try was their Hiraya-chi (Okinawa Style Savory Pancake). When it arrived, it looked very similar to the Chinese Tsong Yoh Bing (Green Onion Pancake), and when we took a bite, it *was* very much like a slightly modified version of the more famous Chinese dish. :) Besides the similarity, it was actually a solid version of the dish, with a thin pancake-like structure, housing slivers of Green Onion, and pan fried. It was a little oily, but it was also thinner than most Chinese versions of this dish. Overall it was tasty and went very well with the glasses of Awamori liquor that was being consumed throughout the night. (^_~)

The next dish was one that I was emotionally preparing myself for heartbreak from the moment I uttered its name to our waitress: Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls). I only ordered it because everyone at the table was clammoring for this classic and famous Japanese dish :), and I was secretly hoping that it would finally be the first decent version I've had in L.A.

Our order arrived, and the Takoyaki looked pretty decent, topped with Takoyaki Sauce and Katsuobushi (Bonito Fish Flakes). I gently picked one up and placed it in my mouth: A light crispiness gave way to a light, fluffy interior, and a good-sized chunk of Tako (Octopus). It was actually pretty good! While it still fell short of the amazing version I had from a Takoyaki specialist in Japan, it was probably the best version of Takoyaki I've had in L.A. (but that's not saying too much).

Arriving soon after was the Tebichi (Simmered Pork Leg, Okinawa Style). The previous time, I had tried their Yaki Tebichi (Grilled Pork Leg), so this time we were trying out their Stewed / Simmered version. This version was even more soft and tender and gelatinous than the Grilled Tebichi, and I found it delicious! :) But again, a word of warning that you have to work through the pork skin, bones and bits of fat to get at the little bits of meat and mostly cartilage. It was a nice change of pace from the usual Izakaya offerings locally.

The Nasu to Kinoko Nibushi (Eggplant & Mushroom Mbushi: Stir-fried Eggplant, Mushroom, Okinawa Tofu with Miso Sauce) was slightly disappointing. The dish turned out to be just the sum of its parts, rather mundane, with the Tofu, Mushrooms and Eggplant steeping in this pool of "brown broth," that had notes of Miso, but was more reminiscent of an average vegetarian stir-fried dish in "brown sauce" at an average Chinese restaurant than the better recipes of Nakayama-san's that we had earlier. It wasn't bad, but there was nothing outstanding about it, either.

Almost as if on cue, our next dish arrived and it rebounded nicely: Tori no Kara-age Shi-Kwa-Sa- Ponzu (Fried Chicken, Okinawan Tangerine Ponzu). At most So Cal Izakayas, Kara-age (Fried Chicken) has become a commonly found and popular item. I wasn't sure how Shin would interpret this classic dish, but after one bite, *everyone* at our table just had to smile and pause while enjoying every bite. This was an outstanding version of the classic Kara-age, and the use of Shikwasa (Okinawan Tangerine) in the Ponzu Sauce was brilliant, adding a beautiful, unique sharper (yet still citrus-y and floral) note to each bite of the Fried Chicken! (^_^) I haven't ordered it again (yet), so I'm not sure if it's a one time homerun, but on this night, it was simply subarashii (magnificent). :)

At this point, we had finished up our bottle of Mizuho, and everyone was voting to switch over to Sake (most everyone enjoyed the Awamori with Shikwasa Citrus, but they wanted to finish the night with a good, smooth Sake :). Luckily, Shin Okinawa carried one of my favorite Sakes, and we ordered a bottle of the Tokubetsu Junmai Sake Suigei, from Kouchi, Japan. Taking a sip at this point, I suppose I just love the smoothness of Sake over Awamori and Shochu. (^_~) Smooth and clean.

Their Sakana Ten ("Fish Tempura") arrived at the same time as our bottle of Sake was delivered. On that night, Chef Nakayama used Maguro (Tuna) for the Tempura, and it turned out be a great choice: The Tuna tasted very fresh, and had a good meatiness to each bite, while still having the lightness inherent to fish, which made it hold up well in Tempura form. The house-mixture of Oyster Sauce, thinned out with Tentsuyu was a nice touch, adding an oceany saltiness that complemented the Maguro to the tee.

One of the Hounds present is a huge Sweet Potato lover, so we ordered their Beni Imo Korokke (Red Sweet Potato Croquette) just for her. :) Like the amazing dessert I had last time, there's just something wonderful about this Okinawan Red Sweet Potato that makes it stand out from the usual potato family. The Beni Imo matched really well with the Croquette crust, giving a great, subtle sweetness and still giving the starchy, satisfying goodness you'd expect from a Croquette in general.

Shin's Yaki So-ki (Grilled Pork Sparerib, BBQ Sauce) was just ridiculously good! The Pork Spareribs have a marinade of Mirin, Shoyu (Soy Sauce) and coated with Ginger chunks and they're grilled. The "BBQ Sauce" is a fragrant, complex Okinawan BBQ Sauce that has nothing to do with the classic American version.

The Spareribs turn out to be extremely tender and the grilled version is a standout, just as their Simmered version was earlier (I prefer their Simmered version, but this one was also very good! :). (Note: On my third visit, this dish was a little tougher than the first time I had this dish, but it was still generally, very tender and moist.)

We ended the night with a classic Izakaya dish: Hamachi Kama (Grilled Yellowtail Collar). Nakayama-san cooked this perfectly for us that night, with a nice lightly charred and very crispy skin on the outside, and a super-moist, fresh interior of Yellowtail! This was another excellent dish, and the best Hamachi Kama I've had in recent memory in So Cal. Excellent! :)

Service was simple and spot-on, as to be expected from most Izakayas. It's a Japanese "Pub," so you place an order and if you ever need more drinks or refills or any other needs, you can flag one of the servers, but they would also come by and check on us from time-to-time. Every one of our servers were nice and quick to fulfill our needs. No complaints. :)

Shin serves Japanese "Small Plates" / Izakaya Dishes, which range in price from $1.25 - $18 (for a Sampler Platter), with most dishes averaging about ~$6 - $7. We averaged about ~$45 per person (including tax and tip), but the average was high due to the liberal sampling of various Okinawan Awamori drinks and then Sake. (^_~)

Shin Okinawa Izakaya is one of the first, if not the first, Okinawan specialist in Los Angeles. There are some misses and uneven dishes from the kitchen (probably the result of trying to satisfy a wide range of tastes in L.A. with an expansive menu), but with so many outstanding dishes as well, such as their Rafutei (Stewed Pork Belly), Tori no Kara-age Shi-Kwa-Sa- Ponzu (Fried Chicken with Okinawan Tangerine Ponzu), Shin is worth a visit. With a delightful, warm atmosphere, friendly staff, and some distinctive Okinawan dishes, Shin Okinawa Izakaya is quickly becoming one of the better Japanese Pubs in Los Angeles.

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Shin Okinawa Izakaya
1880 W. Carson Street, Suite #A
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 618-8357

Hours: [Lunch] Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
[Dinner] 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 12:00 Midnight



ila said...

OooOooh Shin! I've always wanted to try it, but haven't because Okinawan food uses a lot of eggs (My dining companion slash best friend has severe egg allergy). It's great to hear that the rafute- is delicious. Some day... some day.

Anonymous said...

Great review. When my focus shifts to Japanese food, I'm going to have to give this place a serious look.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Thanks. :) Actually, Shin has many dishes that *don't* use Eggs, so definitely give them a try w/ your friends! (^_~)

Their Rafute, So-ki Buni, their Tori no Kara-age (Fried Chicken) and their great Beni Imo desserts. :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Noah,

Thank you. (^_^) I definitely can't wait to hear your thoughts on the place.

Dennis K. said...

Hi Exile Kiss, thank you for such a thorough post on Shin Okinawa. I look forward to checking them out in the near future. Btw, I remember my mother used to keep a jar of that pickled fish in the cupboard. It was some serious smelling stuff when she opened it! Cheers.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Dennis K.,

Thank you. :) Hope you enjoy your visit and please report back on your visit if you go.

Anonymous said...

THanks for taking the time to do such a detailed review. We took your comments very seriously as we decided our ordering strategy. Unfortunately, we left with a much more negative impression than you did.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi The Foodie Traveler,

Thanks for the report back. My sincerest condolences on your visit; I feel partially responsible in some way. :(

Like you, I found quite a few of their dishes underwhelming or just not good (avoid). But there are quite a few worth trying, such as their Rafutei (classic Okinawan dish / Pork Belly), Soki Buni (Stewed version and Grilled version), and a few others like their Beni Imo.

Unfortunately, it seems you hit all the land mines. Looking back on my multiple visits (and yours) I can see that without careful ordering one could order all the dishes that the kitchen doesn't do well enough and come away disappointed (and for a consistently good restaurant, there shouldn't be so many misses). Thanks again for your thoughts.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi The Foodie Traveler,

To let you know, I just came back from a follow-up visit (bringing some friends visiting from out-of-town that wanted to try the Okinawan eatery). For my 5th visit, their So-ki Buni (Long-Stewed Pork Ribs) was wonderful (just as good as before)! Their Rafutei (Pork Belly) was really good (again) tonight, as was their BBQ So-ki (Roasted Ribs).

Not trying to make excuses for the restaurant, just wanted to report back that the things they do well was still good, but we ran across a few duds as well (their new Unagi Kimo Yaki (Roasted Eel Liver(!)) was a bit too fishy; their Sata Andagi (Okinawan Donut) was still so-so.

Definitely a restaurant that has some really tasty hits and some misses.

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