Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > San Diego >
May 1, 2009 10:16 AM

SD - Where should I spend my B-day: Yu Me Ya or Sakura?

I'm craving Japanese food for my birthday. Which restaurant would you choose? I've been to Sakura for lunch, but not dinner. And I've never been to Yumeya. How are they different?

I recently had one of the best meals I've ever had at Raku in Las Vegas. Any ideas on which restaurant would be closer?

Thanks for any input you can offer.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. For myself it would be easy - Sakura. It's a more authentic version of what they're both trying to be, which is an izakaya.

    As for yourself, a lot depends on what you like and are used to. To me the best way of enjoying an izakaya is to go there with a lot of people and order plenty. It's all about constructing a meal from small portions representing the whole spectrum of Japanese cooking techniques.

    By and large the menu at an izakaya is divided by cooking technique, but not totally. There would be separate sections for rice dishes, noodle dishes, etc. In any case how the menu is divided is roughly your clue as to how you should order. Try to assemble your group's meal by ordering from as many categories as you care to. Also note that much that's served at an izakaya are home-style foods, many of which would never be served in other types of dining establishments.

    This is the food that many an over-worked salaryman loosens their ties over and relaxes with colleagues after a busy day at the office over shared bottles of beer or sake. It's not meant to be fussy, just good Japanese soul food.

    I mention this as depending on your background you are likely not to have come across most of what's on the menu. And perhaps one's experience with Japanese food in a more "classical" setting may not necessarily prepare you for what's on offer at an izakaya. Not that it's challenging - most of the items are not - but just different.

    The reason I pick Sakura over Yumeya is that the menu is much closer to what an izakaya should be. And Yumeya also plays around with a couple of nuveau dishes, vs. the more traditional line that Sakura follows with their menu. And they have a very competent kitchen. It wasn't always like this, however... There was a period of perhaps a year long or so where I stopped going there as their kitchen quality precipitously dropped. Never found out what happened, but even though the years I've been going there far outnumber this low period, it still gives me a little anxiety on every visit that perhaps they'll stumble again. But it's quite bizarre. Otherwise my experience is that their cooking is very competent.

    However Yumeya might be the better choice for some, for one of several reasons. Yumeya certainly wins hands down for intimacy. It's cozy and exudes all of the charming qualities of a lovingly-run family restaurant. Their menu is too small to be a proper izakaya, but it is well-selected. Definitely more familiar territory for those familiar with the more classical Japanese food items. They have a huge sake selection - probably the best there is in the county.

    BTW if you wish to consider one more place, I would confidently give my thumbs up to Okan. The treasure here is in the oozara-ryori. Focus on those items and combine it with a hot item from the kitchen and you're guaranteed to have a fantastic meal!

    16 Replies
    1. re: cgfan

      I have not been to either place and so I am not sure if this is an answerable question, but if you ordered the same/very similar dish at both places, where would you expect to enjoy it more? Is there enough overlap in the menus that it is a valid comparison?

      From your post, I would expect that Yumeya offers the same/similar style dishes as Sakura, but with fewer choices at any given time. It seems like the main point of recommending Sakura is that there is more variety on the menu and from prior posts (from various people), my impression was that both places make authentic, high quality Japanese food.

      Would you suggest one place over another if there was a specific dish I wanted or does either place have a specific specialty that should not be missed? It may be obvious by now that I have not eaten in an izakaya-style restaurant.

      1. re: JRSD

        Well Sakura will get you closest to an izakaya menu. The only downside is that it's in a very non-izakaya-like little plain box of a room.

        The menus between Yumeya and Sakura are quite different in that there's probably an order of magnitude difference in the number of menu items. I can say that I've enjoyed almost all items that I've had at Yumeya, but every time I go there it's only for it's geographic proximity to where I live, as in general I'd rather eat at Sakura.

        But I'm not trying to dissuade you away from Yumeya either. It really is a charming restaurant and has it's own personal twists. And one of the non-cuisine-related things I like about what they do there is their use of kozara, or traditional Japanese small plates. They are all carefully selected as tradition dictates, even though to do so tremendously increases the work the back of the house has to do. Also presentation is a big part of what they do well at Yumeya, while not being much of a focus over at Sakura.

        This may sound contradictory to what I posted before, but it's not meant to be. For me cooking at an izakaya is all about breadth and versatility. It's not about fussing over a specific dish or two and specializing, but rather being competent in all of the traditional Japanese cooking techniques. They should be competent enough to provide a relaxing atmosphere where one may not even look at the menu and feel free to order whatever comes to mind - they should do and have practically anything that's commonly eaten in the Japanese home.

        This is what Sakura does well. Yumeya, on the other hand, has a much more focused menu that's quite unlike an izakaya. One must read their menu carefully in order to know what they have, rather than casually order whatever comes to mind. But what they do offer is very well executed. And yes, when compared to Yumeya on the few dishes that there will be an overlap, Sakura will probaby offer a better executed version due to the extra attention each menu item gets. It's just that for me it's not an izakaya-like experience.

        1. re: cgfan

          OK. That makes total sense to me, and I never got the impression that you were trying to dissuade anyone away from Yumeya. Thanks for clarifying.

          1. re: JRSD

            But I must correct my closing sentence - I switched the two names! It should read:

            . And yes, when compared to Sakura on the few dishes that there will be an overlap, Yumeya will probaby offer a better executed version due to the extra attention each menu item gets. It's just that for me it's not an izakaya-like experience.

            1. re: cgfan

              Interesting, because that is what I would have predicted you would say based on prior posts, and was surprised by your post above.

              To echo GJ below, (and with apologies for having to see that post to remind me to do it), thanks a bunch!

              1. re: cgfan

                I really want to explore this food, but new food from different cultures can be a little intimidating. Can someone like me just walk into one of these places and say 'I want to try a bunch of different things. Please help me'.? (I love everything I have ever eaten except rhubarb and green-lipped mussels.)


                1. re: Uncle Lefty

                  I did that at Yumeya and had a great first visit there, Uncle Lefty. I can not say about Sakura because I have not been.

                  1. re: Uncle Lefty

                    If you go into Sakura, I think you'll be surprised how much of the menu is easy to grasp. In some ways, the approach you're asking about isn't one I'd take because in my experience the servers will often steer you towards food "Americans like", which is usually the least interesting, most boring stuff on the menu.

                    There's a standard list I give people who are new to Sakura:

                    Gyuniku tataki - raw beef, seared on the outside, served with ponzu sauce (a sauce made from soy and yuzu (Japanese citrus) juice)
                    Albacore tataki - same prep as above, only albacore tuna
                    Pirikara Maguro - raw tuna chunks in a spicy sesame oil and ginger dressing
                    Okonomiyaki - Savory Japanese pancake with meat and seafood
                    Aji sashimi - Spanish mackerel, first served as sashimi, then the bones are taken and fried, and brought back to crunch on.
                    Buta kakuni - Pork belly chunks, simmered in broth.

                    Good luck on your adventure.

                    1. re: Josh

                      Another item I forgot is mushidori - chicken steamed in a vinegar broth. Very delicious.

                    2. re: Uncle Lefty

                      I suspect that most of the waitresses at Sakura would tend to shy away from being in such a commanding position with a customer in order to actually put together a meal for you. This is particulary true knowing that you might be relatively new to the cuisine and considering the number of items that would need to be ordered to compose an entire meal. Also the number of items an individual would need to order varies quite a bit as well. It would be a whole 'nother matter if it were the chef himself that you were talking to - he may quite confidently steer you towards certain items.

                      (BTW don't be shy about ordering several items at first to gauge the portion sizes then following up with ordering more items later - it's done all the time. However it's best to refrain from ordering a single item at a time, both for your sake and for the restaurant's. It takes quite a bit of time to prepare most of the items - fast food this is not...)

                      Rather I'd recommend just requesting the English menu, there are a few floating around at Sakura, and to make it a bit easier first decide on what combination of cooking techniques/categories you would like to explore. Once you have that out of the way I suspect that by reading the descriptions of the various items in a given section, one would have a relatively easy time picking out the one item from each section you wish to have to compose your meal.

                      Honestly if one has tried a fair number of exotic cuisines with little in the way of complete misses, then the experience of exploring an izakaya menu will likely be just as successful. However there are certain items or qualities that will most likely set the less adventuresome diner off, though it sounds like you may be quite immune to these; I'll try to address the key ones below:

                      Specific food items that are typically challenging:
                      1) Natto - fermented soy bean - it's usually its smell first and its consistency second that sets most people off; you'll likely find it used on a handful of dishes throughout the menu
                      2) Shiokara - fermented squid w/guts - it's usually the translation that sets most people off, but honestly if one enjoys the taste of liver, which is the predominant constituent of shiokara, and doesn't mind squid, then it's actually quite approachable; to many it also has an unpleasant color, which can vary quite a bit
                      3) Shirako - cod milt (sperm) - again it's usually the translation that sets most people off, but it could also be one of appearance (it looks like brains) and texture
                      4) Sanma - pike mackerel - what sets most people aghast with this salt-broiled fish is that this is one of the few fish that is traditionally eaten with all of its innards intact. It is common to hear stories of customers sending it back to the kitchen since "it wasn't cleaned properly", when in fact that is how the Japanese eat it, guts and all.

                      Some qualities that are typically challenging:
                      1) nigai (bitterness) - bitter items are part of the Japanese palate of flavors, and can be seen in items such as kazunoko (herring roe), the innards of a sanma shio-yaki (salt grilled pike mackerel), to a certain extent shishamo (smelt), as well as in hoya (sea pineapple)
                      2) sourness - best represented by umeboshi (preserved plum [actually apricot])
                      3) textures
                      - rubbery, best exhibited in konnyaku (devil's root starch)
                      - sliminess (neba neba), a texture that is highly prized amongst the Japanese, as this quality is thought to be good for you. It is exhibited in natto, grated yamaimo (tororo), or sliced okra
                      - and keep this in mind - texture plays such an important part in Japanese cuisine that there are often items that have little to no flavor but contributes quite a bit in terms of texture - if something you ordered puzzles you due to having little to no flavor, then it's probably an item that is prized for its texture

                      That's about it. And BTW when you do put together your order, you might want to check with the waitress to make sure it's not too much. Most of the items are quite small, but some items, especially most of those found under the Menrui (noodles) section, can be entire meals, or close to entire meals, all by themselves..

                      One more option to get you more prepared for your meal would be to first go there during lunch and order the bento. These are set meals pre-prepared into a sectioned plate that purposely covers a wide variety of cooking techniques. Since the items are pre-selected you would not need to make any choices, and each would be in a sufficiently small size such that skipping a less-successful item or two would not make a great impact in the overall enjoyment of your meal.

                      1. re: cgfan

                        Wow. Thank you all. cgfan, you know more about Japanese food than I know about, well, everything put together


                        1. re: Uncle Lefty

                          While I respectfully agree with your assessment of cgfan's knowledge of Japanese food (among other things, most notably, espresso), don't sell yourself short, Uncle Lefty. "Everything put together?" I don't think so. You pointed us to Sab E Lee!

                          While I can't speak about Yumeya because I've yet to make it there, I do know if you let the waitstaff at Sakura know you're a bit more adventurous, they generally suggest items a bit more outside the norm. But I also agree with cgfan's suggestion of the bento, as it gives you enough variety to sample.

            2. re: cgfan

              Dear cgfan,

              May I go on record with my appreciation of your very detailed, completely competent and very informative overviews of Japanese cuisine?

              Goodness gracious, you should be getting paid or at least receiving a Pulitzer prize (like Jonathan Goldman) for your contributions.

              "Bows low in appreciation"


              1. re: Gypsy Jan

                Oh my, GJ, blushing from all of the bowing... (Psssst... It's ok, it's ok...)

                It's nothing, really. I just grew-up with the cuisine and I just happen to enjoy translating food into words!

              2. re: cgfan

                Wow! Thanks for all the info. I appreciate the thoughtful answer. It'll just be my girlfriend and I at dinner, not a large group. Though I'm sure we'll still try a bunch of dishes. I'm still kind of leaning towards Yumeya, but I haven't decided yet. I'm sure both would be great. Would it change your answer if the dinner was for only 2 people?

                Thanks again.

                1. re: jasont

                  Knowing cgfan, I don't think his answer would differ if it was for 2 people or 8. We've been to both places and love them both for different reasons. Sakura is more casual, hole in the wall-ish (ie: gets hot and stuffy in there when it's warm outside b/c they don't have A/C) but comfortable and laid back. Yumeya is more like a refined version of Sakura--newer tables and decor. Food wise, Sakura is more "homey," for lack of a better word. It's how I interpret what cgfan described eloquently. Yumeya's flavors are more "refined," "delicate" and "clear." Both places are excellent and quite frankly, you won't go wrong w/ either place.

                  Sakura does have a much larger menu and you can go wild, trying all kinds of stuff. We like the agedashi mochi, pirikara maguro and chirashi bowl. They have an addendum to the main menu and we tried a bunch of things from it. Unfortunately, I can't remember what we ate, but it was all good!

                  Maybe do both places? Birthday-eve dinner and then birthday dinner?

                  cgfan, again, thank you for broadening my knowledge!

              3. Just to add on to cgfan's replies:
                The sake selection at Yumeya is amazing, there must be at least 30 selections by the glass. Sakura has a sushi bar. Yumeya does not take reservations on Friday and Saturday, I think Sakura does. Have fun!

                1. I tend to be partial to Sakura because I think I was the first to post about it at CH. But everything I have read about Yumeya makes it seem very good as well. If you want to read a bunch of posts about Sakura with pictures etc, go to KirkK's wonderful blog and enter Sakura into the search engine. Links to more than a half dozen posts will show up. Maybe more.


                  One dish not mentioned so far in the discussion was a combination of various mushrooms, tofu, bacon, and asparagus that I had a few months ago and still dream about:


                  In any case, good eating. Happy Birthday!

                  1. We happened to go to Yumeya for the first time last Saturday and had a fantastic time. They were pretty busy and it is a small, intimate but lively space. We had a number of items from the menu (the black cod was a standout) all of which were good to really good to even great and sampled our way through way too much sake. We let the waitress pick our sakes, she would tell us an interesting story about each and we would all share. But it is a whole different experience from Sakura.