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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

I’m a regular at Koto Izakaya but in the years since my friends and I discovered this place, I’ve resisted talking about it since it’s not a very big restaurant and seating is quite limited. Koto isn’t the fanciest of restaurants either, but if your goal is eating where the locals eat, locals don’t get much more local than me.

Koto is located at the edge of Richmond’s Alexandra Road, known as “Wai Sek Gai” (roughly translated to Food Street in Cantonese) for its density of restaurants. It isn’t fancy but has plenty of character from the wall of Asian artifacts and cartoon characters to the random ancient beer posters plastered in odd places on the walls.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

I love it when decor feels like it just accumulated and grew spontaneously over time. Was that Coca-Cola clock always there? What’s up with the monkeys?

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

Koto has an authentic “hole-in-the-wall” charm that a lot of cool places in Tokyo have. It’s as though they weren’t like this when they first opened and just became this way organically after the rhythms and personalities inside took hold of their surroundings.

Like many restaurants in Tokyo, there isn’t a lot of room. There are only three tables that can hold more than four and if you have more than six, it’s going to be a long wait. If you do happen to find yourself in the last spot of a long wait list, everything at Koto is available as take-out. Just call ahead and skip the queue.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

The late night menu at Koto, which starts at 9pm, is a stunningly good value with most nigiri at 99 cents per piece and most dishes coming in at under $5. The menu has already slimmed down since my first visit but there’s still plenty of interesting options available.

The great value is only one of the reasons that keeps me coming back to Koto. Actually, my favorite thing about this place is…the rice. I realize that seems a bit strange considering how rice is an afterthought to North Americans. When you order an entree here, the rice is a side dish.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

In Japan, I couldn’t figure out why cheap sushi in Japan blew cheap sushi in Vancouver out of the water. I just couldn’t believe that it was a difference in fish because while our tuna is good, our salmon is second to none and we get a lot of amazing fresh seafood in the Lower Mainland. It wasn’t until I caught an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations where he talks to Iron Chef Morimoto about Japanese food that I figured it out.

With Japanese food, rice (or noodles) is the centerpiece and everything else is the side dish. The way rice is made, the way it’s formed, the temperature it’s cooked at, it all make a difference. True, the best sushi restaurants in the Lower Mainland make excellent sushi rice but when I thought back to my all-you-can-eat sushi eating days and all the rice left behind after the fish was gone, it became pretty clear to me that good rice is why even convenience store onigiri is delicious in Japan.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

“Izakaya” translates roughly as “gastropub,” where there’s an emphasis on food that pairs well with sake or more commonly, beer. It’s standard procedure to order a variety of small dishes to share with your friends at the table, accompanied by many pitchers and pints…or if you have to get up the next morning because it’s Wednesday, tea.

Koto has some larger options but most are just a few bites, like Spanish-style tapas. This is one of my favourite ways to eat since not only is sharing food a fun way to spend time with friends but you get to try a good variety of different things.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

We start with the nigiri menu for our order. The fish has yet to fail me in terms of freshness and flavor, but the real star for me, as I mentioned before, is the excellent rice. There’s great balance between the bright, sour notes from the rice vinegar and the mild sweetness of the sugar. You might not notice the quality of the sushi rice at first. I didn’t for the longest time but you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about the next time you bite into a really grainy, pasty California roll from some questionable sushi platter.

There are no bad choices here. My personal favorite of the lineup is the saba (mackerel). It’s definitely on the more advanced end of the sushi scale, in terms of taste. It wasn’t something I enjoyed at first but now it’s such an interesting flavor that I just can’t get enough of it especially when it’s marinated properly like at Koto.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

Aburi seems to be popping up everywhere on Japanese restaurant menus and Koto is no exception. Although the torching gives the surface fat a nice melt, there isn’t as much of a smoky, charcoal flavor with Koto’s aburi compared to other places. It’s still delicious but I didn’t think the aburi process added as much to the sushi as it maybe could in this case.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

Scallops are another regular order for me. These sweet, vibrant little morsels of the ocean, accented by salmon roe and a coating of Japanese mayonnaise come in either a hand-rolled cone or a mini-don (rice bowl). You can’t go wrong with either method of preparation.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

I usually get the scallops as a cone because I always inevitably order a salmon mentaiko (marinated roe) mini-don. It seems like such a simple combination – chunks of salmon with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise and mentaiko, but it’s just so good. You get that amazing fresh salmon mixed with the tang and creaminess of the mayo and the salty roe, all mixed up with Koto’s excellent rice. My only issue with this dish is the ridiculously tiny bowls the rice comes in, which make mixing up all the ingredients difficult.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

The tonkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlet) udon isn’t particularly special but it’s hard to not like deep fried pork. It has a light, crunchy crust and comes with a piping hot bowl of udon in a plain dashi stock.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

Speaking of fried things, I think the tempura at Koto is excellent. These have a nice crispy panko coating and are not at all oily. The veggie pieces tend to vary, and on this particular night, it came with a piece each of eggplant, zucchini and sweet potato. Personally I can’t get enough zucchini tempura, which is topped only by White Spot’s Zoo Sticks on my list of Best Deep Fried Zucchinis.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

The hamachi sashimi…do I really need to say yellowtail tuna is delicious? I just assumed that was a universal truth. It has a rich but clean flavor and a springy, meaty texture. The best sashimi on the menu.

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PHOTO CREDIT: ED LAU

The salmon carpaccio isn’t one of my usual orders but I thought I’d mix it up a bit. The presentation was a bit haphazard but the combination of thinly sliced salmon, onions, Japanese mayo and a tangy, slightly sweet glaze is a tasty one.

Koto Izakaya is one of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Richmond. My gripe with most of the teriyaki and California roll joints in the city isn’t that they aren’t authentic but that they’re not delicious. Koto’s menu is bursting with deliciousness and the cozy, no frills space is one the only places that really remind me of my days in Tokyo.