Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Izakaya Showdown: Sasaya vs. FuRaiBo


Welcome ladies and gentlemen! Tonight we have a izakaya showdown between two great West LA competitors in a side-by-side comparison. In the left corner, fighting out of Santa Monica Boulevard, this feisty Japanese establishment refuses to give in to the sushi craze, Sasaya. In the right corner, catering to the Sawtelle crowd, famous for their tebasaki chicken wings, FuRaiBo. We'll see who's cuisine will reign supreme... er, best!

For those of you who have not yet had the experience, izakya is Japanese bar food. It is also commonly referred to as Japanese tapas. Salaried men would meet for happy hour events at pubs in Japan and dine on the equivalent of our buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks, except that their food is significantly healthier and much less saucy.

As a judge, I'll admit that I may not be completely unbiased. I've been coming to FuRaiBo for years. In fact, besides Soup Plantation, there isn't any restaurant in LA I've been to more than FuRaiBo. It was my first izakaya experience, introducing me to an entire new type of cuisine. These izakaya restaurants have elevated Japanese food to one of my favorite cuisines. While I always knew there was more to Japanese food than sushi and tempura, I didn't truly eat Japanese until I started on this journey to find new izakayas.

Starting with the vibe, FuRaiBo felt more Japanese to me. The furniture and decor was simple and refined. They even have tatami floor seating in the back. While I hate floor seating, it's nice to have that option. Sasaya feels much more LA with the stylish decorations. However, Sasaya did have communal long-table seating and a visible bar, two things I believe are elements of a good izakaya. The waitstaff is more personable and friendly at Sasaya. Everyone at FuRaiBo always seems to be in a rush, and several times I had issues getting the attention of a waitress.

In the category of taste, I initially awarded more points to FuRaiBo after my first visit to Sasaya. However, I ended up at Sasaya two nights in a row, and my second night with friends who knew how to order was much more pleasant. After two dinners at Sasaya, I believe their more unconventional dishes really shine like the marinated wasabi octopus and simmered Kurobuta pork belly. FuRaiBo still has me hooked on the beef tataki and halibut karaage. The tataki is a very rare steak topped with ponzu, onions and grated daikon. The halibut is a baby fish fileted and deep-fried.

For the other factors, I considered accessibility, price, and alcohol selection. Both have parking lots, although each suffers from some problems. Sasaya only had four or five spaces behind the restaurant. FuRaiBo has a much larger lot, but they have a dubious double-parking system where the diner alerts the restaurant which car they are driving and are told to move if they are blocking in a leaving customer. Price-wise, FuRaiBo seems to be slightly cheaper, although I can eat anywhere between $15-30 per person there. At Sasaya, I can easily rack up a bill from $20-50. The issue with izakayas is always quantity. It's great to order many small dishes, but those little prices add up fast. I usually recommend maybe three or four dishes per diner shared family style. Lastly, since izakayas are designed around alcohol, every good restaurant needs a selection of beer, shoju and sake. Sasaya seems to have a much wider selection of sake and shoju than FuRaiBo.

Considering all these factors, both are terrific restaurants that I would frequent in the future. Both serve delicious food, although Sasaya excels on the exotic end while FuRaiBo dominates the more conventional food like yakitori and agedashi tofu. But between the two, I'm not considering which one is a superior restaurant. I'm deciding which one is a better izakaya. Therefore, under that criteria, I would deem Sasaya the winner. Congratulations to Sasaya, although it still can't beat the reigning champion Musha.

(310) 477-4404
11613 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 444-1432
2068 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

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