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Hẻm Gems: At Sakaba Sasuke Izakaya, Happiness Is Wrapped in Pork Belly and Grilled

It took a few visits before I noticed that the music at Sakaba Sasuke was always the same.

It was a male Japanese artist, and the songs that consistently drew my attention had twinges of what I could only describe as a 1980s-esque combination of Jon Bon Jovi and Paul Stanley. More than once, I asked the staff if they could tell me what was playing. Exceedingly friendly and polite, they did their best to find out but could only intimate that The Boss was in control, and he was not around.

My nagging curiosity led me to finally ask The Boss myself, whom I suspected was the person on the other end of the Facebook messages I sent to make reservations. Eikichi Yazawa was the musician, he told me, and upon a cursory scan of the internet, his longevity, prominence and style seem to be much more David Bowie than KISS.

While the black noren is instantly recognizable for Star Wars fans, Takamura-san has no particular fondness for the sci-fi franchise and just likes the font.

The izakaya that “cool” builds

The Boss is Shumpei Takamura, and when I had the chance to ask him why Yazawa dominates the speakers at Sasuke, his answer was simply “because it’s cool.” Because it’s just cool would be part of the reason why Sasuke is one of my favorite restaurants. What even is cool can be so easily argued, but for my version of cool — and I’m guessing Takamura-san’s as well — I felt it immediately on my first visit. Before opening Sasuke in 2019, he came to Vietnam a few years prior to launch what he best describes as a “franchise” location of Japanese ramen restaurant Mutahiro, which is mere steps away from the pub. The idea for opening Sasuke was inspired by his actual experience working at a now-closed Sasuke in Tokyo.

Sakaba Sasuke doesn't have the typical decorations of classic izakayas, apart from the noren.

In a city with no shortage of izakayas to choose from, Sasuke doesn’t boldly try to announce its presence or distinguish itself from the pack. With its neutral decor, it doesn’t look the traditional part of rollicking Japanese pub, walls plastered with the written menu and a lantern or two overhead. A visitor exploring the labyrinth of Thái Văn Lung in Japantown might not take much notice of it. If they do make it to the quiet corner of the hẻm where Sasuke is located, they likely will only stop to read Sasuke’s noren, the traditional curtains that grace the entrance way.

After a meal at Sakaba Sasuke, one will eventually learn that there are few things that can't be improved by being wrapped in pork belly and grilled.

For better or for worse, the noren is how some people even know of Sasuke. “Oh, you mean the place with the Star Wars font on the curtains?” someone once asked me. Yes, the place with that (purely coincidental) font, which, in addition to carrying the name, also promotes the izakaya as “The Gather of Monkey Business.” Again, Takamura-san only has a simple reply when asked about the tagline. He said that he just liked the word “monkey,” and was stoically mum on any knowledge of the English phrase and its use to suggest what awaits you when you cross the threshold.

The monkey business is a small place that probably holds no more than 20 in the front room that houses the kitchen, a narrow bench-seated counter, and a few tables. There are more private tables in a back room, but your typical customer wants the monkey business that they first see.

Just pork belly-wrap that up

A portion of niku dofu.

Although the size brings intimacy, the bright lights at Sasuke are for action and attention seeking. Front and center for all to see when they walk in is a large nabe that is constantly simmering with niku dofu, a classic Japanese beef and tofu stew. It is one of Sasuke’s signature menu offerings that inspires both awe and appetite.

Contrasting the giant nabe that holds the stew, an order of niku dofu is a small bowl with a towering display. A block of tofu from the nabe is deftly presented on top of the tender beef; how to make your first move for a chunk is not an easy decision. As a sight to behold, the niku dofu on display is not rare in Japan, but it is here in Vietnam, and that is one of the reasons why Takamura-san wanted it to help shape Sasuke’s identity. Considering the music, noren, and slogan, his instinct was right.

Asparagus, cherry tomato, boiled egg, and even yakisoba swirls are amongst the many things on skewers here.

A specialty of that Sasuke location in Japan was yasai kushimaki, which are skewers of any manner of ingredients that have been rolled in thinly sliced pork belly. Takamura-san ensured they also made it on the menu here in Vietnam, and you’ll see them listed in English as “meat roll ups.” While yakitori gives you an appreciation for just how wonderful every part of a chicken can taste, yasai kushimaki gives you an appreciation for just how much better things taste when glistened with pork fat drippings. It is the most popular menu item for good reasons. Aside from it being an item that’s not easy to find in Saigon and, aside from it being delicious, Sasuke’s kushimaki is an adventure in learning all the unexpected items that can, indeed, be cooked on a skewer.

“While yakitori gives you an appreciation for just how wonderful every part of a chicken can taste, yasai kushimaki gives you an appreciation for just how much better things taste when glistened with pork fat drippings.”

Flavor is no doubt a factor, but rolling a ribbon of pork around something also gives it structure and some protection from the intense heat of the grill. So, how about a yakisoba skewer — a personal favorite of Takamura-san’s? Or spinach and cheese? That latter is a gooey delight, but I prefer the Camembert one for the funk. King oyster mushrooms with butter is another winner, but don’t sleep on the broiled tofu one. It sounds a little plain, but its texture wins your heart.

Pork-wrapped lettuce is a strange but delightful menu item.

Yasai means vegetables, so getting a few of the roll-ups with vegetables is a good idea. But the vegetable one you must get, the coolest one for me, is the lettuce skewer. Yes, lettuce. It is the most popular and most attractive. On one skewer, you will get what looks like four, tightly-packed green ranunculus bulbs. The lettuce petals can’t unfurl because of those porky ribbons that keep them in place. Unlike the other kushimaki, the special lettuce ones are served in a puddle of a dashi-vinegar dressing. The pork fat doesn’t penetrate to the center of the pretty bulbs, so that extra bit of seasoning is an appreciated touch to bring everything together. The pork is crispy, the lettuce isn’t wilted, and the dressing reinforces the salt and gives welcome acidity.

Crispy chicken skin, pork and lettuce stir fry, and chicken dumplings in broth.

The other must-order, the last signature menu item, and the item that first piqued my interest when I saw Sasuke’s food on Instagram before even arriving in Vietnam, is the steamed chicken meatballs called mushi tsukune. Fans of yakitori associate tsukune with oblong chicken meatball skewers often served with a raw egg yolk for dipping. Sasuke’s mushi tsukunes are spherical and maybe the size of a golf ball. One order comes with four meatballs, and each meatball contains minced chicken with combinations of different ingredients to create four distinct flavor profiles. The mushi tsukunes are served on a wooden platform and a small paper legend of the four flavors is set behind. You will be instructed to eat the tsukune balls from left to right.

The chicken balls' fillings change often depending on what Takamura-san gets inspired by.

It sounds like a gimmick, but it functions only as pure fun. The flavors change every week, and the anticipation of a new experience with every visit is endearing. Traditional Japanese ingredients such as seaweed, mentaiko, burdock root, and sesame seeds are common, as are aromatics like chives, ginger, and garlic. But then anything else is game from any vegetable to shellfish to hard-boiled egg to sausage. I’m sure I’ve had the dish almost a dozen times, and while some individual ingredients repeat, I’ve never had the same combo twice. 

When asked how he comes up with the weekly ideas, it’s another simple reply — “Instagram.” Any dish or flavor pairing he might see in food photos from restaurants or his friends in Japan could serve as inspiration. Japanese curry is one that he found particularly memorable. Not shockingly, natto was the biggest failure. While the fermented soybeans can be an acquired taste for many, their aroma is not a selling point for anyone. Takamura-san’s fatal miscalculation with his natto tsukune was not realizing that, in the steamer, the other three tsukunes would also emerge with the very distinct eau de natto.

The ins and outs of running an izakaya

From left to right: karaage, shumai, and deep-fried tofu.

The space can be elbow-to-elbow packed with sounds of laughter and friendly banter, and the host turning away those without a booking. It can also be a comfortably quiet hideout, where you’ll get to fully appreciate the Yazawa soundtrack and the back-and-forth calls and responses that servers and kitchen staff make to one another. Weekends are busier, but a Monday can also see a full house. Recently, Sasuke transitioned to opening seven nights a week.

“In a city with no shortage of izakayas to choose from, Sasuke doesn’t boldly try to announce its presence or distinguish itself from the pack. For better or for worse, the noren is how some people even know of Sasuke.”

Takamura-san says that his customer base is roughly two-thirds Japanese, and they are a captive audience that he was able to build from Mutahiro and networking through the community on social media. Offering yasai kushimaki would have been an initial draw, but once Takamura-san’s knowledge and expertise with it became known, interest turned to trust. When working at the Tokyo namesake, he had spent time learning how to make kushimaki in the region of Fukuoka where it’s from.

We're in izakaya heaven.

Takamura-san’s leadership allowed Sasuke to weather the pandemic lockdowns and continue to grow a customer base, but he has struggled like any restaurateur. He has found that many non-Japanese customers have izakaya menu expectations when they visit and question menu absences, with sashimi being the one he hears about the most. He may feel confident in most decisions, knowing that he has loyal customers, knowing that he knows what’s cool, but it’s clear he also knows he is running a business. He has recently made some menu changes, including a few fish skewers, to see what works.

Staffing is probably his biggest constant concern. A challenge with a chef in charge of yakitori and kushimaki is that they cannot taste as they go along. Like a steakhouse grill master who needs to know how to cook a steak medium rare or medium well, touch, sight and experience are what to be relied on in cooking kushimaki. At Sasuke, the chef on the grill has to know the difference between medium or well-done chicken livers and ensure those pretty lettuce rolls are sufficiently warmed through before the pork belly burns. It’s a craft that takes time and patience from both mentor and student, and keeping craftspeople around is not always easy.

Working a yakitori grill is a skill not many cooks can master.

Takamura-san’s team is largely Vietnamese and all seem to speak enough Japanese to get by with him and their primary customers. The main menu is in both those languages as well as English, while the specials are often only in Japanese and English. Pointing has always served me well, and the staff is so affable and friendly that I could probably still find success using my limited Japanese or Vietnamese.

He jokes that as much as the nabe of niku dofu or the drama of the grill’s flames are beloved by customers, it’s the smiling faces of the open kitchen that people like best. I’d agree. Whether it’s trying to find out about the song I can hear or asking for another glass of shochu, grins both shy and wide are always on offer, making the experience one that is as comfortable as it is delicious.

Sakaba Sasuke is open from 17:30 to 23:00.

To sum up

Taste: 6/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 5/5
Cool factor: 10/5

Rhianna loves to eat fridge-cold bánh chuối nướng with canned whipped cream, would choose a boule of sourdough and a block of French butter for her death row meal, and often daydreams about going for an ice cream stroll with Larry David.

Sakaba Sasuke

8A/A22 Thái Văn Lung, Bến Nghé Ward, D1, HCMC

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