Japanese food at The Little Izaka-Ya in Sherman Oaks is big on flavor – LA Daily News

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In Japan, the izakaya began as a place to drink, not unlike the pubs of Britain, the tapas bars of Spain and the beer bars of America.
As often happens, those bending an elbow also felt the need for a little something to eat, an inspiration (as it were) for more libations and the warmth and goodness that flows from a convivial setting with affable friends and family — and chow which tends to be a tad salty to help the wine, the beer or, in this case, the sake to be consumed with abandon.
There are still old school izakayas to be found in the back streets of Tokyo and Kyoto, where the food leans toward boiled edamame, seaweed salad, maybe some sashimi. And lots of sake.

Fresh greens add to this selection at The Little Izaka-Ya in Sherman Oaks. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

A variety of items are boxed and ready to go at The Little Izaka-Ya in Sherman Oaks. (Photo by Merrill Shin-dler)

The Little Izaka-Ya in Sherman Oaks is part of Chef Katsuya Uechi’s culinary empire, which also includes branches of the trendy destination Katsuya. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

By contrast, here In Los Angeles, the izakayas skew totally toward the food, with longish menus of small dishes, and a far shorter selection of beverages. Consider, for instance, The Little Izaka-Ya by Katsu-Ya. There are eight sakes, three beers and five wines, but 29 sushi rolls, seven house creations and 11 side dishes. The food dominates. And well it should — as a creation of Katsu-Ya, food is the name of the game. Sake is just a good drink to make a lunch or a dinner that much more interesting.
Chances are good you’ve gone past The Little Izaka-Ya by Katsu-Ya — a restaurant with a name nearly as big as the room itself — many times without noticing it. If you’ve taken Sepulveda Boulevard from the Valley to the West Side, you’ve passed it, perhaps noticing it as one of a strip of restaurants on the west side of the street, just before you enter the slalom run up the hill to Mulholland, and then down again.
But there it is, barely announcing itself — a storefront with a parking lot in back that accommodates all the restaurants, and which tends to be packed whenever I show up. If you do land a spot, be sure to note your spot number, and feed the parking control box. Or, if you like to live dangerously, park at the meters across the street, near the Whole Foods, knowing that crossing Sepulveda will make you long for a nice cold sake, ASAP.
For good reason, Little Izaka-Ya is never less than packed. At lunchtime, locals show up for some of the best combos imaginable — ranging from a $12.50 popcorn shrimp bowl, all the way up to a number of sushi and sashimi bento boxes going for under $20 a pop (a great deal, with salad, rice and miso soup included with everything). Scoring a table can be tricky, landing a seat at the sushi bar can be a bit easier — maybe. In any case, it’s worth the effort. For in a part of the world awash with izakaya options, this one is a stand-out.
And of course it is. It’s part of Chef Katsuya Uechi’s culinary empire, which includes branches of the trendy destination Katsuya (in partnership with SBE), and the chef’s own Katsu-Ya, in a variety of incarnations. The chef’s restaurants, especially his more casual Katsu-Ya branches, can be lots of fun — with much noise, yelling, good vibes and great food.
The Little Izaka-Ya is as good as any of them, maybe even better. This is the anti-Nobu. At The Little Izaka-Ya, if the chef can imagine it, it’s served. And grateful I am for that and more.
There’s a section on the menu headed “Katsu-Ya Creation.” It’s amazing how many of them have become sushi bar standards over the years. When they were first introduced, they really broke barriers. There’s crispy rice with spicy tuna, yellowtail sashimi with jalapeños, seared spicy albacore with crispy onion, seared tuna steak with Japanese salsa, Japanese ceviche and salmon sashimi with black caviar. Creamy popcorn shrimp may push the edge a bit. But not very much. Nor do the fantastic Wagyu sliders. Wagyu for $9.30! Yes!
There’s much playfulness on display in the special rolls as well. The Robert Roll is spicy tuna, shrimp, avocado and spicy mayo, all packed into soy paper. There’s a roll of spicy tuna and popcorn shrimp; of Cajun salmon, and blue crab. Are some of them over the top? Perhaps once. But not anymore. We live in a city where some sushi bars have more than 100 rolls, many so packed with ingredients, it’s hard to say what’s in them.
At Little Katsu-Ya, there’s an admirable simplicity; you get a roll, and you know what’s in that roll. When they arrive in front of you, they’re hard not to inhale. If it tastes good, you eat it. And at Little Izaka-Ya, everything tastes good, and better than good.
And yes, for those who want to stick to the straight and narrow, there’s a traditional nigiri sushi selection, along with salmon, chicken and beef teriyaki. Barbecue short ribs too. But most acolytes stick to the smaller dishes, washed down with a reasonably priced selection of cold sakes. Rather than a back street, this izakaya is on a main boulevard. But the food would work just fine in Tokyo. And with enough sake, it’s easy to imagine you’re there, not here.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]
The Little Izaka-Ya by Katsu-Ya
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