At the Lazy Ox Canteen on the edge of Little Tokyo, the happy clamor of downtown denizens tucking into chef Josef Centeno's Ox burgers, crispy pig's ears and brick-roasted mussels leaks out the door into the street. But Lazy Ox is no longer the only restaurant on the block. Next door is a second restaurant from Centeno's partner Michael Cardenas. By day, Cardenas is still an integral part of Innovative Dining Group (IDG), founders of Sushi Roku, BOA and more. By night, he's the force behind Aburiya Toranoko, the onetime Matsuhisa general manager's take on izakaya, or Japanese pub food, one with a distinctly urban, hip-hop vibe.
To decorate the shoebox-shaped room, he turned loose the three tattoo artists who did his own ink. One covered a long brick wall with a mural of cartoonish koi fish in bright acid colors. Another painted a magnificent tiger behind the sushi bar. The third covered the top of the bar with his artwork. Black chandeliers dangle overhead. A skinny communal table runs down the middle and a series of black leather booths hugs one wall.
The menu from chef and partner Hisaharu Kawabe, an alumnus of Matsuhisa and various Nobu locales, is nothing if not big. What do you feel like? Sushi? Udon? Tempura? Skewers of chicken skin or gizzards? Maybe just some fatty pork? Plunge right in if you already know what you want. But then you might be missing the specials, a full-sheet list that seems to change almost every day.
I tend to stick with the specials because they include what's most unusual, what's freshest, what's available only in limited quantities. Char-grilled marinated pig's feet with a luscious gelatinous texture. Crispy fried octopus tentacles. Or live octopus sashimi with a punchy yuzu pepper sauce. Or tiger shrimp tempura in a crisp, shaggy batter with a curry aioli for dipping.
In Japan, you'd hardly ever find a restaurant that had sushi, tempura, noodle dishes and more all in one place. The Toranoko kitchen seems to handle the challenge well, though sushi may be the least impressive category — it's fine, but cooked items are generally better.
Craving oysters? Order beautiful little Kumamotos on ice with dabs of caviar or uni on top. Fried oysters are golden and crunchy, hot enough to burn your tongue when you bite into them. Jidori fried chicken is kind of perfect too, and great with an Echigo Premium Red Ale.
Or, if you're interested in sake, ask beverage director Kurtis Wells to suggest something from the well-curated list. He's in love with the stuff and will tell you as much or as little as you want to know about each possibility. The small wine list has lots of choices for less than $50 and quite a few for less than $30. Wines are half off on Wednesday nights; sake is half off on Mondays. That's how I came to drink a Fiano di Avellino from Italy, normally $52, for just $26. Sakes run as high as $125, but most are $30 to $60, with some served by the 10-ounce carafe or by the glass. Wells was formerly the mixologist at Hatfield's and has developed a number of cocktails for the restaurant. Ladies get half off any of them on Tuesday nights.
Service is a big plus, fast on the uptake, cordial and enthusiastic. The crowd has a strong Asian contingent, as to be expected for this new-generation izakaya. Women pop edamame out of the pod while somehow managing to text at the same time. Sake flows. Noodles are slurped.
But even the most distracted eater pulls focus when a baby block-sized cube of dense and delicious sesame tofu with ocher Santa Barbara sea urchin roe laid across the top arrives on the table. Crowned with a tiny dab of wasabi, it is one of the best bites here. Shishito peppers wear a confetti of shaved bonito flakes that appear ready to lift off with the slightest breeze.
I enjoyed the fish the most — the Japanese wholesale fish market is just blocks away, and Kawabe knows what he's doing in terms of buying. One night Norwegian mackerel, grilled on the bone, was delicious — crispy at the edges, served with a simple wedge of lemon, a bargain at $8.
In the noodle category, I like fat udon vongole that shows up as an occasional special, a play on linguine with clams, this one made with springy udon and sake instead of white wine.
Some of the more creative dishes, though, fall flat. Halibut sashimi is scribbled with a sweet pomegranate sauce that covers the taste of the fish. Hamachi sashimi is garnished with thinly sliced radish, a smidgen of caviar and pearls of cream cheese marinated in miso. Call me crazy, but I just don't enjoy the taste or texture of cream cheese with raw fish. Anago or sea eel spring roll is served with a transparent, gloppy sauce that's, again, sweet. The quality of the eel is excellent, though. The chef gets them in live.
At the end of a meal, a bowl of tart, refreshing yuzu sorbet or green tea pudding with a wonderful silky texture and slight bitterness of the green tea puts everything right.
Little Tokyo is wide awake now, and Aburiya Toranoko is a lively new addition to the scene. Stop in at lunch or, even better, for a night of sake or new-age cocktails and gutsy Japanese pub dishes.
Rating: two stars Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 243 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, (213) 621-9500, http://www.toranokola.com
Price: Vegetables, $2 to $10; seafood dishes, $6 to $16; meats and poultry, $8 to $10; sumiyaki, $3 to $8 per stick; oden, $3 to $12; rice and noodles, $4 to $12; sushi and sushi rolls, $4 to $28.
Details: Open daily 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. (until midnight Friday and Saturday). Parking at lot on southwest corner of San Pedro and 2nd streets, $5.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times