(Formatted with All Pictures here:
Over the years, Shin Sen Gumi (in all its incarnations) has become a good ol' standard in Southern California, a regular stop for locals for a hearty bowl of Hakata Ramen noodles, or for their delectable Yakitori / Kushiyaki (roasted skewers of meat and vegetables over Binchotan (Japanese white charcoal)). The Shin Sen Gumi restaurants have earned their popularity through good food and their boisterous service (where the entire waitstaff and cooks will simultaneously belt out a warm "Welcome!" "Cheers!" or "Thank You!" when you enter, toast your companions for the first time, or ask for the check, respectively).
I've been to most of the Shin Sen Gumi specialized restaurants over the years, and while I like most of them for one reason or another, the standout would have to be Fountain Valley's Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori specialty shop (next door to their Ramen restaurant). I've been visiting this branch of Shin Sen Gumi since their Grand Opening years ago, so this will be more of an accumulation of years worth of visits while focusing on the latest dining experience.
The Fountain Valley Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori specializes in roasted skewers of chicken and other meats, and vegetables, roasted in skewers over Japanese wood charcoal. I hadn't been back to Shin Sen Gumi since my Japan trip and my amazing experiences at Yakitori Bincho, so I was curious how one of my long-time favorites would compare.
An indelible aspect of every visit to Shin Sen Gumi has been the raucous, effervescent energy that's present from the moment you step in: The entire staff and cooks shouting out a hearty "Welcome!" in Japanese. :) It should be noted that every visit to Shin Sen Gumi Yakitori (both Fountain Valley and Gardena) has been with a good group of friends who enjoy Japanese Food & Sake, so that probably adds to my favorable impression of the atmosphere. (^_~)
On this visit, we sat down and started off with a nice bottle of the excellent Kubota Manju Dai Ginjo Sake from Niigata Prefecture, Japan. This is considered one of the top Sakes in the world and a favorite of mine as well. A nice aroma (as usual), clear and dry as well, this was a good starter for the evening. :)
Looking at their fold-out menu, it seems Shin Sen Gumi has updated their Small Plates selection, and the menu in general has been given a facelift with beautiful Japanese calligraphy (in addition to English translations). We ordered a variety of classics, and their Buta no Kakuni (Pork Belly Stew) arrived first, a favorite dish of mine in general.
The Buta no Kakuni was as rustic and tasty as always: Wonderfully sweet and savory from the mirin, shoyu and long-stewing of the Pork for hours upon hours to create this mouth-watering dish of Pork Goodness! (^_^) The portion is a little small for the price ($6.50), but it's still good. (Note that Buta no Kakuni is pretty fatty and depending on the chunks you get, it can range from ~mostly meat and little fat, to mostly fat and little meat :). It doesn't exceed the amazing Buta no Kakuni I had in Tokyo, but it was pretty good (especially with the porky broth poured over a bowl of rice! :).
Next up was their Jidokara (short for "Jidori Karaage") (Crispy Deep Fried Chicken). Their Jidokara has been consistently decent over the years, and it was the same today. The Chicken meat was a little overcooked (being slightly too rubbery), but still decent, and just fine with the drinks. :)
At this point, we ran out of the Kubota Manju, and ordered a bottle of my favorite sake, Takeno Tsuyu ("Dew of the Bamboo") Junmai, from Yamagata, Japan. Even though it isn't Dai Ginjo, Takeno Tsuyu has such a wonderfully smooth taste with an amazing clean finish, it's by far my favorite drink in the world. (^_~) To quote one of my Yakitori Hounds upon quaffing a shot: "Legendary."
The Nankara (Deep Fried Chicken Cartilage) arrived next. Nice and crispy, with good chunks of Chicken Cartilage, this was delicious, especially with a tiny dab of Salt and the Takeno Tsuyu Sake. Although, after having the greatness of Yakitori Bincho, this version has become only "good, but not great."
The first of our Yakitori / Kushiyaki items appeared, translated as Fried Tofu on their menu. These were pieces of Fried Tofu that are then roasted over the white charcoal. Simple and delicious, especially when eaten with the Negi (Green Onions) and fresh-grated Ginger.
Next up was their Sasami Umejiso (Chicken Breast w/ Plum) and their Zuri (Chicken Gizzard). The Sasami Umejiso was as usual: Chunks of Chicken Breast meat, topped with some Japanese Plum and Shiso Leaves. I love the flavor combination, and it's good, but not as good as Tomo-san's cooking at Yakitori Bincho. The Zuri was a little overcooked tonight (but generally fine), and both are good pairings with Sake.
The Geso Kushi (Squid Legs) arrived next. Wonderfully smoky and lightly crisped from cooking over the Binchotan, this was delicious!
Shin Sen Gumi's Tebasaki (Chicken Wing) was cooked perfectly, however, their Tebasaki has in general been one of their weaker dishes. I still enjoy it, but (not to sound like a broken record) it falls short of the great Wings I've had at Yakitori Bincho and at a Kushiyaki specialist in Kyoto.
The Negima Tare (Chicken Thigh with Green Onion, Yakitori Sauce Flavor) arrived next. This was the favorite of everyone this evening, and one of the standouts at Shin Sen Gumi in general. The Chicken was cooked just right, and their Tare Sauce with the smoky chunks of Green Onions were perfect together!
The Sasami Wasabi (Chicken Breast w/ Wasabi) arrived soon after. These pieces of Chicken were moister than their Ume counterpart earlier, but in general over the years, both versions are equally as good, depending on which flavor you prefer more. The spiciness of the Wasabi combined with each bite of the Chicken Breast is a great flavor combination.
Shin Sen Gumi's Negima Shio (Chicken Thigh w/ Green Onion, Salt Flavor) used to be a favorite of mine, but after Japan and Yakitori Bincho, it just doesn't compare. It's still a good Negima Shio and better than many places out in So Cal, but it falls short of the best I've had.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Shin Sen Gumi are its Buta Bara Maki dishes (anything Wrapped with Pork Belly :). Their Shiso Maki (Shiso Basil Wrapped In Pork Belly) arrived and did not disappoint: Delicious, crispy Pork Belly wrapping the oh-so-fragrant and herbally Shiso Basil. Excellent!
Their Uzura Be-kon (Quail Egg Wrapped In Bacon) is another classic: The delicious little Quail Eggs working perfectly with the porky smokiness of the Bacon. Another great pairing with Sake or Beer. :)
One item that they were sold out of on this visit is their amazing Tomato Be-kon (Tomato Wrapped In Bacon). The sweetness of the Cherry Tomatoes with the crisp Bacon is something to behold! It's one of the great items at Shin Sen Gumi.
Their Shiitake Mushrooms arrive next, and as simple as it sounds, there's something amazing about eating fresh Shiitake Mushrooms that've been slowly roasted over wood charcoal. The earthiness and wonderful fragrance of the Shiitake Mushroom, combined with a touch of the Binchotan flavor... excellent! There were a few pieces overcooked tonight, but in general we've never had a problem.
The Asupara Maki (Asparagus Wrapped In Pork Belly) arrived perfectly cooked. Tasty chunks of Pork Belly and Asparagus combining together to make another classic pairing.
Their Buri no Karupaccho (Yellowtail Carpaccio) arrived next. This was off of their Small Plates menu, and featured some nice, fresh Yellowtail topped with a Garlic-based Sauce and Sprouts. The garlic sauce, sprouts were a great contrast to the Buri itself, although it might've been a touch too overpowering. Still, an enjoyable dish.
We finished off the Savory portion with Okura (Okra), which was a nice foil to all the meat dishes we'd had earlier. The smokiness of the Binchotan really accents Okra nicely.
I had no idea how our party had enough room for Dessert, but they insisted on ordering some. :) We started off with their Green Tea Creme Brulee, which had a nice, seared top, not too thick, and the Green Tea flavors weren't too pervasive, either, making for a nice Creme with a touch of Green Tea taste.
Their Apple Pizza is by far the wackiest item at Shin Sen Gumi, being as one can imagine, a "pizza" of Apple Slices baked, and topped with Cinnamon and a generous scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream. It's a fun way to end the evening, with Apple and Cinnamon and Vanilla being timeless pairings, and working just fine in this "pizza" format. :)
On our visit tonight, the Fountain Valley Shin Sen Gumi's main Yakitori Chef, Nagao-san, was off (on vacation), so that explained some of the overcooking that happened with some of our dishes (over the years, whenever Nagao-san is in, we've never had a problem with our skewers). Service was just fine, with the waitresses and the kitchen staff cheering us on when we toasted each other, thanking us for our patronage when we asked for the check, etc. The battle cry-like callouts that happen throughout the night are an inherent part of all things "Shin Sen Gumi," at all their different incarnations, but I feel it's especially boisterous and ever more fun at the Fountain Valley location. :)
Our total in general comes out to about ~$60 -$70 per person, but that's due to the many bottles of Sake that my Yakitori Hounds consume. (^_~) The Kushiyaki Skewers range from $1.95 - $3.00 per Skewer.
Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori in Fountain Valley has consistently delivered good Yakitori / Kushiyaki (Roasted Skewers of Meat and Vegetables) to Southern California. With a great selection of Sake and one of the most extensive Yakitori Menus (for variety of skewers), its popularity is warranted and well-deserved. While it may have declined slightly in light of Yakitori Bincho's arrival (although Bincho is currently temporarily closed), Shin Sen Gumi continues to offer something very few of the other Southern California Yakitori restaurants have: A fun, festive, dynamic atmosphere, while still delivering good food and drinks. Shin Sen Gumi still makes me feel at home the moment I step in: A whirling, fun House Party that's just under control with delicious eats and great drinks! (^_^)
*** Rating: 8.5 (out of 10.0) ***
Shin Sen Gumi Robata-Yakitori
18315 Brookhurst St., #1
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Tel: (714) 962-8952
Hours: 7 Days a Week, 6:00 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.