Though touted as an informal neighborhood izakaya, the odds of successfully walking in without a reservation are low at Hakata Izakaya Hero. The relatively new Japanese eatery in Westwood fills up nightly with locals tossing back cups of sake alongside traditional Japanese drinking fare. Reservations, while not technically required, are all but paramount for parties showing up after 5:30pm, a testament to its popularity—or perhaps Hakata Izakaya Hero’s small size. Since opening (and various stages of reopening), the three-year-old restaurant has attracted a dedicated following with its excellent variety of traditional bar bites, including bright red sacs of mentaiko and chicken wing "gyoza" stuffed with ground pork. What Hakata Izakaya Hero hasn’t done, however, is upset the status quo. Compared to L.A.'s other Japanese drinking establishments, the Westwood restaurant offers solid, but not exceptional, cuisine and middling service for essentially the same fairly high cost of entry.
These days, patrons still converge on the tiny outdoor dining area in the shared parking lot next door, happy to dine sandwiched in between an electric car charging port and neighboring Tacos Tu Madre. Most times, your server will bluntly mention when they need the table back for the next reservation; the allotted time is always more than enough, since the kitchen, manned by the eponymous-ish chef Hiro, fires your order in record time. Signatures like the chicken wing "gyoza" and the tsunami plate—a selection of rotating appetizers—are pleasant accompaniments to Hakata Izakaya Hero’s extensive collection of sake, but might fall flat for the stone cold sober. The daily specials include a sashimi plate for two, ever-changing Japanese culinary esoterica and the pricey, delicious Happy Bite: a two-bite portion of scallop, sea urchin and ikura held aloft a delicate shiso leaf. You might be pleased after, but are you $24 (at the time of writing) happy? Probably not.
Elsewhere on the menu, sizzling teppanyaki platters, rice and noodle dishes, various appetizers and a fried section cover the breadth of Japanese drinking fare, while the hot pot section provides two pungent but flavorful options: pork tonkotsu shabu-shabu or motsu-nabe (intestine). Across the board, the craftsmanship of these humbler dishes separates Hakata Izakaya Hero from the average Japanese generalist, from the tonkotsu broth incorporating the entire pig's head to the housemade chili miso that accompanies the deep-fried gyoza. The comforting gravy-esque sea of the restaurant’s namesake curry delivers a surprising dose of heat that pairs well with cabbage salad, white rice and a lone piece of chicken karaage that supplements the dish.
For all these culinary highlights, however, Hakata Izakaya Hero still falls short of other L.A. izakayas like Little Tokyo's Kinjiro and Kodo in the Arts District. For around the same price ($150 to $200 for two, after tax and tip), you'll find far better service, food and ambience at these more eastward options. In comparison, the Westwood eatery's cozier, casual atmosphere might adhere to the spirit of a traditional izakaya, but the difficult situation for walk-ins and equally pricey bill at the end of the night mean Hakata Izakaya Hero isn't ultimately going out of your way for. For those closer to or living on the Westside, however, proximity might just outweigh all other factors, and more power to you; faced between crawling east on the 10 during weekday rush hour or a painless surface street commute, I wouldn't blame you if you picked the latter.
The vibe: Casual and unfussy—this tiny izakaya seats two dozen or so diners, with two additional tables set up outside.
The food: Well-executed Japanese drinking fare, including excellent hot pot. Highlights include the tsunami plate, the curry rice and, for a premium, the Happy Bite.
The drink: A large selection of sake, plus beer and wine—including oft-maligned hot sake, if you're into that sort of thing.
Time Out tip: Bring cash for the valet next door—the $5 surcharge after 4pm is worth it before 8pm, since all street meters in the immediate vicinity have a one hour time limit.