This is the only place where you wouldn't mind if someone shouted at you. Each time anyone enters or leave, the enthusiastic chefs in the open kitchen and servers shout a welcome or thank you greeting in Japanese. Each time an order is placed, the server shouts the order in Japanese to the kitchen. When an order is ready, the chef shouts it. There is no electronic system for the kitchen. It is amazing how the chefs remember in their heads every single item that is being ordered. Guu is a very small place, mind you, so the back-and-forth shouts are loud. But this is a very important and fun part of Guu's vibe. Sometimes when the chefs feel cheeky (usually after drinking a couple of beers which come as treats from customers dining at the counter), they shout even louder their thank yous and goodbyes in a funny and humorous tone. You will also hear Japanese pop music in the background though I hope they stop playing the J-pop song on repeat.
Izakayas are very common in Japan where people hang out after work over beer and shared small plates. Guu is as authentic as you can get: Japanese-owned and operated. Every employee is native Japanese and you will notice their very heavy accent. The menu is written and printed in Japanese with the minimum number of English words needed for translation. We ate at Guu the night we arrived in Vancouver. Suffice to say, we loved it that much and decided to cancel our reservation at a French restaurant made for our last night so we could return to Guu to mark the end of our trip. We can get very good French food in Chicago. Not for Guu. At least not the total experience of authenticity in both vibe and food.
Both visits we sat at the counter and got to see the chefs prepare the food. Servers and chefs wear name tags which they can choose to add some personality to. One of the servers had the phrase "I love dSLR" on his name tag. One of the chefs had "I love beer" on his name tag. When the "dSLR" server saw that we had a 28mm lens on our camera, he showed a little envy.
|Karaage, deep fried chicken|
The batter used for the karaage (deep fried chicken) was so full of flavor and I'm curious as to what is the secret concoction of the batter marinade. We've had karaage many times but this dish at Guu stood out. I could be wrong but I sensed a hint of fermented bean curd in the marinade which was probably what brought it up a notch. Dip the crispy-skinned chicken into the side of garlic mayo, if you'd like. Or if you are a purist like me, simply enjoy it as it is. The chicken can stand alone to impress.
|Gyutan, grilled beef tongue|
The gyutan (grilled beef tongue) had a chewy texture but without putting your jaw to an extreme workout. It was tender and yet had the slight hint of chewiness to remind you that you are indeed eating beef tongue. If you've had offal before, you will know that they really are just tasteless by itself. The sauteed scallions with just salt really helped make the dish a star. I even found myself picking out the scallions and eating them as they are.
|Hamachi kama, grilled yellowtail neck|
T knows my usual routine of eating hamachi kama (grilled yellowtail neck) with some soy sauce. We took our first bite into it and as he was reaching towards the little bottle of soy sauce to hand it over to me, I surprised myself by passing up on the soy sauce this time. It was flavorful and moist enough, I told him, and I didn't want to ruin it.
|Oden: daikon, hanpen, egg|
|Oden: konnyaku, chikuwa, daikon|
Simmered and kept warm in a big metal and square pot on the kitchen counter is the oden which is made up of several types of fish cakes, as well as daikon and egg. Whenever an order is placed, the chef removes the big wooden lid that sits atop the metal pot and then carefully scoops out the items that have been stewed in dashi broth. Guu has it figured out in keeping the fish cakes warm without overcooking it. Though sitting in the pot for long, the konnyaku (Japanese seaweed jelly), chikuwa (tube-shaped fish cake), and hanpen (puffy fish cake) retain its just-cooked bouncy texture. Be sure to place your oden order early as they sell out quickly.
Ask any Japanese about ochazuke and they will tell you that this quick snack is easy to make. Tea, dashi broth, or hot water is poured over leftover rice and then accompanied with toppings. It really is a quick fix. At Guu, the immensely bonito-flavored dashi broth (taken from the oden pot) is poured over the small bowl of rice. Cooked salmon flakes, chopped scallions, and seaweed are then placed over the rice. After mixing everything together, the flavor from the salmon melds in so well with the dashi broth that one could be fooled into thinking that he or she is eating fish stew that had been prepared for hours. Of course, the loudness at Guu jolted me back to reality that I was really just eating rice poured over with dashi broth accompanied with salmon flakes. Such simple food with non-simple pleasures.
|Scallop, albacore tuna, madai|
As an izakya, Guu's primary focus is on hot food but their small list of daily-rotating sashimi items have been very fresh during both times we were there. One way to judge the freshness of uni (sea urchin) is its natural sweetness and ours reflected just that. The scallop, albacore tuna, and madai (Japanese red snapper) were very good as well.
|Natto, tuna sashimi, oshinko, deep fried garlic, scallions, raw quail egg|
From what I've learnt, the Japanese either love or hate natto (fermented soy beans). For haters, they blame it on the smell and gooey texture. For natto lovers, they praise its high nutritious value. We once spoke with a Japanese lady owner of a restaurant in Chicago who told us that she eats natto everyday in order to maintain a perfect skin complexion. T and I love natto but not because we hope to get perfect skin out of it (although that would be a bonus). We like it, just because. It is an acquired taste that we have gradually come to appreciate. On that day, Guu's serving of natto comes with tuna sashimi, two types of oshinko (Japanese pickles), deep fried garlic, scallions, and then topped with a raw quail egg. Admittedly, this combination of ingredients wasn't my favorite. I like each of those items very much but felt that here the oshinko (Japanese pickled) was out of place in terms of melding the flavors together after we mixed all the ingredients up together salad-style.
|Kimchi fried rice|
You really should get the kimchi fried rice. What makes it so darn great is that it is fried with pork belly fat. To achieve the perfect wok charred-taste, the chef fries it in high heat and at one point, flame erupts in the wok for 2 seconds before it goes off. He also presses the rice hard and quickly onto the bottom of the pan with his ladle for a greater charred-taste.
If eating offal sounds intimidating to anyone, at least this dish of pork intestines looked so good that when the couple who sat next to us were placing their order, they asked their server what we were having in hopes of ordering it as well. The pork intestines were broiled and then coated with a sweet sauce which resulted in a caramelized charred flavor.
If you need a soda, please don't go American by getting a Coke. Get Ramune, the Japanese soda.
|Sweet almond tofu|
If it is not already sold out, try the housemade sweet almond tofu for dessert. Nothing beats having a night of indulgent food and ending with dessert that is actually healthy for you. The thing that attracts us most about Japanese desserts in general is that they are rarely overly sweet like many American desserts, and Guu's sweet almond tofu did not disappoint.
In the words of this place, Guu is Guu'd.
838 Thurlow St
Vancouver, BC V6E 1W2
2012 Silver Winner for Best Casual Japanese by Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards
2012 Bronze Winner for Best Casual Chain by Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards
2011 Finalist for Best Casual Chain Restaurant by Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards
2010 Honorable Mention for Best Casual Japanese by Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards