[RESTAURANT REVIEW] Tsubaki Warms Up Echo Park

Imagine hurrying through a country lane under a torrential rainfall somewhere in the Japanese countryside. You find a small restaurant and duck in, grabbing the last seats at the counter. Friendly servers pour sakes of every variety while crispy and savory morsels start coming out of the kitchen.

Transpose that scene to sunny Echo Park, add some stylish locals and a clean, contemporary interior design, and you’ll get a sense of why Tsubaki has its own distinctive feel.

Owners Charles Namba and Courtney Kaplan took over the spot from another Japanese concept, Kush, and before that, Cortez. Almost a year in, Tsubaki is the best of the bunch, striking a balance between coziness, trendiness and fresh interpretations of Japanese favorites.

The Japanese izakaya-style restaurant just off Sunset Boulevard near Dodger Stadium has only about a dozen tables, which are much in demand, though bar reservations are a little easier. Accented with touches of blue, copper hanging lamps and mosaic tiles, the decor makes the most of the compact space.

The drink menu emphasizes sake and shochu, the Japanese distilled spirit. Beers include some fascinating choices like Coedo’s sweet potato amber ale, while wines are all French. Don’t miss the special limited edition seasonal sakes, like autumn-appropriate Shichi Hon Yari or Masumi.

Izakaya food is meant to be snacks that go well with drinks, and that means fried snacks are an important component. Chicken karage gets an uber-crispy buttermilk coating, with an addictive honey-vinegar dressing, while “fish ‘n’ chips tempura” pairs lightly battered snapper filets with fries made from daikon radishes. Sukiyaki steak and miso-braised pork belly provide some meatier dishes to complement the fish-heavy menu, and vegetarians should also be able to find enough for a satisfying meal, like comforting curry soba noodles with chili garlic oil and coconut milk.

Raw fish fans will find beautifully composed dishes like Tasmanian ocean trout tartare with salmon roe and pickled daikon. Charring coaxes the maximum amount of character from vegetables like broccolini and long beans with sesame dressing or simple green cabbage grilled over Binchotan charcoal and topped with miso butter, which deserves to join sriracha in the condiment hall of fame.   

Happy hour from 5:30 to 7 brings more fun dishes like a chicken sausage “Dodger Dog,” chicken wings and a fried pork cutlet sandwich.

Housemade roasted green tea soft-serve ice cream is the right way to finish an umami-packed meal; have it topped with coffee jelly and corn flakes for maximum textural stimulation, or try an after-dinner shochu like beni otomi, the only spirit made from sesame seeds.

Food and sake for two will likely run in the $100 range, but for once, the warm welcome and full flavors make it seem worth it. Tsubaki also plans to open a more casual space next door in the next few months, which the neighborhood is likely to heartily embrace.

Tsubaki, 1356 Allison Ave., Los Angeles


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