This is a good time.
This is Hojoko, an izakaya with a rock ’n’ roll spirit from O Ya operators Tim and Nancy Cushman, located in the Fenway’s Verb Hotel. (It used to be a Howard Johnson, and the restaurant’s name plays on that: It means “child of HoJo” in Japanese.) A painted blue stream leads the way to the door, flowing from a psychedelic wall mural and onto the ground. Inside, behind a lime-green bar, are tanks filled with turquoise, pink, and yellow potions; an army of Godzillas, Hello Kitties, and Mr. Potato Heads assembles. Hip-hop and punk rock play at levels unfit for extended exposure. Two women face off with tipsy fervor at a tabletop Pac-Man. Salarymen drink sake and beer and consume a whole roasted tuna collar on a silver platter. A server brings one group a little red cooler that holds a plastic guitar filled with drink.
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We sit at a table with a poolside view worthy of Los Angeles, although the weather is all Boston. Our server has just placed before us tall glasses filled with spicy pineapple shrub soda, chopsticks lying across the top, and on top of the chopsticks a shot of tequila, precariously balanced.
Tequila bombs. One, two, three! We hit the table, the shots fall into the glasses, the sodas foam violently, we drink.
Izakayas are taverns, where the food exists to support the alcohol, rather than vice versa. They are as much a tradition in Japan as sushi bars or restaurants serving multicourse, seasonal meals against a backdrop of turning maples. Hojoko stays true to the model. After winning critical praise and a James Beard award (Tim Cushman was named Best Chef Northeast in 2012) for O Ya, and expanding to New York, the Cushmans are in the mood for fun.
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1271 Boylston St.,
And so bar honchos Joe Cammarata (Backbar) and Daren Swisher (JM Curley) have created one of the most purely fun drinking experiences in town. There are the cocktails in the tanks, candy flavors matching candy colors — the Blue Hawaiian, a mix of rum, pineapple juice, shochu, and blue Curacao; the 5, 6, 7, 8, vodka with creme de violette and lemon, topped with mango foam. There are frozen drinks such as a chile-spiked strawberry daiquiri, a grasshopper with ingredients including Fernet and miso, and a pina colada made with Fluff and garnished with a toasted marshmallow. There are drinks you might expect from veterans of serious cocktail bars, such as the Raba Raba (gin, shiso, lime, and ginger) and the Naruhito (foie gras Akashi White Oak Japanese whiskey with Cocchi Americano and Benedictine).
And then there are the bombs. They get their own paragraph because they deserve it. In this world, there are people who order sake bombs and people who don’t. Hojoko’s bombs break down that barrier a bit by tasting like real cocktails one might actually want to drink. There is one that sends Irish whiskey plummeting into soda made with cucumber shrub, and another — my surprise favorite — that spikes sweet Mexican Fanta with bitter coconut Campari. The flavor combinations are familiar from one’s tippling history. It’s the delivery system that makes them fresh. Bonus: feeling like a sophisticated frat boy, whatever one’s age or gender.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Beer and sake are pivotal parts of the izakaya experience. Hojoko has 10 beers on tap, from Sapporo and Kirin to Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union and Sixpoint Bengali IPA. But sake is the real strength here, thanks to expert Alyssa Mikiko DiPasquale, who got her start with the Cushmans at O Ya. Bushido Junmai Genshu (undiluted sake) is available on tap. There are a half-dozen large-format offerings. And then there is a long list of single serving “sake cups,” each accompanied by a helpful description — from the “traditional, rice forward” Shunnoten “Fisherman Cup” Junmai from Yamanashi to the “funky, dry” Kikusui Funaguchi “Green” from Niigata. (I can’t imagine many customers drink wine here, but there is a short list to accommodate the urge.)
Oh, wait, were you hungry?
Executive chef Hart Lowry and crew take the crazy, tricked-out sushi rolls America loves and make them crazier and more tricked out. (Many are available as half-orders, a nice touch.) There is one that incorporates house-made foie gras “spam” and grilled pineapple. Another, the charcoaled romaine roll, is a sushi version of Caesar salad, with fried clams, Caesar dressing, bonito flakes, and croutons. Over-the-top luxury comes in the form of grilled lobster tail with tomalley rice and sake-sea urchin jus. There is something called Wasabi Roulette, a plate of negitoro rolls, one piece spiked with a huge amount of wasabi. For relief, the person who eats it can drink the pina colada that comes on the side, served in a baby bottle.
For all the wackiness, the rolls that work the best are the cleanest and most streamlined: one featuring grilled shrimp with shiso salsa verde and Meyer lemon, bright and light; another woodsy and warm with shiitake tempura, truffle salsa, fried garlic, and sake mash. A California roll is made with real but fishy-tasting crab. Many of the more elaborate rolls arrive drowning in sauce; it’s hard to taste the ingredients underneath, and the rolls feel overly rich. There is also a daily selection of sashimi and nigiri sushi offered (yes, of course, also available by the boatload). The night I sample these, the rice is hard, not the joy to eat that sushi rice is at places like, say, O Ya.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
There are also robata dishes, grilled over special Japanese charcoal that imparts wonderful flavor. Sugar snap peas are very good this way, with tangy yuzu kosho mayonnaise. There is an assortment of chicken preparations: tails with black truffle salt, thighs with umami-imparting shio koji, and tsukune, a long meatball flavored with ginger, sesame, and pickled plum, with an egg yolk for dipping. (On one visit the tsukune is juicy and flavorful, on another oddly sour.) Robata crab leg is served in its shell with spicy momiji (Japanese maple) mayonnaise, crisp shallots, and micro-celery. It is a very clever crab roll, in other words. And as with many crab rolls, it could use a little less mayo and celery, the better to taste the crab. Whole prawns are a simpler, more pure delight, brushed in spicy momiji butter.
Then the menu runs wild. There is a version of okonomiyaki, tiny but with big flavor, the egg pancake packed with bacon, shiitake mushrooms, and more. Potstickers filled with shrimp and pork come with foie gras-umeboshi sauce, sesame, and yuzu kosho powder: so many ingredients. The flavors come together well, but the skins are tough. Hojoko’s version of Steak-umm arrives inedible, a plate of greasy beef served with vibrant green kimchi, some salvation.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Udon carbonara is a crack concept — the fat, chewy Japanese noodles beg to be combined with pork belly and Parmesan. But the dish is soupy. An actual soup — the funky chicken ramen — is a winner, and for $9 a bowl a bargain too. With its extra-rich chicken broth, perfectly cooked ramen noodles, soy egg, and robata chicken, it could become a winter habit. (A recurring special, ramen with shreds of hot dog and kimchi, is an unrepentant sodium bomb.)
Another star dish features torched uni, sea urchin, prepared with soy sauce, olive oil, and herbs. It is served with toast and seaweed butter, dramatically black and gently oceanic in flavor.
Hojoko also has a cheeseburger. It is amazing, perfectly greasy, gooey, and salty.
But too many dishes here are too heavy, too gooey, too salty, without the finesse or refinement to balance them. This is a menu abundant with smart ideas. They often get lost in the sauce.
The Hojoko experience is hectic. There are no reservations. The seating policy is unclear. The service is sometimes exceptional, sometimes shaky. It’s too loud to talk without yelling. The food isn’t what one might expect from the team behind O Ya.
Embrace all that and it is, always, a good time.
Devra First can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.