The story: Husband-and-wife Daiki and Sanae Saito opened Kiraku more than four years ago, bringing the izakaya (or Japanese gastropub) experience to Berkeley. The location was attractive because of the cheap rent, but the food they deliver offers a refined touch to the traditional izakaya.
Why I went: I was doing some research on izakaya in the East Bay, and Kiraku has been on my list to try. Being closed two nights of the week didn’t help in my schedule, and their notorious waits on the weekends scared me off. But recently I finally dropped by on a weeknight soon after it opened at 5:30 p.m. to check it out.
The vibe: Being so close to the UC-Berkeley campus, there’s a definite college clientele. But there also looked like local residents or regulars who came in and didn’t mind squeezing into tables that are packed into the tiny space. Even though the food is refined, the decor is very mom-and-pop and unpretentious. A few Japanese artwork and sheets of paper with Japanese characters adorn the walls. There’s a real authenticity to a place when the first page of the menu is written all in Japanese.
The booze: An izakaya encourages drinking so there was a complete list of beer (domestic and Japanese), sake and shochu. I’ve been on a drying-out phase lately, so I skipped any alcohol with my dinner. (I’m sure if I ate deep-fried foods – and there are always plenty on an izakaya menu – then I probably would have needed some beer or sake.)
The menu: Kiraku has a full and complete menu of popular izakaya-type food such as grilled skewers, fried foods, rice bowls and ramen. But it also offers several raw fish preparations (either sashimi offerings or carpaccio style but no sushi) and daily specials that can highlight special ingredients like Bluefin tuna, such as the Bluefin tuna potstickers (similar to gyoza) that had a thin, delicate wrapper with crispy edges from the pan-frying, $8. From the daily menu I also tried the Suzuki Carpaccio ($12), which is striped bass with a yuzu citrus/soy sauce that reflected the refined touch of the kitchen. A grilled rice ball with spicy miso ($3) is a nice complement to the skewers, and comes pretty with a shiso leaf.
My favorite dish: The beef tongue skewer with yuzu miso sauce ($4.50) is one of the best preparation of beef tongue I’ve had at a restaurant in years. It’s so tender they even put it on the menu as “tender beef tongue skewer” – and that’s no lie. Finishing it off on the grill gives it a nice edge and then its lathered with the sauce (which might be a bit too much). Still, it was so good I ordered another one near the end of my meal just to get one more delicious bite before I left.
Insider tip: If you’re into the beef tongue, keep in mind there’s also a grilled Angus beef tongue listed as an appetizer for $12. I’d stick with the skewers because they’re just as good and cheaper.
The last bite: There’s a sign-up sheet at the entrance, and that’s a testament to the popularity of this quaint mom-and-pop izakaya that captures the essence of what I imagine a Japanese izakaya is all about with a variety of dishes to keep everyone happy. The friendly service and decent price makes this a real gem in Berkeley’s dining scene.
The rating: 3 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Kiraku, 2566B Telegraph Ave., Berkeley. PH: 510.848.2758. Open Wednesday through Sunday fro 5:30 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday. No reservations, major credit cards accepted. www.kirakuberkeley.com
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