Hakata Izakaya Hero
It’s crucial to have hideouts in every neighborhood. Not actual hiding places (though those can come in handy too—we don’t know your life), but those dependable neighborhood restaurants where you can slip in for a good meal and take a breath from whatever brand of chaos the day has served you.
Hakata Izakaya Hero, hidden among all the great Persian restaurants on Westwood Blvd. is exactly that kind of spot.
Walking into this Japanese izakaya, we’re met with an instant sense of calm. The tiny, minimalist space holds about seven or so tables, with the sounds and smells of sizzling meat emanating from a semi-open kitchen in the back. Hero does get crowded (if you’re arriving after 6:30pm, definitely call for a reservation), but even when it’s at capacity, the energy never surpasses that of a mellow dinner party. You’ll spot quiet dates picking at sashimi platters in the corner, families hovering around bubbling hot pots, and UCLA roommates swigging Sapporo and celebrating that fact they’re not eating on campus tonight. It’s the kind of place where you’re struck with an unwavering desire to become a regular—greeted with an instant irasshaimase, a seat at the bar, and a waitstaff who knows your food order by heart.
This is an izakaya, which means the menu features a wide array of small bites, which are meant to be eaten while sipping some sake, beer, or wine. There are separate sections dedicated to sizzling meat platters, rice and noodle dishes, cold and hot appetizers, family-style hot pots, and our personal favorite, fried foods. There’s also a daily specials page where you’ll find sashimi and other raw offerings for the day. No matter how many times you’ve been, there’s a lot of fantastic food going on—which is why showing up with a strategy is a good idea.
When we’re alone at Hero—a fairly common occurrence—we like to stick to the small plate appetizers and “Hero Favorites.” These include dishes like pan-fried Champon noodles, potato salad, and crispy chicken wings that’ve been stuffed with pork. If you’re with a friend or a small group, stick to a similar strategy, but add in a pork shabu shabu hot pot and sizzling kalbi platter as centerpieces. There’s no wrong way to build a meal here, but we find it’s best to mix and match from a few menu categories to suit your hunger level.
A short drive away from the more well-known Japanese restaurants on Sawtelle, Hero would be easy to overlook if you were just whizzing past on your commute. But its relaxed energy and fantastic food make it a hideout worth slowing down for, and maybe even a place you’ll want to add to your usual rotation.
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These are chicken wings stuffed with a gyoza-like ground pork filling, and yes, they’re every bit as delicious as they sound. These are ordered individually, so make sure you get at least one per person if you’re with a group—nobody will want to share.
Spicy Cold Tofu
Hero has both hot and cold tofu dishes on their menu, but we tend to prefer the chilled version. The tofu itself is silky, yet firm, and the heat from the spicy miso paste on top provides a nice little kick.
With thick cuts of fatty bluefin tuna and buttery amberjack, this is definitely a solid $50 plate of sashimi. But it’s also a bit of a spluge, and considering how many more affordable small plates there are here, we recommend getting your sushi fix elsewhere.
Pork Belly Skewers
We adore this dish for its simple flavor: A thin, slightly fatty piece of grilled pork belly comes wrapped around a filling of your choice (lettuce, tomato, scallions, cilantro, or Chinese chives). We usually go for the chives, which provide a peppery, slightly bitter contrast to the rich pork.
Jidori Chicken Karaage
You can find karaage on pretty much every izakaya menu in town, but Hero’s version sets the bar high. Each piece has a crunchy, slightly sweet exterior with extra-moist thigh meat on the inside. And don’t be ashamed if the lemony-mayo dipping sauce vanishes after a few bites. We always ask for more.
Prime Short Rib Kalbi Platter
There are a lot of flashy dishes on Hero’s menu, but this one is a headliner. The sweet and salt marinated short rib itself is perfect—crispy charred edges with a texture that requires very little in the way of chewing. It also arrives at the table in an epic plume of smoke that’d make even the Cher farewell tour jealous.
Pork Tonkotsu Shabu Shabu
The shabu shabu here involves a bubbling pot of broth (in this case, creamy tonkotsu) and a massive platter of thinly sliced pork and vegetables that you individually dip into the broth until fully cooked. It’s a fun DIY kind of dinner, and a great move if you’re with friends who like to interact with their food. Note: This is only available for parties of two or more.