"Something something something something, Torihei something something, haaaaaai..."
"Um, hi, Great White Whale of the Uncouth West speaking. Do you have a reservation available for three tonight?"
"Mmmmmm... perhaps we can put you on the waiting list?"
"Thank you, but I'll call back."
"Moshi-moshi... something something something something Izakaya Bincho something something..."
"Um, hi, Clumsy Caucasian Rhinoceros speaking. Is there a table available for tonight, please?"
"Mmmmmm... we are very busy tonight."
"Okay, thank you."
"Something something something something something?"
"Hi, is it possible to get a table tonight?"
"Something something something continued something!"
"Sumimasen, um, watashi-wa nihongo-ga dekimasen..."
"Something something something!" (click whirr) "Musha Torrance, can I help you?"
"Is it possible to get a reservation for three tonight at eight?"
"Mmmmm... you may have to wait a little while, but yes, we'll see you at 8:00."
And so we went, two friends and I, into a cute little izakaya on the corner of Western and Carson, barely over the city limits into Torrance. It's a cute place, with an enormous table in the centre and several little tables surrounding it. We were seated at one corner of the big table and handed hand-written (but photocopied) menus. We ordered sake (Nigori, because it was the special and I don't know anything about sake) and perused the menu. With the sake order I put in an order (I thought) for buta no kakuni -- braised pork belly.
With the sake came... yellowtail sashimi. Uh oh. Consternation on the part of the server. "It's okay," I said, "leave it here and we'll eat it too while the buta no kakuni is made."
Lack of anger; lack of a scene; lack of strain between us and the server: it was all good. I figured it was yellowtail sashimi, it was probably good, and we were hungry anyway, and nobody wants to drink sake without food in front of them. We then ordered "round one" of aburi saba, Musha fried chicken, a lobster roll and duck ponzu.
The yellowtail was very, very good, well-cut and very fresh. Slightly cold for my taste but I'd rather have it be slightly too cold than slightly too warm -- you can warm it up in your mouth, you can't cool it down. Aburi saba was mackerel sashimi, skin-on, which they took a blowtorch to at the table. The result was a slight char, which went really well with the hot mustard sauce and the tender fish. I really liked this one. Musha fried chicken (called "M.F.C." on the menu) was Asian-style deep-fried chicken, with a very crunchy crust. Mostly dark meat, which is more flavourful, and a mayonnaise-y type sauce. I liked it but my friends LOVED it. The lobster roll was chopped lobster meat with a little bit of mayonnaise, tucked with cucumbers inside nori. Like the best California roll you've ever had, but without rice. I can't call it sushi (no rice = not sushi) but it was very, very, very good. Duck ponzu was served cold, sliced roasted duck breast in ponzu sauce. It was very salty (would go GREAT with cold beer which is really sort of the point of an izakaya) but also really, really savoury. One of the friends pronounced this the best dish.
My vote for best dish goes to the izakaya standby, buta no kakuni -- pork belly braised in soy sauce, sake, mirin and a little ginger, with a potato and a hard-boiled egg, plus some pickle and a dab of the most incendiary (but sweet!) mustard on the entire planet. With all due respect to Mr. Franklin, buta no kakuni is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Meltingly tender fat; amazingly soft meat; sweet-salty sauce mixed with a sinus knockout mustard. You can practically feel your arteries hardening as you eat it but it is the most amazingly comforting dish.
We ordered another bottle of sake (which was disturbingly creamy and had a pinkish tint -- why?) and with it some negitoro croquettes and eggplant stuffed with crab. The negitoro croquettes were a favourite of the third member of our group -- negitoro being tuna belly chopped with leeks, and in this case, mixed with a bit of cream, breaded and deep-fried like katsu. They were served with a mayonnaise that contained something we couldn't figure out -- salty, though. Maybe salmon roe? It had a slightly orange cast. The eggplant was tender and the crab very sweet, but it was hard to eat and none of us would probably order it again.
Bearing special mention is the atmosphere. An izakaya is meant to feel like the Japanese answer to a proper British pub -- a place where everyone is having fun, where the atmosphere is convivial without being overwhelmingly twee or (worse) deafening. This place does it really well. Everyone seemed to be having fun. One group had a laptop out and were arguing about YouTube videos. Another group was clearly a boss and his subordinates (possibly from Honda or Toyota, both of which have enormous campuses in Torrance), who were joking around and laughing uproariously. A few shots of sake and the world takes on a most agreeable shine, where things are funnier. The acoustics are enough so that you feel more like "bar" than "restaurant", but not so cavernous that you can't have a reasonably intimate conversation, even at the big table in the centre.
Two things to note: the place gets hot, because some dishes (the tanshio, for example, which is grilled salted beef tongue) are cooked on braziers at your table, and the place tends to get very "close". Anyone who's ever been to a bar will know the feeling. You can easily escape outside for a few breaths of fresh air. The problem is worse in Santa Monica than in Torrance, because it's on a busy street (Wilshire) and the place is smaller. Also, if you order a pitcher of beer, know that they put a frozen plastic block in the centre to keep the beer cold, so the volume of the pitcher suffers.
Prices are right in line with every other izakaya I've been to. Dishes range from about $6 to about $15; portions are somewhat small because it's meant to be small plates, not main meals. Eat family style, don't order one dish per person. We spent about $115 between the three of us, including two 300 mL bottles of sake, tax and tip.
"There's a lot of happy in that place," said the friend. He's right. I love it, and the fact that it's 40 minutes away does not deter me.