By Jamie Worrall
Today you’ll find a much smaller Japantown here in Sacramento compared to what stood pre-WWII. It was relocated in 1957 after bulldozers and the Sacramento City Council moved forward with The Capitol Mall project and, in the process, uprooted our once-bustling 6-square-block Japanese community. These days, along 10th Street in Midtown Sacramento, mostly between T and W, a small cluster of Japanese owned businesses include Osaka-Ya, Sakura Gifts, June’s Cafe, and a new favorite-- Binchoyaki. This new eatery and small bar has caught the attention of many, including Michael Glascock who came in after noticing how crowded it was inside and then soon after reading about their chart-topping Duck Ramen plate in the Sacramento Bee. Learning that a Pocket-Greenhaven native, Craig Takehara and his wife Tokiko Sawada are behind Binchoyaki made him all the more proud of their success and we were eager to spread the word!
Binchoyaki is an Izakaya-style dining experience, or what in Japan would be your go-to after work gastropub where you meet up with friends or co-workers after a long day. Everything here is moderately portioned, but a plate or two per round of drinks should keep you more than satisfied. Binchoyaki seeks to be a Northern California bent on an Izakaya, so while it most definitely keeps Japanese beer on tap, and the authentic Binchotan (maple charcoal) is fired up on the smokeless grill, at the same time they are not afraid to throw some soul music on the speaker system and use French or European influences in a dish. Plus, they are using locally sourced and organic ingredients whenever possible, which here in our farm-to-fork capital is very much appreciated. The food is delicious and the sense of shared experience is too.
Here in Sacto we have great Japanese food, but admittedly, mostly sushi. At Binchoyaki you get more eclectic Japanese offerings, ordered either from their grill menu, which burns between 1000-1500 degrees, or from their kitchen menu. If you need help ordering, Faith, our super knowledgable server, offers suggestions and answer questions about the dishes, happy to share methods, ingredients, and history when asked. You’ll also get a little insight into the preparation of your food watching the barbecues just on the other side of the low bar being expertly fanned while the various skewers of meats and veggies are flipped, added, and removed, some after 30 seconds and others not for 20 minutes. It would take a minimum of 6 months, Craig later estimated, to become merely a proficient Sumiyaki chef using those high-heat binchotan charcoals.
Owners Craig, originally from Sacramento, and Toki who is from the LA area, have been in “the industry” since even before the two met at the California School of Culinary Arts. In high-school Craig worked at Oto’s Maket on Freeport Boulevard as a fishmonger, butcher, and deli manager. Both Craig and Toki have culinary degrees, impressive resumes, and years of experience which give them a great depth and breadth of understanding in Japanese cuisine. After meeting 16 years ago they continued gaining experience in various fine dining restaurants, large hotels, and clubs, even serving celebrities such as Tom Cruise among others. Their lifestyle changed, however, in 2009 when they moved to Sacramento to start a family. After having been headhunted to open 300-seat restaurants, world travel, and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, he is happy here in Sacramento with his comparatively smaller locale. The goal is now to bring alive a variety of food and culture that has not been available to Sacramentans since the disappearance of a prosperous Japantown. And we are happy they have!
For Craig, one of the greatest revelations after having been in business for almost a year here in Sacramento is how supportive other restaurants and managers from other places have been. “This is my first restaurant; my first time around,” muses Craig, “And it’s nice to have a group of people in Sacramento where not everything is competition.” He recognizes that our cultural identity here is different from that of the Bay Area, and that of LA, and believes in helping Sacramento create great food, whatever the variety, with a strong sense of camaraderie. At Binchoyaki, the expert ownership and the importance placed on countless tiny details amount to a concept as bold and basic as “Good food made well”, which, when it comes down to it, is as authentic here on the corner of 10th and W as it is novel.