Beyond the hype about Golden 1 Center and its potential transformative effect on the local dining scene lay a more proven narrative: that of the hometown chef and/or restaurateur who hones his or her skills in bigger cities before opening a place here.
Such people are leading, if not a revolution, then the steady evolution of the local scene. People such as Michael Thiemann (Empress Tavern, Mother) and more recent old/newcomers Tom Schnetz (La Venadita), Andy Mirabell (Skool) and Craig Takehara (Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining), the last three of whom opened restaurants within the past five months.
Though it’s tempting to try to attribute the influx to a groundswell of new interest in the city tied to the arena, the truth is more complex. For starters, Skool sits toward upper midtown, La Venadita in Oak Park and Binchoyaki at 10th Street near W. Though these sites remain within Yelp-ing distance of the arena, they’re hardly the stone’s throw that Empress is.
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Binchoyaki, in particular, isn’t riding any wave. Takehara, a 37-year-old Kennedy High School graduate who worked as a chef in fine-dining French and Japanese kitchens in Southern California, had planned to open a restaurant with his pastry-chef wife, Tokiko Sawada, since not long after they met at culinary school in Pasadena.
Sawada, born in Japan but raised in Southern California, moved with her husband to his hometown in 2009, their restaurant dream always front of mind. Takehara worked at Lounge on 20 (now LowBrau) and as a restaurant consultant before starting the two-year process of opening Binchoyaki. Sawada, who had moved to front-of-the-house positions in L.A. with an eye toward applying her knowledge to her own place, became (and remains) the manager of a Sacramento Starbucks.
The move here had been, in part, a lifestyle decision, based not on what the city might become, but what it was seven years ago, and before that – a nice place to raise a family. The couple wanted to leave L.A.’s fast pace, Sawada said, and be closer to relatives. (Takehara’s mother often watches their 2-year-old son).
It’s a story as old as time, or as Sacramento, which has been the California city you marry rather than the one you date since Los Angeles had orange trees downtown and San Francisco was the Barbary Coast.
Such restaurant origin stories, though less sexy than the one everybody’s telling about the arena, are no less vital to the local scene’s progress. Because they yield places like Binchoyaki, 3 months old and already one of Sacramento’s best restaurants.
To a clean-scrubbed, big-windowed storefront space on a stretch of 10th Street that holds remnants of Sacramento’s post-World War II Japantown, Takehara and Sawada have introduced an alternative to Sacramento’s sushi-dominated Japanese restaurant scene – izakaya, or gastropub, dining, which involves small plates of mostly cooked items.
The small restaurant’s focal point is a grill, fueled by imported binchotan charcoal that reaches upward of 1,000 degrees. Skilled cooks take paper fans to small, sliding windows within the grill that help control heat beneath meat and vegetable skewers.
A counter seat provides a clear view of these cooks, who deserve as large an audience as possible, given their flawless cooking.
Diners receive a pencil and paper listing grill items that range in price from $3 to $13. The diner indicates the number of items desired and whether she or he wants them with tare – a barbecue sauce composed of soy, sake, sugar, ginger and other ingredients – or plain salt.
Plain salt is good, but tare’s better. Subtler and less sticky than its teriyaki cousin, tare delivers only a touch of sweetness and noticeable yet not overwhelming spikes of salt.
Sauced or not, the skewered meats and vegetables taste of char but mostly of their own essence. Okra and zucchini remained slightly crunchy post-grill. Chicken thigh, pork belly and beef tongue all were tender.
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Takehara attributes the tenderness to well-timed cooking. Sawada said it’s more than that. Takehara worked as a butcher, and can align meats on skewers so they cook effectively. It’s a science, she said.
Anyone who has tasted yakitori packed too tightly on a skewer or raw onion on a shish kebab will recognize the Einstein in Takehara’s approach.
Were grilling the only thing it did well, Binchoyaki would be exceptional. But that’s just the start. Along with its grill menu, Binchoyaki offers a separate small-plates menu plus a wall board filled with daily specials. Most cost $15 or less. Many showcase Takehara’s fine-dining background and knowledge of French, Italian and Spanish cuisines as well as Japanese food.
Takehara works on these items in the kitchen behind the grill area – and behind the restaurant, where he smokes heirloom tomatoes for a vinaigrette that goes atop the fat, raw Miyagi oysters he sells for $1 apiece on Wednesday nights ($3 otherwise). Vinegar snap, tomato sweetness and smoke combine to round out the oyster’s sea-saltiness.
The oysters also are great in their other $1 form – grilled, with tare. So great, and so well paired with crisp Mio sparkling sake, that they trip the greedy-Gollum instinct even in someone paid to tell the public about restaurants. That instinct that tells you to keep $1 oyster night close to the vest.
Takehara’s continental influences also inform his drunken clams, which add butter, and housemade pappardelle, to the traditional sake served with the dish. Clean and light, its clams plump and its pasta absorbing enough sake to offer a hint of briskness, this dish stood in delightful contrast to the rich, French-influenced basil and miso marinated black cod that sat on the plate beside it. Contrasting these dishes, along with being a delicious exercise, demonstrated Takehara’s versatility even within the Japanese-European subgenre.
The fatty, soft cod tastes, in its butter, rice-wine vinegar and sake beurre blanc sauce, like luxury. So does Takehara’s duck ramen. Its duck-breast slices emerge juicy instead of oily after Takehara renders the fat on the breast and sears it off, French style, before coating the pieces with potato starch and searing them.
Takehara adds the duck to a housemade dashi, the seaweed and bonito flakes suggesting a lightness of flavor that might be illusory, given how the potato starch also thickens the broth. There’s a lot going on here, all of it good, including noodles with just enough chew.
Binchoyaki’s European tendencies evoke Skool’s Japanese-leaning seafood fusion. But whereas Skool’s mashups, like cioppino/ramen squid-ink spaghettina, are brash, Takehara tends to stick to a foundation of one cuisine and add nuance from others.
His version of elote, or corn on the cob, comes with lime and cotija cheese and tastes like the Mexican original before one notices the Japanese seven spice. Takehara’s wonderful hamachi (yellowtail) carpaccio dish, which holds slices of creamy avocado and tangy ponzu sauce, is more Japanese than Italian.
Some dishes, like Binchoyaki’s soba noodles and (expertly fried and seasoned) tempura taste Japanese, period. Takehara’s fresh, filling miso soup, which on our lunch visit contained snow peas, always holds seasonal vegetables. Local and seasonal is how they do it in Japan, said Sawada, who spent her youthful summers there, and how they do it at Binchoyaki.
But the gastropub’s beers, including a medium-bodied draft sweet potato Coedo that goes beautifully with grilled items, come from Japan.
Sawada makes Binchoyaki’s desserts, including an exceptionally fresh-tasting crème caramel. Her front-of-the house expertise shows in her well-trained service staff, which is efficient, knowledgeable and aware of when to be chatty and when to hang back.
Binchoyaki has infused new life into its stretch of 10th Street, which holds only a handful of Japanese American businesses these days, the best-known of which is the Osaka Ya dessert shop. Sawada said they chose the space, previously home to Doughbot donut shop, out of reverence for their heritage and because izakaya spots should not be fancy.
Takehara and Sawada opened their dream restaurant not just in a lower-key city than the one in which they gained their professional footing, but in an unassuming space in a neighborhood whose glory days were decades ago. Such determined modesty only makes the magic produced within this space more striking.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to properly reflect the historical era of Japantown.
Binchoyaki Izakaya Dining
2226 10th St., Sacramento, www.binchoyaki.com, 916-469-9448
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 4-midnight Friday and Saturday
Beverage options: Two Coeda beers on draft; Coeda and other Japanese bottled beers. Sake and shochu.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten free options: Yes, but mostly by request
Noise level: Moderate to loud
Ambiance: The design is minimal at this storefront space in an older building, yet the atmosphere is lively, thanks to a showpiece element – a 1,000-degree grill operated by cooks who use paper fans to control the heat.
This modest space holds an adventurous, classically trained chef: Craig Takehara, who nails traditional Japanese dishes but also shines when he incorporates different cuisines. Service is top-notch, and the cooks handling the ultra-hot grill at the 3-month-old restaurant already show expertise.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit at lunchtime, when Binchoyaki offers a more limited menu and focuses on “sets” (like bento boxes, sans box) with soup and salad. But we loved our two dinners, from the perfectly grilled meat and vegetable skewers to an unforgettable duck ramen and French-influenced black cod dish.
Knowledgeable and highly attentive but never obtrusive
Most items cost less than $15 – a bargain menu considering the quality of ingredients and craftsmanship involved. But it’s small-plates place, so level of hunger determines total cost.