You know it’s hot before the dish even leaves the kitchen. Food pops and sizzles loudly like lava bubbling upwards from the volcano’s pit. The server carefully adjusts the dishes at the table before dropping off the scalding hot iron griddle that continues to scream loudly for a full minute that feels more like ten.
Patience is key at Niji Izakaya, a casual Japanese bar hidden in a bright red building on the fringes of Nuñez. If you allow yourself to be lead by your eyes rather than your ears you are guaranteed to burn everything from the tip of the tongue to the bottom of the throat.
The specialty is teppanyaki—a style of cooking that emerged after the second World War that is defined by its use of thick iron pans and grills and flavors that swing towards a Westernized palate. Locals didn’t take to the style immediately but the sudden flow of tourists to the island did. Benihana would export the style to North America and the restaurants performative style would help bring Japanese cuisine into the mainstream.
Although at Niji you won’t find a chef decorated with a tall white hat making onion volcanos or tossing shrimp into diner’s mouths, these are still dishes of excess and show. Grease hisses and sputters and turns everything it touches into colossal crunches; sauces are creamy, or sweet like ripened plums, or bright red and spicy; and food is plated with grandiose, like a circular tangle of gyozas or katsuobushi flakes that wave when they arrive to the table. On a recent visit, there appeared to be more food at the table than we could imagine to eat, and then it was suddenly devoured.
Beyond the teppanyaki, the bar is inspired by the island nation’s izakayas—casual bars meant for large groups that start early, order a little bit of everything and gorge on small plates that arrive slowly in between sips of chilled sake. Niji opens at 6pm, a perfect alternative to the local merienda. Arrive more according to the porteño dining schedule and you’ll likely be greeted by an empty dining room. The place sparsely fills up early with chauffeured Japanese dignitaries and tourists.
Begin with a slightly sweet sauteed eggplant, wide trunks of blackened berenjena is treated with a dashi sauce and the distant flavor of a glazed white wine. They are simply delicate and easily disappear. Or the buta kimchi. Twice cooked slabs of pork belly are pelted with the blood red kimchi. Rehydrated mushrooms add a long chew to the audible acid crunch of the Korean staple.
Continue with an order of gyoza. A near dozen dumplings are neatly arranged in a hollow circle, each one melting into the other. Gyozas are flipped and brought to the table immediately—neat and crispy on the top and soft and loose on the bottom. Pops of ground pork are juicy enough that it bursts similar to a soup dumpling. The meat is so tender it borders on a cooked down cream. A dash of white vinegar pumps everything upward.
Let the horumiso sit for a while, the strands of pork intestine are beat with a slightly sweet sauce with airs of plum or nectarine. They are gooey and break apart easily. Patient diners will allow the dish to sit so that the meat builds a sticky wall that intensifies the fruit and garlic flavors that grab onto the teeth and are happily washed away with a sake or extra cold glass of Asahi. You could go with the classic okonomiyaki, the cabbage pancake filled with pork and calamari, or go for the takoyaki, a creamier version stuffed with squares of octopus. A perfect bar food, it is striped with Japanese mayonnaise, which has a more distinct butter flavor.
There is also whole grilled fish and sauteed udon, noodles as well as bowls of ramen and pork curry. You could order sushi, only available by reservation—the simple nigiri and rolls have never piqued my interest over the house specialties. For dessert, try a ‘Don Pedro Japones’, an oddly named ice cream sundae with vanilla ice cream, sticky balls of rice paste similar to mochi, slightly bitter matcha syrup and flakes of corn cereal. You’ll feel like you are eight years old again barely tall enough to reach the top of the glass it comes in.
Nothing I have eaten at Niji is quite like the Japanese food I have eaten elsewhere in Buenos Aires. Savory dishes, almost always gyoza and shrimp or vegetable tempuras, are always overshadowed by sophisticated sushi boats and intricate soups. The lack of focus at Niji with the inclusion of sushi and ramens can make the menu hard to navigate. And the ramen itself is, at least on the occasion that I tried it, a tad salt heavy. But it also makes the teppanyaki itself deeply fascinating—a host of hard to find dishes that keep you coming back time and again.
Address: Iberá 2424, Nuñez
Hours: Monday through Saturday from 6 to 10pm
Price per person: $1200-1400
Recommended dishes: takoyaki (cabbage pancake with octopus), horumiso (sweet and sour pork intestines), pork gyoza