When people ask for my favourite local dining picks, Kingyo Izakaya is always near the top of the list. Vancouver has been a hugely successful incubator for casual Japanese dining – witness the cross-country expansion of Guu, Hapa Izakaya, Zakkushi and Raijin Ramen.
Kingyo, however, is still the best of the bunch. The cooking is finessed, the dishes highly innovative, the service smooth yet quirky. What also impresses me about the management company, Tamaru Shoten Marketing Corp., is that it's not content to just sit on its laurels. When branching out to new neighbourhoods (and cities), they do it smartly and singularly without falling into the copycat crutch of a chain.
First there was Suika in Kitsilano, which distinguished itself from Kingyo by being more boisterous and greasy. It's the kind of place you go to with a large group of friends for a rowdy night out as opposed to a special occasion.
And now there is Rajio, which opened almost two years ago in West Point Grey. It's the smallest, most casual, affordable restaurant in the group. Specializing in Osakan kushi-katsu deep-fried skewers, which are typically eaten before, during or after a long beer-drinking session, Rajio is more of a traditional izakaya than its sister establishments. (An izakaya being the after-work Japanese equivalent of a German beer hall.) It's the perfect hangout for UBC students. But it's also a solid neighbourhood pub for anyone, adventurous families with young children included, who live nearby.
Translated from Japanese, rajio means radio. But the usage here is idiosyncratic. As explained by Kaori Yoshii, Tamaru's communications manager, rajio is a military-style exercise program that Japanese students learn in elementary school. When certain songs come on the radio, everyone knows the moves.
I imagine the drills as something akin to ParticipACTION meets the Chicken Dance. And if you think of it this way, rajio completely captures the bonhomie vibe of this tightly squeezed pub appointed with bench seating, a temple-style bar, LED-lit Minnie Mouse masks and hand-painted signage promoting collagen-rich pig feet as the ultimate "anti-aging food."
The small beer-quaffing snacks start off with a complimentary bowl of raw cabbage. It looks so simple and ordinary, but the dressing – a complex blend of onion, garlic, salt, sesame oil and at least a dozen other ingredients – is an utterly addictive aperitif that cleanses the palate and makes you crave more beer, sake and sochu, or whatever you've ordered.
Beyond the basics, Rajio also offers a few great cocktails (all available as a kids version without alcohol). Try the fruit punch served in a festive watermelon bowl or the Hibiscus Pink Lemonade with tangy hibiscus flowers, sweet goji berries, freshly squeezed lemon, house-made ginger ale and "all good-for-you stuff for the best flavour." It goes down like soda pop.
The wine program, by the way, is also a fantastic deal with all bottles sold at only $10 above retail pricing. Beer and water are served in iced glasses. Nice.
Other addictive snacks include anchovy edamame (only $3.80), marinated with garlic, sesame oil and finely minced anchovy. And the curiously chewy aburi stingray fins ($4.80) – a mild fish jerky dipped in chili mayo.
The panko-breaded kushi-katsu skewers are novel and interesting. They come in various vegetable, meat, seafood, cheese and premium sampling sets. They're impressive in that the batter is not at all greasy. But the shared dipping sauce – a deeply dark worchestershire-and-bonito-based tonkatsu sauce served in a communal mason jar – is definitely a warily acquired taste.
"One Dip, One Life," the menu jokingly reads, kindly reminding patrons not to double dip.
That may be how they "roll in Osaka." But I don't really trust my fellow diners in Vancouver. If slightly queasy, I suggest you pour the dipping sauce into a personalized side bowl. I would.
Y's Mommy's Assorted Oden, a long-simmered soup, is another Osaken specialty. The clean, clear kelp-and-clam-based broth is a total winner. But the big hunks of fish cakes, sausage and half-boiled eggs may be an acquired taste – probably best saved for winter.
Rajio offers plenty of sushi and sashimi. And if you're not a connoisseur, this is a perfectly fine way to start your meal. If you're slightly more discerning, you might find the rice on the aburi toro avocado a bit loose and messy. The sashimi platters are great value and respectably fresh. But a lot of the fish is torched, which subtly implies to me that the fish is not as pristine as it would be in a top sushi restaurant.
Rajio offers all the basic Vancouver izakaya staples including ebi mayo and chicken karaage. But the best way to dine here is to order off the extensive daily special sheet.
If you're lucky, you'll find sea urchin and ikura carbonara udon on the menu. If you're smart, you'll follow them on Twitter or Facebook and watch closely for this to-die-for special.
Nobody has to persuade me to try sea urchin. But when it's blended with butter, cream, egg and salmon roe tossed around perfectly al dente square udon noodles, well wow. This is Japanese fusion at its silky best. I would follow Rajio on Twitter just to find out when this special returns. I urge you to do the same.