As I weave my way through the expected traffic of Hillcrest, just after five on a golden autumn afternoon, I see Brittany, a fellow writer at SanDiegoRestaurants.com and my dining partner for the evening, standing outside the front door of Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan. My eyes lock in on the vacant parking spot right in front of the restaurant. While there are plenty of parking lots adjacent to the restaurant, it is hard to argue with parking five steps from one’s destination.
Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan opened in the summer of 2012 when Chef Tetsu “Tecchan” took over the business that once occupied where the restaurant now stands. Located just outside of the heart of the Hillcrest neighborhood in uptown San Diego, this hip part of town is home to a slew of Japanese eateries. Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan however is unique in its menu featuring yakitori, ramen, and okonomiyaki. The items available offer diners a true Japanese dining experience, and the atmosphere of the establishment adds to the authenticity of the restaurant.
As we enter Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan, Kahori the manager, greets us with a warm smile and a bright, “Hello! Welcome!” I feel transported back in time and place, to the Yakitori establishments I dined in when I visited Japan a number of years ago. The narrow restaurant has a line of three booths on the left wall, and five wooden tables on the right. Towards the back of the dining room is the open kitchen, which features a bar where 10 people can sit and watch as Chef Tetsu “Tecchan” prepares each dish as it is ordered. Chef “Tecchan” (his nickname) began his career as a Sushi Chef in Osaka, before moving to the states. He worked in a number of Japanese and Sushi restaurants, beginning in Tennessee, before he settled in San Diego.
Izakaya is without a doubt modeled after traditional Japanese Yakitori establishments, with its traditional Japanese artwork and paper lanterns, but the most noticeable difference is an obvious one; I can read the menu at Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan. While in Japan, my inability to understand the menu led to an interesting culinary adventure. Some of the foods I ate, I am still not sure as to what they were. Fortunately, this is not an issue at Izakaya.
The menu at Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan features appetizers like Edamame, Gyoza, Deep Fried Tofu, and Deep Fried Garlic. A wide selection of Yakitori includes Asparagus Bacon, Tomato, and Small Smelt Fish. Teppan Grilled Food such as Pork with Kimchi, Scallop and Asparagus grilled with Mayo Sauce, and Korean-style Grilled Spicy Chicken are available as are Charcoal Grilled Food like Shrimp and Saury. Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pizza) has my curiosity peaked. Salads offered include Seaweed and Calamari. Rounding out the menu are Beef and Chicken Rice Bowls, Ramen, and Desserts.
As we take a seat at the bar facing the open kitchen, Chef Tecchan is already dishing up various plates full of yakitoris, teppan grilled items, and a couple of Binchotan charcoal grilled plates. If unfamiliar with yakitori, the phrase refers to grilled food, impaled on a bamboo skewer, and served in bite-sized pieces. Before us is an array of items: Beef Tongue, Quail Egg, Pork with Ponzu radish, Chicken Thigh with Green Onion, Beef, Chicken Thigh, Salmon Grilled in Foil, Charcoal Grilled Squid, and Charcoal Grilled Mackerel.
Kahori offers us a drink, and glancing at the menu, I see I have quite a few choices. Standard soft drinks are available, as is green tea served either hot or cold, and the Japanese staple Calpico. These are all well and fine, but I am in the mood for an adult beverage, and Izakaya offers a nice variety of Japanese flavors that fit this bill. A half dozen Sake choices, five types of Chu-Hi, three Fruit Sake, three barley Soju and two sweet potato are available for those who do not imbibe beer. For those of us who do however, bottles of Asahi, Sapporo premium, Koshihikari-Echigo-, and Orion are chilled and ready to serve. I however decide on a Sapporo draft, and the large mug arrives ice cold.
We dig in. I begin with the Grilled Squid, which is remarkably fresh and tender. I squeeze fresh lemon on the sliced portions of cephalopod; the fresh citrus blends well with the ponzu sauce in which I dip the rings of sliced squid. I chew away happily, and end up having a little more than my share of the Grilled Squid, but Brittany graciously excuses my slight gluttony.
I move on to the Salmon Grilled in Foil. A hearty chunk of pink fish rests atop a bed of onion and Bunashimeji mushrooms. The top of the filet, covered with a slice of lemon and a tangy citrus sauce, looks delicious sitting in the folded piece of foil. Of the small dishes, the Salmon Grilled in Foil is certainly my favorite. The salmon, citrus sauce, onions, and mushrooms meld their flavors together flawlessly in this well executed dish.
To wrap up the seafood, I try the Grilled Mackerel next. The grilled fish filet is comprised of one side of a whole mackerel, and tastes as any good oily fish should. The flavor has a strong taste of the sea without being unpleasantly fishy. A slight smoky flavor, imparted by the use of the Binchotan charcoal grill adds a delicate layer of taste to the freshly grilled fish.
After sampling the seafood, it is time to move out of the sea and on to the menu items from dry land. I try the Beef Tongue. I’m a fan of the flavor of tongue, as it is about as rich a beef flavor as one can have, but the texture can a be a bit too tough for some to bear. This is the case for Brittany who comments that the taste is good, but the toughness is a little too much for her. I do not mind though, because this leaves more for me to enjoy, and I do so with gusto.
Having finished the tongue, I remove a portion of the Beef Yakitori, and the nice cut of cow is a milder tasting and slightly easier to chew version of the other beef dish I have already polished off. The simple seasoning of what tastes like soy sauce and pepper accented by the flavor of the Binchotan coals. This dish tastes like steak, cooked on a skewer, with Japanese seasoning.
I take my portion of the Pork with Ponzu radish and pop it in my mouth. The pork, cooked well, with the meat featuring the sweetness inherent to the nature of the animal. The Ponzu radish lends a citrus punch, which is not overbearing but brings a nice texture to the otherwise simple skewer.
Having gone from sea to land, I move on to the winged animal portion of our meal. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, it is the egg who is first as I remove one of the marble sized Quail Eggs from its skewer. I chew the pleasant orb, reminiscent of a chicken egg, but with a higher ratio of yolk to white. I like eggs, and this little Quail Egg is no exception. The yolk is my favorite part of an egg, and the added yolk flavor only enhances my enjoyment.
Next up on the plate is the Chicken Thigh with Green Onion. This skewer features alternating chunks of chicken meat and chopped green onion. The chicken has a slight hint of onion flavor from the cooking process, and the onion, sweetened from having been cooked over coals pairs well with the mild chicken flavor. Like the rest of the yakitori, this is a simple yet good offering.
Last up on the first course is the skewered Chicken Thigh. To ensure even cooking, the filleted thigh retains the bone. This adds some juiciness to the meat, as the bone imparts some added moisture when cooking. Seasoned in a similar manor to the other dishes already enjoyed, there are no excessive herbs and spices to overpower the flavor of the poultry. I like simple flavors, and the Chicken Thigh with its light seasoning and well-cooked texture is a fine way to round out the first course.
The first course done, Kahori asks us if we enjoy spicy foods, to which both Brittany and I reply with a resounding, “yes!” Available in both slim and flat noodle variants, we each try one of the Tonkotsu (pork broth) Ramen bowls. The soup, presented to us in a large black bowl, is a feast for the eyes as much as for the appetite. The contents of which meld together to form a collage of flavorful ingredients, the bamboo shoots, sliced pork, green onion, ginger, Kikurage mushrooms, bean sprouts, egg, and ramen noodles all come together like a symphony playing in harmony. The satisfying soup, with its spicy broth, is a meal within itself.
Seeing the Okonomiyaki on the menu, in spite of my having more than enough food in my stomach, I feel like I would be missing something special if I were to skip this “Japanese Pizza”. Roughly translated, okonomiyaki is either "what you like" or "what you want", depending on who you ask. This savory pancake dish can be prepared any number of ways, and like a traditional pizza, there is a slew of topping from which to choose. The dish consists of a batter mixed with shredded cabbage and what the menu calls, “a variety of ingredients”. We decide to try the Pork Mix version with jalapenos mixed into the batter.
The Okonomiyaki arrives, the bonito flakes that top the saucer like item wiggle and dance because of the heat. Due to my being more handy with chopsticks, I get first crack at the item. “How does it taste?” Brittany inquires. “Kind of like a pulled-pork sandwich!” I enthusiastically reply. At this, Brittany digs in and confirms my analysis. The thick, pancake like dish with its cabbage, pork, and jalapeno filling is a real treat, and I am glad I made room to enjoy this unique dish.
With the meal ending, I thank Chef Tetsu and Kahori for the wonderful dinner. I live near Yakitori Izakaya Tech Chan, and will without a doubt return. I look forward to coming in after work one day to sample their generous Happy Hour special that offers discounts on select sushi rolls, beer, sake, as well as appetizers. Brittany and I make our way into the growing darkness of the crisp fall evening. I escort Brittany to her car where we take in the sites of Hillcrest’s weekday evening crowd. People are in and out of the small boutiques and bookstores that line the streets and the trees glimmer with white lights strung through their leaves and branches. It feels as if I have just dined in Japan, yet here I am, walking the streets of San Diego. There is something enchanting about the feeling of having taken a trip without leaving the comfort of home, and Yakitori Izakaya Tec Chan offers just that.