Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food. The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year. But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design. And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way. That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables. There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there. The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.
They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those. Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT. Preferably A LOT.
I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch. I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park. It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot! I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order. Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more. I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.
Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the
restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately. This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party. It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes. By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.
I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9). It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape. It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp. (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.) It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.
Everything else photographed well:
Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer. I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.
Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:
A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):
Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo. Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.
Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare. All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.
And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before. It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those. It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish). On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes. It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.
I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again. They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things. The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.
Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru. While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different. There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates. It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included. In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back. Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar. (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)