In a shopping center on the corner of Homestead Road and Lawrence Expressway in Santa Clara, California, is a popular ramen restaurant named Orenchi. During their business hours, young people wait outside for a table. But right next to Orenchi, there is a wooden door to a practically windowless suite in the building. No line. The unmarked storefront is Iroriya (3548 Homestead Road, Santa Clara, California). The restaurant with no sign is literally a hidden gem in the Silicon Valley.
[Let me first admit that Japanese cuisine (at least of the American variety, since I’ve never been to Japan) is not my favorite. Among commonly-found Japanese foods in the U.S., two of my favorites aren’t really Japanese (beef curry is English-Japanese and shabu shabu is Chinese-Japanese), and the other two are basically fast food (tonkatsu and sushi (which, in its contemporary form, created in the 1800s, is an early form of Japanese fast food!). When I venture away from my favorite dishes, I think the simplicity of Japanese cuisine is lost on me. It all tastes too similar.]
Iroriya is the first Japanese restaurant I’ve been to where the menu, food, and experience feel authentic to me. The food doesn’t taste like it was altered for American tastes. In fact, in the two times I’ve been, almost all of the age-diverse customers were Japanese or Taiwan-Chinese (remember, Japan colonized Taiwan for 50 years) and very few were speaking English. With that said, I don’t love everything on the menu, but I do like peeking into a different culture. Iroriya’s focus is robatayaki, or slow charcoal grilling, but some of my favorite dishes there were sashimi. Luckily, they have good fish, so I’m perfectly fine with that. (In fact, one of the things they’re known for is their uni box.)
The Iroriya menu consists of a five-page permanent menu, and a one-page seasonal menu. There’s actually quite a bit of food to choose from–appetizers, salads, sashimi, robata, rice, and noodles. Good thing, too, because the portions are small, and I am a big eater. The inside cover of the menu explains himono, a centuries old practice of grilling salted and sun-dried fish over charcoal. According to the menu, drying and salting the fish keeps the fish fresh and preserves the nutrients in the fish. We ordered the himono special the first time we ate at Iroriya (a whole fish), and I liked it, but it was very very salty, and my parents weren’t up for it this time. I think this is why people drink beer and sake.
What We Ate
Yellow jack sashimi on the seasonal menu. I am the worst at remembering what types of fish I like at sushi restaurants. I usually leave it up to the chef, and eat everything anyway. But, I will try to remember yellow jack, because this fish was good. Buttery and crunchy at the same time. By the way, they serve real wasabi here. Grated root, none of that powdery stuff. I kept eating the wasabi by itself (torturing my nose in the process).
Fried baby octopus from the regular menu. We had this on both visits, and I liked it both times. It is slightly greasy, but the chewy crunch, and the flavor make up for the grease. Also, they only give you 5 tiny animals on a bed of dressed cabbage and paper thin onion, so you don’t even get a chance to think too much about the grease.
Fresh river trout robata on the seasonal menu. This fish was much much smaller (think the size of the small fried fish you get as banchan at some Korean restaurants) than I expected, but the meat was tender and fresh. The fins and tail were coated in a coarse salt, which was interesting and caused some bits to be super salty, but it was overall a good dish. (I tasted the pink and white stick on the fish–seems to be shaved and dyed pickled ginger.)
Smoked tuna with wasabi mayonnaise on the seasonal menu. This was my favorite dish of the night. I don’t know what it is about wasabi, but I loved the wasabi mayo. I even ate the little lettuces underneath with the mayo. The smoke flavor was perfect on the tuna–noticeable, but not overpowering.
Seaweed fried soft shell crab on the seasonal menu. This was the one dish that was bigger than I expected. It came with two crabs, perfectly fried with a thin batter embedded with flecks of sweet roasted seaweed. The batter was interesting, but the crab itself was kind of bland. I’ve had much sweeter and flavorful soft shell crab.
Rice with marinated salmon roe and a poached egg on the regular menu. This was one of my favorite dishes last time, but today it was just OK. The rice was a little gummy, the egg slightly over-cooked (this is where a sous vide immersion circulator, like the Nomiku, would come in handy), and the salmon roe needed additional soy sauce this time.
Fried shrimp with mayonnaise from the regular menu. I was expecting something similar to one of my beloved Chinese dishes–walnut shrimp. But sadly, the shrimp was very dry and chewy. I do not recommend. However, underneath the shrimp were not only shrimp chips (not great) but also delicious mayonnaise coated potato cubes. It was like a Japanese patatas bravas. So good. I need to cook some potatoes and coat them in sweet MSG mayo (just kidding, I won’t do Kewpie at home).
Mountain yam, robata-grilled, on the regular menu. Crunchy and watery-tasting like jicama. Slimy like okra. Neither like nor dislike. My parents were into it because it’s supposedly medicinal in Chinese culture and they were curious to try it.
Seaweed-wrapped grilled mochi on the regular menu. I loved this dish last time, but today it was just OK. The mochi is glazed with a sweet soy sauce, which goes really well with the crispy, grilled exterior, but there wasn’t enough glaze tonight. Last time, it was perfection. Reminded me of those soy-glazed rice crackers I loved to snack on when I was little.
We were still hungry after all of the above, so I ordered a few more dishes before dessert.
Yellowtail sashimi on the regular menu. It’s yellowtail. You like it (mom and me) or you don’t (dad). Everyone likes the fresh wasabi, though.
“Adult” karaage on the regular menu. I forgot what makes this chicken karaage for “adults”. I think it’s because the chicken pieces are bigger and there’s a sweet chili sauce on it. Again, this is a dish that was better last time (the batter was better, or maybe it was fried better), but the chicken was still juicy and flavorful inside. **Note: This dish provides the most substantial amount of protein on the entire menu.**
Motsuni (“stewed beef giblets”) on the regular menu. I specifically asked what innards to expect before I ordered it, but unfortunately, something was lost in translation. I asked if this was going to be beef liver and the server emphatically said yes. It turned out to be what I think was tripe stewed in a sweet miso and soy-based sauce with root vegetables and konnyaku jelly. Tasty, but not what I expected based on the conversation. It was pretty fatty, and would have been better with rice (which we had finished by then).
Finally, desserts! Last time, the seasonal dessert was house-made miso ice cream. I didn’t love it. However, I can’t help but order strange-sounding desserts.
First up, a black pepper panna cotta with daikon geleé from the seasonal menu. I couldn’t really taste the daikon but I could definitely taste the black pepper. The panna cotta underneath the thin jelly was very rich and creamy, with a little jiggle. I liked this one.
Second dessert sounded weird, but I had to try it. Eggplant brûlée. I imagined this was going to be a sweetened and mashed eggplant with a crispy sugar crust, but after asking, the server told me it was, in fact, a custard. Oh well. I wanted to try it anyway. It tasted like crème brûlée with a baba ghanoush aftertaste because of the smokiness of the roasted (grilled?) eggplant. It was not bad, but it was strange and hard to get used to. I gave up on eating this one.
Iroriya intrigues me because it’s different from Japanese food I’ve had in the past and I feel like I get to peek into Japan when I eat there. I’m excited it’s in the Silicon Valley. I will probably take a break from it and revisit it in a few months to see what’s on the seasonal menu. Good news for you? Iroriya accepts reservations.