Bits of bok choy hit a tub of sizzling soybean oil. Their ivory stems become tender; their edges turn a sudden golden hue. The jade leaves of the Chinese cabbage quickly begin to crisp. Pulled out of the deep fryer, the greens still glisten with remnants of luscious fat. The texture is brittle, and the flavor is fresh.
The platter is served at Yakko-San, a Japanese eatery that started as a modest 65-seater on West Dixie Highway in North Miami Beach more than 11 years ago. It always had an extensive menu with more than 100 dishes: soups, grilled meats, tempura, noodles, and sashimi. The unassuming restaurant ran a dinner service from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. and was a favorite hangout among chefs, industry insiders, and locals alike.
But when a booming nightclub called Dixie Lounge opened nearby, owner Hiroshi Shigetomi decided it was time to find a new location. He desired more parking spaces for his guests. His guests, in turn, longed for more available seats.
In March 2011, the izakaya (drinks and small bites) joint moved into its current space on 163rd Street. What was once a small, inconspicuous eatery became a sleek 140-seater. It continues to operate seven days a week, but hours have been expanded into the daytime. Now service includes a lunch that begins at noon. In the evening, cooks don't put away their knives, pots, and pans until past 3 a.m. With a new sushi component, the menu is even longer than before.
The dining room is classic contemporary: Tables are a luminous black wood, burnt-orange walls are accented by painted white chrysanthemums and butterflies, and the space is wide-open. A prominent bar next to the double-door entrance greets diners with rows of vodka, whiskey, and sake that visually emphasize the restaurant's new full liquor license. Shigetomi must have learned a thing or two from his rowdy neighboring nightclub: Hard liquor sells.
Drinks include specialty cocktails such as saketinis — sake-based beverages offered in flavors ranging from lychee to lemongrass. The latter is a potent drink, infused with the citrus aroma of the popular Asian herb. The cocktail is sweetened by a delicate, fragrant syrup.
As is customary, saketinis arrive in chilled martini glasses. What is not customary is the cost: $8.50. Yakko-San's fair prices, which range from $2 to $25, are increasingly hard to come by in Miami.
Past the bar and expansive dining area, a black-tiled sushi bar anchors the left side of the room. Yakko-San has always served sashimi, but makizushi (sushi rolls) are another addition to the expanded eatery. The menu now includes more than ten rolls, such as crunchy spicy tuna with crispy rice and scallions, and hamachi tataki jalapeño with eel and avocado. There are also more than 35 nigiri offerings by the piece and eight sashimi selections.
From the raw bar, an order of the hamachi jalapeño brings thinly sliced tender yellowtail, topped with two shades of green: slivered hot peppers and fresh cilantro leaves. The fish is delicately doused in a tart yuzu-ponzu sauce. It's a rendition of the dish widely attributed to chef Nobu Matsuhisa — the powerhouse restaurateur who started the Nobu restaurant empire — except Yakko-San's version is even better. That's because it costs only $11.50.
Beef tataki's slices of seared New York strip are topped with an excessively salted garlic ponzu jelly. Because the sodium-packed gelatin overwhelms the otherwise tender, pink steak, it's best to enjoy the meat once chopsticks have pushed the ponzu to the side.
Other dishes draw on inspiration from the Mediterranean, such as a salmon avocado carpaccio that pairs capers, chopped onions, salmon roe, and cilantro with Parmesan shavings and a fruity extra-virgin olive oil. The menu also lists "octopus Mediterranean," with sun-dried tomatoes and basil, as well as nonsushi offerings such as a Yakko-San-style Bolognese pasta. The restaurant does not discourage playfulness. It's a bit of Italy meets Japan, set on location in North Miami Beach.
For all the changes at the new Yakko-San, there's one thing to note: The classics — those dishes that kept the old joint packed to the brim —continue to upstage the new raw offerings.
Rice dishes satisfy carb cravings that, at least momentarily, shy away from the deep fryer. An order of yakiniku don brings tender slices of barbecued beef marinated in soy sauce, garlic, and sesame oil. Platters of yaki-udon with shrimp feature thick noodles paired with stir-fried, perfectly cooked crustaceans and a myriad of vegetables: daikon, ginger, cabbage, bean sprouts, and bok choy.
Crispy pork onion salad combines savory, deep-fried morsels of pork with refreshing sliced cherry tomatoes, radishes, red onions, and sprinkles of bitter watercress. Topped lightly with a secret homemade soy-based sauce, the dish pushes the boundary of what defines a salad. Textbook versions of greenery should take note: Deep-fried pork is always a good thing.
Shaped like croquetas, fried oysters are breaded generously with panko and then paired with a chunky tartar sauce. The mollusk's interior is creamy, like a custard that came from the ocean and then somehow ended up swimming in the fryer.
The cheesecake roll is cream-cheese mousse with banana caramel that's battered and immersed in hot oil until its coating is golden and crisp. The dessert is served with piped whipped cream and a generous scoop of red-bean ice cream. This combination would usually border on overload, but Yakko-San is open late, and coupling fried dough with cheese and cream is always acceptable past midnight.
To say the menu here is extensive is an understatement. You can get conch sashimi, king crab rolls, and uni nigiri. You can get sautéed chicken gizzards, pan-fried beef tongue steak, miso soup, and chrysanthemum tempura. But despite newer additions, the best dishes at Yakko-San still begin and end in the deep fryer. It remains the part of the kitchen where some of Miami's most affordable, delectable dishes continue to be born.