“Ippuku” means “break” or “to take a break”. It doesn’t surprise me that this place made it into the Top 100 of the San Francisco Chronicle last spring, I surprised myself that I had’t taken a break here all this time. How can I call myself a Berkeley food blogger without eating at Ippuku?
Maybe it’s the signless entrance that camouflages the izakaya in the dark, minus the dimly lit sake bottles on the side and the closed door, which I can never open correctly from the inside. Maybe it’s my distrust of Yelp reviews. But I brushed through the cotton curtains to enter that long, dark, narrow, stark simple structure, saw the half-shadowed faces immersed in quiet enjoyment, and the wooden platform, on which you can sit seiza style (flat kneeling) or dangle your feet under the table like a true Westerner; from that moment, I decided that it’s a lovely place, no matter how the food was. Of course, the food was good.
The most written thing about Ippuku must be the collection of all-part chicken edibles. Every single blog and its best buddies have something to say about (and a picture of) the omakase gushi ($14, 5 chef-choice skewers), which might include gizzards ($6.50), hearts ($6.50), shoulders ($6), necks ($6.50), breasts ($6), wings ($6.50), thighs ($6), tails ($7), varying throughout the night. They also have knee cartilage ($7) and breast cartilage ($7), which gets sold out before 6 pm. Growing up, I’ve had my shares
of chicken from head to toe to bone marrow, and I still clean the chicken bones to its dryest whenever possible, so this is old game. It’s not that “Ippuku uses every part of the chicken to its best effect”, Ippuku simply uses every part of the chicken and (hopefully) convinces the Western palate that white meat isn’t everything (if it is anything). The chewy crunchy gizzards and hearts made me feel at home.
New to me was the lightly seared chicken breast, raw inside, dappled with ume ($8, sasami ume). Its rawness saves the white meat from being all dried up, the salty plum tickles the tongue. I like it more than I expected.
There are some good-but-not-brilliant things, such as the tsukutama ($7, minced chicken with an egg yolk), the negima ($6.50, chicken thigh with leeks), the aosa tenpura ($7, Okinawa styled seaweed tenpura), and the giant grilled Eastern Pacific squid ($10, ikayaki) (ok, so it was giant for 2 girls).
Granted that izakayas in the States are always expensive, there are also the blatant rip-offs: ikada ($5, grilled leeks), which is negi, and none of us knew what “negi” was at the time, or grilled yamaimo ($6), a white yam that is crunchy outside and sorta slimy inside (củ mài in Vietnamese). Oanh said that they’ve had it raw at another izakaya, and I think I would prefer this grilled version dusted with sea salt.
Then there are the oversalted ones: a juicy deboned and grilled quail ($10, uzura maruyaki), which Kristen and I split by each pulling a wing and a leg, and 2 pieces of pork belly ($8, kurobuta bara). But these are best tempered with a sip of genmaicha, whose seaweed flavor might seem strange at first.
Among my favorites must be the mushy jaga bata ($5, mini potato with butter), which I combined with Rau Om‘s tofu misozuke for a briny but creamy note. The simple but refreshing kyo-salada ($6, “mizuna with onsen egg and crunchy jako“, or water greens with poached egg and crunchy dried anchovy). And the chewy, glistening, charred bekonmochi ($5, bacon-wrapped plain mochi) was magnificent.
The shushoku (post-drinking dishes) are richer than ever: a fatty, sweet, brownish yellow chicken broth for the tori udon ($7) and chunks of beef in the niku jaga ($12, a thick stew of meat and potato).
These stomach cementers demand a sweet ending, which we couldn’t afford the first time due to a time constraint, but I made up for it the second time by ordering two desserts ($7 each): a matcha affogato (green tea soft serve), cleansing and herbal, and a kuro goma sundae (black sesame soft serve), gentle and nutty. The kurogoma ice cream came with 2 white mochis and a scoop of anko (red bean paste). I love black sesame ice cream no matter what it comes with.
Photography used to not be allowed? I was taking pictures like crazy. Smoke issue after 7 pm because of the grill? I have been here until 10 pm. Undertrained staff? Our hostesses were helpful both times. Ippuku seems to have ironed out any technical problem it might have had 2 years ago, and although its food isn’t flawless, it is perfect as a whole.
2130 Center Street #101
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 665-1969 (reservation is recommended, you never know which night is booked)