Shin Ju provides satisfying Japanese fare with a few unique surprises
Of all the expletives I expected my father to yell while driving haphazardly through Cambie Street traffic, “okonomiyaki” is rather low on the list. I wait breathlessly for a postscript to his outburst.
“That’s what I feel like,” he explains. “That Japanese dish we had in Osaka. Is there anywhere that serves it?”
His craving for okonomiyaki – a savory pancake-like dish mixed with pork and seafood – is not the easiest to satisfy, given that so few Japanese restaurants serve it. Luckily, I know of one: Shin Ju, a regular haunt of mine on the corner of Broadway and Hemlock. No sooner do I give the directions than there is a screech of tires as Dad makes a hard right onto Broadway, the promise of fried Japanese delicacies already making his mouth water and his foot press harder on the gas.
Minutes later, we arrive and are shown to our table. Like everything else in Shin Ju’s décor, it is functional but unimpressive. As a mid-range Japanese restaurant, Shin Ju makes no pretentions of grandeur and embraces the same cheesy trappings as a dozen other similar places: the nori curtains, the faux paper panels, the sake bottles. The ambience is muted, small parties of various ages and walks of life talking quietly over their food; their voices blend pleasantly with the restaurant’s Asian pop music and sports scores blaring from the flatscreen TV. Few people come for the ambience. They come for better things.
The menu features a nice selection of the staples usually found at other Japanese restaurants: beef teriyaki rice bowl, yakisoba, house ramen and so on. Their sushi selection is very respectable with plenty of old favorites like tuna nigiri or California roll as well as some unusual choices like inari roll (a sweet tofu skin wrapped in seaweed and rice) and the Mexican roll (spicy salmon, cucumber and chili pepper).
But where it really shines is in its appetizer selection. Shin Ju offers a large variety of unique appetizers and tapas-style finger-food that are hard to find at most mainstream Japanese restaurants. While the usual suspects like yakitori and agedashi tofu are available and well worth a taste, the menu’s real standout appetizers are esoteric items such as dobin-mushi (a savory broth stewed in a teapot), takoyaki (fried octopus dumpling)… and yes, okonomiyaki.
Once orders are placed, the food appears with admirable speed, though my requests for water go unheeded at first. The presentation of our sushi is extremely simple, without any ideas of fancy decoration. My plate of yam tempura rolls ($4.25) is an unpretentious pile of giant golden medallions that barely fit in my mouth. The rice is moist, the mayonnaise is tangy, and the yam tempura is subtly sweet and fresh… too fresh, as it is hot from the fryer and burns my tongue!
My father orders the sesame-encrusted prawn roll ($4.75). The batter is thin and of a deep brown color, and lacks the “bready” quality of regular tempura. Instead, it has a satisfying crispness that is set off well with the cucumber nestled within the small rolls. The result is refreshing and crunchy with a more pronounced bite than we are used to from tempura offerings.
No sooner do we send away our plates and finish rhapsodizing over our choices than the real stars of the hour arrive: two servings of okonomiyaki ($6.95 each), a knife and fork helpfully supplied for each of us. The plates are dominated by the large pancakes, mixed with a batter consisting of flour, cabbage, meat and seafood. Each pancake is dominated by a mountain of dried bonito flakes and drizzled with mayonnaise and sweet okonomi sauce. It’s the sort of hearty fare favored by fishermen and workers, and Shin Ju more than does it justice. The sweet tanginess of the sauce offsets the moist and subtle flavors of the seafood, and the pancake slides down easily without tasting heavy or lardy. The bonito flakes are especially delicious and melt from flake form into a strong and chewy burst of flavor.
The only thing that could top such a meal was the bill: extremely reasonable and well worth every penny. As we staggered back to our car, full to the brim, and rejoin Broadway traffic, I wish that all of my father’s random driving outbursts could be so inspired and so delicious.
Shin Ju Japanese Restaurant, ***** stars
1401 West Broadway 11:00 AM-midnight Mon-Fri, 11:30AM-midnight weekends
Also offers all-you-can-eat, take-out and delivery options