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Best Pub - 2011
Shin-Sen-Gumi Fountain Valley Robata & Yakitori Restaurant
18315 Brookhurst St.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
You might never get a loud, "NORM!!" greeting when you enter a bar, but at the Japanese pub Shin-Sen-Gumi, the entire staff welcomes you with the rousing sing-song "eera-shai-MASE!" the second you enter. Pubs in the Japanese sense are called izakaya—a house of sake—and like those of Britain, they're a place where you meet good friends to share good food, beer, sake and the other rice wine, shochu. Like beer, sake and shochu are brewed, not distilled. Though it's made from but three ingredients, the styles of sake vary a great deal in sweetness or dryness, aroma, mouth feel, and sting of the alcohol. Shin-Sen-Gumi is one of the places where Orange County's Japanese expats gather to sample a good selection of that country's major sake producers. It's the sort of lively, loud place that makes you wonder how the Japanese ever got tagged as quiet, earnest people. The music can range from J-pop to punk, depending on the mood of the place, and though this space is technically open at lunch as an overflow room to hold customers from the adjoining ramen shop, the izakaya menu is served only at dinner. And what about the food? Izakaya chefs prepare a special grill fueled with imported Japanese binchotan charcoal and cook up everything from jidori chicken and pork-belly-wrapped vegetables to diver scallops. But an izakaya does more than just grill food—the menu is organized into stewed, simmered, fried and raw dishes to represent the four fundamental techniques of the Japanese kitchen. Whatever you do, order some of the yuzu kosho, the green citrus-pepper paste that adds a powerfully fragrant, slightly bitter and salty counterpoint to the rich protein you're about to eat. Expect to pay the same as you would at a good sushi bar: about $30 per person before alcohol. If you like to tour Japan's breweries while you're there, the tab can easily reach up to $50 or $60 per Norm.