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Chef and Kennedy High School graduate Craig Takehara once worked in an upscale kaiseki (multicourse dinner) restaurant in Beverly Hills. He also trained in Japan, where inexpensive chicken skewers served on the street are “as popular as street tacos are in Mexico,” Takehara said.
His travels taught Takehara, 37, that Japanese cuisine goes further beyond the traditional sushi counter than the current Sacramento dining scene indicates.
“A lot of the foods here are roughly sushi-based foods,” Takehara said. “There are so many types of Japanese cooking that are not being utilized.”
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In early April, Takehara and his wife, Tokiko, did their part to expand horizons by opening downtown Sacramento’s Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining, which emphasizes meat and vegetables cooked over imported Binchotan charcoal, which heats up to 1,000 degrees and higher. Binchoyaki serves the grilled items on skewers, in small portions, along with edamame, Japanese fried chicken and other small plates. This gastropub – or izakaya – style is popular in Japan.
Though izakaya is not new to the Sacramento region – Yakitori Yuchan has been going strong in Davis since it opened in 2014 – it’s the hippest thing to hit Sacramento’s edge-of-downtown mini-Japantown in a while. Or at least since the 2014 closure of Doughbot, the artisanal-doughnut shop that once occupied the 10th Street space near W that now holds Binchoyaki.
Maple-bacon doughnuts have given way to skewers of pork belly grilled over charcoal derived from Japanese maplewood and to tables full of multigenerational Japanese American families.
“I grew up with a lot of Japanese American friends, and I still have quite a few friends here in town,” Takehara said. Those friends bring their children and parents with them to dine at Binchoyaki. The new restaurant sits across 10th Street from dessert stalwart Osaka-Ya, one of a handful of remaining neighborhood businesses with Japanese cultural roots.
When he was scouting potential restaurant sites, “I noticed that the area down here was kind of shrinking down,” Takehara said. “Finding a location here was exciting. Maybe we can help bring back some life to the old neighborhood.”
Menu: Each table gets a sheet of paper listing meat, fish and vegetables for grilling, and a pen. Diners mark their choices, and whether they want grilled items accompanied by shio (salt) alone or shio and tare, a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, green onions, ginger and sake. A server then delivers the sheet of paper to the kitchen. A separate menu lists other, non-grilled dishes.
Price point: Grilled selections run $3-$13. Other small plates run $2-$15. One must order at least a few dishes to fill up at Binchoyaki, but prices are low enough that the total tab remains reasonable.
Ambiance: Binchoyaki’s storefront façade, cleanly scrubbed, no-fuss interior and blend of hipness and neighborhood authenticity remind us of South, the Southern-food restaurant that sits a few blocks away, at 11th and T.
Drinks: Twenty-five sakes. Nine types of shochu, the Japanese distilled beverage. Bottled and draft Coedo Japanese craft beer.
First impressions: The grilled meats we tried were tender and juicy, with the tare, which tastes like a less-sweet teriyaki, enhancing but not outshining the essential taste of the chicken thigh and pork belly.
We also liked the “krispy rice” rolls, which are deep-fried to a Rice Krispies-esque crunch on the outside but creamy inside, and topped by Japanese mayonnaise and spicy tuna. The grilled hamachi, however, tasted overly fishy and not at all like it should carry the biggest price tag ($13) on the grill menu.
Our server was upbeat and knowledgeable, and getting to watch the cooks work the grill makes one feel like part of the process.
Try it if: You like your coals hot and your Japanese food non-sushi-based.
Skip it if: One-way streets bother you. Because Binchoyaki sits near the corner of two of them, and it can take a few go-rounds to find a parking space.
2226 10th St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday