Ippuku: take a smoke break

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On Center Street, a block from campus, a cloth with Japanese writing hanging in the doorway marks the entrance to Ippuku. This cloth, a cedar table and possibly a bartender standing behind a counter are the only street-front features that flag Ippuku as a restaurant. Instead, the facade of Ippuku is quiet — a contrast from the other restaurants along Center Street: Ben and Jerry’s, Top Dog, Starbucks, Oasis Grill and Sliver, among others. Most people who have not been to Ippuku swear that they have never seen it. Others swear that they never have passed by.

When you walk through the cloth-draped entrance, a waitress or waiter receives you at the end of the shochu bar. So many things about the place add to its refreshingly calm vibes: Some tables face the main aisle of the restaurant, while others are huddled around the grill. Others are in separate rooms with tables low enough to the floor so that you may take off your shoes, sit cross-legged or lie long-sided and eat. Throughout the long narrow restaurant, dim lighting is given off by paper lanterns. Masterful woodwork by a Zen carpenter makes up the bars, booths and doorway. Hanging above the bar are 24 shochu bottles. For dinner, the chefs use small coal stoves to grill.

Ippuku is run by servers and chefs who speak Japanese. As a custom, the restaurant offer customers a hot or cool towel, depending on the weather. They serve soba and ramen noodles homemade with flour from Japan, grilled fish, veggies, various parts of chicken, bacon-wrapped mochi, chicken-rice porridge and cold and hot sake. One of the more popular dishes is corn fritters, the kernels of which are knitted in deep-fried golden goodness in the form of hexagonal lattices. If you sit all the grill, the whole time you will see, hear and smell the steam of fish and vegetables grilling.

On a hot day, the food was so good that I wrote a haiku:

into broth oyster
mushrooms, chives, clover spill over
soft tofu boulder

They serve soba on Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in an event not to be missed. Soba, ramen, fish and vegetables are all so fresh and accompanied by masterful woodwork and a passionate staff. Ippuku offers meals sourced locally, as they would be in Japan. The staff is respectful and warm. It’s interesting noticing how the chefs going from full-hearted banter to a totally present focus when the orders arrive. It’s fascinating to see how quickly they move and how quickly the waitress moves when she runs orders and responds to the lingering looks of diners indicating empty glasses of water, beer, tea or sake. The dark, cozy atmosphere brings food to the foreground, and those who work at Ippuku take the food to the level of the elemental.

Image source: minwoo under Creative Commons

Contact Josh Escobar at [email protected]