Last night I went to dinner for the first time at Tanto (one of the South Bay izakayas) with a friend of mine who raves about the place. He's also been to Saizo several times but likes Tanto a little more, though he says the food at Saizo is more creative. We went to the San Jose branch, which is larger than the Santa Clara branch. My friend says the menu is slightly different at each one.
Four of us shared various small plates. I'm really happy that most of the menu is translated into English, unlike many of the other izakayas. There is a small side menu with about 15 items in Japanese only, but we just ordered off the rather large (about 50 items?) main menu.
- Salt grilled (shioyaki) duck. Six small thin slices of duck with attractive grill marks were served. The meat didn't have the fattiness often associated with duck, and the shioyaki preparation made it taste less ducky than expected. This dish was quite good but I wouldn't say it was great.
- Garlic steak. Succulent cubes of beef were served with chopped scallions and garlic with a light, slightly sweet soy/dashi broth. Though not garlicky, this dish was REALLY good, I even drank the sauce straight.
- Braised Nagasaki-style pork. Another winner, with meltingly-tender cubes of pork in a somewhat heavier but also sweet and delicious sauce.
- Sashimi moriawase. Two smallish slices each of hamachi, salmon w/ ikura, mackerel and one other fish (snapper?) were presented, as well as two sweet shrimps (amaebi). I only tried the salmon and amaebi and the freshness was pretty good, though the amaebi could have been sweeter and the ikura a tad saltier/firmer.
- Chili shrimp. Like on Iron Chef, the sauce was made with ketchup so that it's not too spicy for Japanese tastes, but the ketchup was deftly handled so as not to overwhelm the sweetness of the shrimp. Even so, I prefer the non-Japanese spicier renditions of this dish.
- Grilled rice balls (yaki onigiri). These were square (instead of triangular), larger, and softer than the yaki onigiri I had at yakitoris in Japan. The rice ball was freshly made, and the grilling was delicately done so there was a lightly crunchy exterior with fluffy, moist rice inside. A bit of cod roe was inside, but it was quite light in taste and complemented the ball perfectly. It doesn't have the distinct smoky grill taste as the ones I've had before, but it's great in its own way.
- Anago tempura. Though not bad, the crunchy tempura coating was a bit too much for the eel and obscured the taste.
- Red snapper with mizuna salad. The heaping plate had less snapper than expected, and the mizuna was mixed with various baby greens and shredded daikon in a light dressing. It was good, but would have benefited from more fish.
- Grilled whitefish/smelt? (shishamo). These small, thin fish were grilled til crispy and full of tiny white eggs. They were less salty and tasted fresher than when I had this dish in Tokyo, and good for what they were.
The fifth person in our group had the nabeyaki udon. She just traveled to Japan a month ago and had this dish several times there, but claimed she liked the Tanto version best. My boyfriend has been to Tanto for lunch and recommends the clam ramen.
Anyways, dinner for the four small-dishes samplers was $27/person including tax. I would definitely go to Tanto again and order the garlic steak, nagasaki-style pork, and grilled onigiri again, plus try other things on their menu. The quality was high and service was good -- they didn't make us feel unwanted despite the fact that we weren't Japanese (unlike at Lakuni, for example). The restaurant wasn't that busy from 8.30pm when we arrived to 10pm when we left. Their booths are also more comfortable than many other tatami-room booths I've visited :)
1306 Saratoga Ave (at the corner of Payne, in the Albertson's shopping plaza)
San Jose, CA