photo credit: Jakob Layman
We’ve tested a million different configurations at Tsubaki—big groups, small groups, meals with our boyfriend’s parents—and the consensus is: this is a date spot.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean romance. As the Greeks once said, there are many different types of love (friendship, family, the joy of living), and Tsubaki understands this truth as well. Located in a half-indoor, half-outdoor space in Echo Park next to their sibling sake bar Ototo, this izakaya works best for one-on-one interactions. Seating is limited and things can get quite expensive quickly. But if you plan accordingly, you’ll eat some of the best Japanese food in the city.
A quick glance at the menu, and it’s clear yakitori is the star. Japanese skewers come in pairs of two, made with everything from chicken wings, koji-marinated pork loin, and blue prawns slathered in butter to chicken gizzards, hearts, and cartilage. You could conceivably build an entire meal around just those meats—picking and choosing a few to share, plus an appetizer or two. But like we once told a Nordstrom salesperson: that’s not our style.
Our advice? Stick with the other dishes. You’ll get more bang for your buck—and eat better too. The caesar is fantastic, a standout even in a city with its fair share of impeccable salads. It’s every texture you want: density from the lettuce, a big ol’ crunch from the panko breadcrumbs. Then, chilled buckwheat soba noodles are served with thick cuts of duck breast and a lovely warm dipping sauce. Hot and cold, heavy and light—this dish is all about contrast, like an accent wall or Mary Kate and Ashley’s paradoxical personalities. And don’t think for a second we’d let you leave without ordering the kani chahan. It’s our favorite dish here. A mound of garlic fried rice arrives with chunks of Dungeness crab, a soul-soothing dish that seems simple, but every time we’ve tried to recreate it at home, we’ve wound up disappointed.
And as you'd expect from a restaurant connected to a sake bar, there are plenty of drink options. In fact, you'll receive an entire booklet full of them. There are super crisp brews from Osaka, bottles covered in disco gold, and glasses filled to the brim with tart plum wine. You'll probably have questions (that's normal), and Tsubaki's waitstaff is there to help.
Portions are small, mostly designed for one or two people. And after a few rounds of sake, you’ll likely come out to $100 a person. But there’s a deftness here, a skill level, you won’t find at many other places in town. Nothing is in your face (like Gary Oldman covered in prosthetics and patches of green screen). It’s all very subtle.
There are many ways to experience Tsubaki. Unlike traditional izakayas, which are usually so smoke-filled they should come with a warning, the dining room here is cozy and inviting. A large window looks out onto the street. There are seats at the counter, at tables, and at pretty little benches that run along a red brick wall. Chairs can easily be pulled out and the entrance is accessible from the street, for those with wheelchairs. Just know that they usually close the doors at night, and there’s not much ventilation. If fresh air is important, there are also several tables outside. Set up on the sidewalk in a parklet next to Ototo’s, it’s not the most romantic arrangement on earth (we cannot stress this enough: it is right off Sunset Blvd.). But as we said earlier, that’s not always the point.
Japanese Caesar Salad
Have we ever met a salad where the leaves are the star? Probably not. The beautiful, multi-colored lettuce comes from The Garden Of…, a farm owned by the Takikawa family in Santa Ynez. Unlike the sad pre-made bags found in grocery store aisles, this salad is absolutely vibrant and creamy, thanks to the miso dressing, and flavored with just a hint of smokiness from the shredded fish flakes.
The most decadent yakitori, the buta rosa combines thick cuts of pork loin, a honey and koji marinade, fennel pollen, and curry butter smeared over it all. Words that come to mind: fatty, rich, definitely order a few for the table.
You better order this. There’s no excuse not to, unless you have a shellfish allergy (but even then… EpiPens…) Garlic fried rice, silky and heavenly, paired with huge chunks of crab. What’s not to like here? Order this dish.
A delightful dish that’s equal parts hot and cold. Although it’s intended to be eaten in the summertime, we order this whenever we need to add something light and refreshing to the mix (and sit just a little closer to the space heater).
Really a fantastic tofu dish. It's silky and smooth, a milky white brick of chilled bean curd covered in a mound of green onions and mushrooms. The furthest thing from a store-bought version. (Vegan)
Goma - Ae
A very simple goma-ae, just how we like it. Broccolini coated is in a light sesame dressing sauce (vegan) and sprinkled in shiso leaves. Our opinion of this dish mirrors our opinion of The Princess Diaries: The Royal Engagement—no notes.
The rotating solo sashimi dish (at the time of writing, it’s buri, or yellowtail) is a must. Sliced nice and thick, the generous portions are more than enough to share. If you want to, that is.
A crowd favorite. Deep-fried potato pancakes, shaped like discs, are loaded with dry-aged king salmon, pickled cucumber, ikura, and a yuzu crème fraiche. It’s like a croquette, but with all the things we love most in this world.