Japanese restaurant Ijo Izakaya opens in North Berkeley

Brian Bi/Staff

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It is 11:30 a.m., and Tara Huang, manager of Ijo Izakaya, is getting ready for the lunch crowd. As she wipes tables, a light scent of soy wafts from the kitchen, and the sun from the open front door glints off the sake bottles lining the hardwood bar.

Ijo Izakaya opened Sept. 6, replacing the long-standing Toyo Japanese Restaurant. Huang manages the restaurant, and her mother, who previously owned a restaurant in Japan, is the owner. Huang moved to California for college and has been here for eight years since.

Huang, who said she is a fan of Japanese food, worked in the kitchen of Izakaya Sozai in San Francisco for two years after graduating college and then worked in a sushi restaurant in Pacifica, California.  Huang, however, “got bored” of the traditional sushi restaurants.

“All the sushi was cold and mainstream — it was not so fun,” Huang said.

Huang then decided to open her own Japanese restaurant, hoping to “bring a different Japanese cuisine,” with more than just sushi. Izakaya is a Japanese word that translates to “tap haus” or “sake house,” and the restaurant is like an informal pub environment focused on “relaxing and having fun,” Huang said. The menu includes standard sushi dishes but also incorporates vegetables, warm dishes and tofu.

Ijo Izakaya’s menu ranges from Nasu dengaku, a “sizzling” Japanese grilled eggplant dish with sweet miso, to homemade Nankotsu karaage, a lightly fried chicken cartilage. Huang characterizes her menu items as “good drink dishes” — they whet the appetite, she said, and pair well with sake and Asahi.

Ijo Izakaya imports some of its sake and ingredients from Japanese vendors, but Huang buys most of her vegetables from Monterey Market in North Berkeley. Huang works in the kitchen with her mother, the head sushi chef who has more than 10 years of experience.

Huang said she hopes to make the sake bar menu more shareable through sake flights and sparkling sake drinks. She also wants to improve the vegetable tempura by adding spring beans and Japanese pumpkin.

Huang said her mother has a “picky tongue” and is basically a food critic. Huang’s mother approves of these combinations, although they are different from what she is used to in Japan, according to Huang.

Despite Ijo Izakaya’s new menu, the restaurant honors the former Toyo Japanese by featuring its widely loved salad dressing on the menu.

“Service and staff were friendly and attentive and the food came out perfectly paced for small plates,” said Oakland resident Kyu Lee in a Yelp review. “As soon as one dish was almost finished, another one would be brought out.”

Contact Alexandra Casey at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @acasey_dc.