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Kinda Is Bringing the Fun Back to Bay Area Izakaya

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Illustration: Two men eating noodles and sushi hand rolls at a bar counter.
Berkeley’s Kinda Izakaya stands apart from the masses of expensive and overly precious izakayas in the Bay Area. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and graphic novelist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

Based on vibes alone, I knew Kinda Izakaya was going to be my kind of spot the moment I walked in. The walls were papered over with manga panels and vintage-y beer posters featuring sumo wrestlers and lucky cats. Yellow Asahi beer crates had been flipped upside down to use as stools. Strings of paper lanterns and colorful little flags gave the feeling of dining outdoors in an alleyway.

I took one whiff of the smoke coming off the charcoal grill, and all of the pleasure receptors in my brain started firing.

Open since last summer, Kinda is Berkeley’s newest izakaya — which, broadly defined, is a kind of Japanese pub that serves food that goes well with beer and sake. It’s one of my favorite restaurant genres. But with a few notable exceptions, Bay Area restaurateurs have tended to reinterpret the izakaya to mean an upscale bar that traffics in $15 meat skewers and stingily-portioned $25 plates of raw fish — and closes well before 10 p.m., as if to add insult to injury.

What Kinda seems to understand on a molecular level is that izakaya culture is meant to be fun, a little bit boisterous and very, very casual. The restaurant is open until midnight on weekends, and at a little past 9 o’clock on a recent Friday night, the place was packed — a mix of middle-aged couples seated shoulder to shoulder at the bar and groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings chatting happily as they split a big spread of dishes. The dining room thrummed with upbeat J-pop that made you want to dance.

Illustration: View of a Japanese izakaya from outside the front window. Paper lanterns and flags are hung up both inside and out.
On weekends, Kinda is open — and lively — until midnight. (Thien Pham)

Kinda has the fun and casual part down, even if it isn’t exactly a cheap restaurant; it’d still be a splurge for most college students schlepping over from Cal’s campus, which is a few blocks away. That said, you can buy a big-ass pitcher of cold beer for $24. And the menu is broad and varied enough to make it just as easy to piece together a tasty meal for about $30 a person as it is to ball out and drop a couple hundred bucks.

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Most importantly, the menu runs the gamut of typical izakaya food categories — raw seafood, salads, skewers, fried things, skewers, rice bowls, noodles and more — with enough verve and creativity to keep things interesting. If anything, the menu is so long, and everything sounds so fun, that you might be hit with decision-making panic. “Golden spoons” with ikura, uni and Hokkaido scallops? Grilled beef tongue with ponzu, egg yolk and fresh wasabi? That same tongue served on a curry plate? With sufficient stomach space and a more robust budget, we would have ordered it all.

Most everything we did order hit the spot. There was a block of cold tofu topped with sweet seaweed and salmon roe, equal parts briny and refreshing. There was a big bowl of fried chicken skin (at $10, the deal of the night), as immaculately crunchy as the wonton strips they serve at Americanized Chinese restaurants, which was the ideal match for cold beer. There were hand rolls piled high with grilled eel and ponzu-kissed raw yellowtail. Our favorite was a bowl of udon carbonara topped with bonito flakes and spicy, bright-orange cod roe — a creamy, buttery taste of the sea.

We finished with a grilled rice ball that had been brushed with a sweet soy sauce glaze and cooked over hot charcoal until it was smoky and crunchy and perfectly golden-brown: an elite-tier final bite.

Kinda is also the rare Bay Area restaurant that feels tailor-made for a solo (midnight) diner — where you can swing by after work, grab a seat at the bar, order a couple of cold appetizers and a plate of mentaiko pasta, and feel completely comfortable and unhurried. I think we can all toast to that.


Kinda Izakaya is open Monday through Thursday 5:30–11 p.m. and Friday to Saturday 5:30 p.m.–midnight at 1941 University Ave. in Berkeley.

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