The foreign flavors of Okinawa:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
There’s a pair of shisa watching over Shin Okinawa Izakaya. Perched above the door, the statues’ leonine manes are swirled together in artful curls, their dog-like frames positioned against any ill-willed eaters. Inside, those wards seem to be working, as the restaurant itself is in good spirits, full of diners happily downing plate after plate of the occasionally unknown tastes of Okinawa’s tropical shores.
The izakaya’s style (a focus on the ocean most obvious in the dried-out blowfish hanging from the rafters) is a clear reflection of its Okinawan inspiration. There’s even a map of the Japanese prefecture painted right on a dining room wall that captures the chain of southerly islands in globe-worthy detail. Photos stuck up above the counter show landscapes of bold blues and emerald greens so brilliant they seem almost artificial. Given the right orders, Shin’s kitchen is in perfect sync with that extra-sensory experience.
For the quickest introduction to Okinawan tastes, order the restaurant’s pickled vegetable plate. It’s a trio that starts first with soft sheets of green papaya, then moves onto tender circles of the okra-like luffa, the same gourd you use to slough off that dead winter skin. (No word on whether it utilizes the same scrubbing power on your innards.) But the most potent part of the plate is pickled bitter melon. The crisp green rings more than earn their name, each so shockingly bitter that an accompanying sliver of pickled plum seems like candy in comparison. Still, the bitter melon isn’t unpleasant – it fades fast to an almost peppery punch. Because of that initial power, though, the bitter melon also makes the plate a worthwhile option near the end of a meal, able to obliterate any flavors loitering on your tongue.
Milder mouths should look past pickles altogether and instead order the raftei, two huge hunks of stewed pork belly. The blocks of belly are terrifically tender (in part because of their fine layers of fat) and made only more so by a few spoonfuls of a mirin and soy sauce broth. In a classic pairing, there’s also a single smear of Japanese mustard hanging near the lip of the bowl that adds in a bit of heat.
If bird is more your word, Shin also cooks an equally excellent fried chicken. Each order is piled high with thick cuts of mostly white meat still steaming from the fryer. But what elevates the izakaya standard is the accompanying shikwasa ponzu sauce. Shikwasa is a little citrus native to Okinawa and Taiwan that ties together the tastes of tangerine and grapefruit. The fruit squeezes out a tart, sugary juice that’s a smart cocktail combo and a logical complement to awamori, a distilled rice-based booze similar to shochu. And in the chicken’s dipping sauce, shikwasa is a great match, making for a sweeter but also sharper ponzu sauce that promotes the poultry’s own subtleties.
One of the more classic Okinawan options is champuru, which translates to “mix.” In culinary terms, that means stir-fries: quick-fired meals held together with almost enough eggs to sustain an omelet. There’s goya champuru for those who haven’t had enough bitter melon, but also simpler variations like foo champuru, which adds wheat gluten and a whole heap of vegetables.
If you play your plates right, dishes won’t get much more familiar with dessert, a course best represented by spheres of purple sweet potato coated in sesame seeds and given a quick fry. It’s a supremely understated dessert, and like a number of items at Shin Okinawa Izakaya, the sweet potato balls are works of foreign flavors. And though the menu might sometimes leave you parsing pronunciations outside the usual Japanese lexicon, so long as you don’t end on a bite of bitter melon, it’s all excellent exploration.
Shin Okinawa Izakaya, 1880 W. Carson St., Ste. A, Torrance, (310) 618-8357. shinokinawaizakaya.com Open Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and daily 5:30 p.m.-midnight. Vegetarian friendly. Beer, wine. Food for two, $20-$50.