Food & Drink

You Gotta Try This: Binchoyaki’s krispy rice sidesteps sushi reluctance

This is “You Gotta Try This,” The Bee’s series featuring one particular must-have dish at a local restaurant. Each featured dish is nominated by a reader. Got a menu item you want to shine some light on? Comment below or email reporter Benjy Egel at begel@sacbee.com.

Craig Takehara didn’t want sushi in his first restaurant.

It’s overrepresented in American portrayals of Japanese cuisine and tedious for chefs, Takehara said. Yet three years after Takehara and his wife Tokiko Sawada opened Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining at 2226 10th St., would-be customers still walk out after learning they can’t order California rolls.

“We still get people asking, ‘Do you guys have sushi?’ And it’s like, ‘No. And we never will.’ We should make a sign with that on it: ‘No sushi,’” said Sawada, who was born in Japan but grew up in Los Angeles. “Izakaya is all about drinking sake and nibbling on small food.”

The menu is centered around small plates, meats cooked on a 1,000-degree binchotan charcoal grill and various types of sake. But Takehara made one concession. A $10 dish called krispy rice is a nigiri-meets-county-fair collision of fat, seafood and spice, and is one of the few items to have stayed on Binchoyaki’s menu since the restaurant opened.

The dish starts with organic white rice from Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst, which is cooked and mixed with sugar, salt and vinegar to make sushi rice. The rice is then frozen in rectangular molds until ordered, when it’s deep-fried in Canola oil for three to five minutes.

Cooks dice bluefin tuna, sourced from Baja California by Sunh Fish, then mix it with a spicy mayonnaise-based sauce, sliced green onions and Japanese masago (eggs from a smalled fish called capelin). The sauce includes a Japanese mayonnaise called kewpie, chili oil and a spice mix called shichimi.

The tuna-sauce mixture is then spooned over four pieces of deep-fried rice, topped with serrano chili slices and served with housemade ponzu (soy sauce, chives, yuzu juice and a few other ingredients). Binchoyaki sells about 80 krispy rice plates per week, Takehara said, despite the dish only appearing on the dinner menu.

Takehara and Sawada also have a to-go restaurant called Kizuna Bento under construction on the ground floor of an eight-story building at 1430 Q St. Positioned near where downtown Sacramento meets midtown, its 3 a.m. weekend closing time will be geared toward bar-hoppers and service industry employees, while daytime grab-and-go options are meant for tight lunch breaks and quick dinners.

Binchoyaki is different. There’s no to-go service, partly because it doesn’t fit the izakaya pub model and partly because dripping fat from the charcoal grills coagulates on meat when left to cool. Then there’s the location in Southside Park, picked not so much for its foot traffic but for its roots as Sacramento’s post-World War II Japantown, Takehara said.

The area between L, O, Third and Fifth streets was bustling with businesses owned by people of Japanese descent from the 1900s-1940s. After 3,000 Sacramento residents were released from internment camps near the end of World War II, some tried to rebuild the old Japantown, only to have it demolished to make way for Capitol Mall in 1957.

A second sort of Japantown sprung up along 10th Street, and is now home to Kiyo’s Florist, June’s Cafe, Sakura Gifts and Binchoyaki as well as longtime mochi shop Osaka-ya. But Binchoyaki’s owners, whose 4-year-old and 10-month-old sons are the fifth generation of Takeharas raised in Sacramento, would like to see a heartier revival closer to the city’s Little Saigon area.

“You go San Francisco and you go to Little Italy, every lightpole has an Italian flag wrapped around it. There’s Italian businesses there, the Chinatown is great,” Takehara said. “It’s nice, it gives the city diversity. That was kind of the idea here too, and hopefully more Japanese businesses will come.”

Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining

2226 10th St., (916) 469-9448

Info: http://binchoyaki.com

Lunch: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

Dinner: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to midnight Friday through Saturday

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Benjy Egel covers local restaurants and bars for The Sacramento Bee as well as general breaking news and investigative projects. A Sacramento native, he previously covered business for the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas.
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