By no means has yesterday been our first visit to Nanbankan, more like our 8th or 9th. Alice definitely has sizable number of check-ins on Yelp! and Foursquare. It’s one of those places we love to go to after a long day or week of work, a Japanese version of a gastropub if you will. Although given the option, I would much prefer Nanbankan.
Nestled on the first floor of an office building on Santa Monica Blvd but far enough away from traffic-ridden Sawtelle, Nanbankan is a hidden gem, especially during the seemingly endless construction to that building in the previous year or so. We usually sit at the bar whenever we can so we can watch our food being cooked. If you plan to go during dinner hours, especially on the weekend, plan ahead and get a reservation, you’ll thank yourself later.
The ambiance is inviting and warm, literally speaking if you’re sitting at the bar and can feel the heat of the grill; this is why we particularly like to dine at Nanbankan during the winter. The wooden panels on the walls marked with Japanese characters is not just for decor, it’s the menu! The oddly placed whiteboard toward the back stands out, which is really a good thing because it has items not on the menu. Many people overlook this obvious menu until they see someone else order something that looks like it’s not on the menu, the Australian lamb for example.
There’s a few things we usually order:
Grilled Rice Balls (yaki-onigiri 焼きおにぎり): Plain and plum (ume うめ):
Golden brown. The chefs put a light soy sauce glaze on top to get this nice golden color. I like it extra burnt and crispy. Dip this into the miso sauce and you’ve got one of many “good things”.
Gingko Nuts (ginnan 銀杏):
From the gingko trees of course, who would’ve thought, right? We were actually introduced to these in another yakitori place but find that Nanbankan does it better. The nuts are toasted skin-on then peeled before serving, leaving a nice smokey flavor with the texture similar to a chewy bean.
Chicken Hearts (hatsu ハツ):
Perhaps the best of the organ meats on the menu. Nice and chewy, sometimes nice and bloody, just the way we like it. My only complaint is there’s only 3 per skewer, 2 skewers per order. So delicious.
Chilean Sea Bass (shiromi しろみ):
I wouldn’t think they would have this on their menu but they do it surprisingly well. Two filets per skewer topped with green onions and what we believe to be a radish paste. We always have an order of this. It’s flaky and tender with a sweetness that perfectly complements the charred flavor.
Australian Lamb (ラムチョップ):
Remember how we said there’s a menu on a whiteboard in the back of the restaurant? Well if you see people ordering lamb chops, this is where they’re ordering from. They will ask you if you want garlic on it – the answer has to be a resounding yes! We always finish our meal with an order of lamb, cooked rare enough where we could taste the blood in the middle. That’s how meat is supposed to be. Last night’s visit we forgot to note that we wanted it rare and it was cooked through, but regardless, it was still nice and juicy.
Quail Eggs (uzura うずら):
We both really like the quail eggs. It’s cooked to the outside of the egg darkens, giving the egg as a whole two different textures: a chewy outside and soft inside.
Beef Tongue (gyutan 牛タン):
Alice had to weigh in with her yakitori-ya favorite, gyutan. There’s nothing quite like the chewy texture flavored simply with salt, lemon juice, and of course the grill. The skewers here have thicker slices of gyutan than other places, which helps to keep the meat tender rather than crunchy as it cooks.
Among other things to try:
Chicken kidneys (motsu yaki もつ焼き):
Nice and darkened with a grainy texture, giving it a consistently crunchy and toasty flavor. One might need to acquire a taste for this one. We much prefer the chicken hearts over the kidneys.
Squid Legs (geso げそ):
These are delicious little squid “legs” (tentacles) grilled sideways on a skewer so that the tips get extra crispy and charred. It’s served with a glaze of that amazing post-grilling sauce that they drizzle on some of the other dishes. Super flavorful.
Top Sirloin (nanbanyaki 南蛮焼き):
The flavoring on the meat is good but it’s a little dry. Definitely should ask for this to be cooked rare, would turn out softer if less cooked.
Salmon Ochazuke (お茶ずけ):
One of the “other good things”, ochazuke is a bowl of rice in a tea-based soup topped with, in this case, flaked salmon. The broth is delicious and flavorful, and it’s a great way to round out the meal.
Regardless of what you order, you must wash it down with a bottle of Asahi Black (Kuronama 黒生), a premium version of Asahi beer that’s as dark as a stout, pairs perfectly with grilled meats (and other good things) and is difficult to find in many restaurants in Los Angeles. Kudos Kuronama!
Also worth noting is that we have never been there and not seen the owner Tony graciously welcoming patrons and lending a hand to his staff, be it checking up on customers or even bringing out dishes to the tables. He truly seems to enjoy what he does, and he’s always smiling especially when a group of regulars walks in. A visit to Nanbankan would not be complete without a bit of small talk with Tony (sometimes he’ll even humor Alice with some Japanese language practice!). We’re always in for a fantastic date night whenever we come by, thanks to the delicious noms and wonderful service. Nanbankan, domo arigatou~!
Check out Nanbankan: www.nanbankan.com
11330 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90189
See their Yelp reviews here.
We highly recommend making reservations and grabbing counter (bar) seats if you can. There is plenty of metered street parking on Corinth Ave, but if you have difficulty, there is also a free one-way parking lot immediately behind the office building.