First Look: So Ya — Victoria’s First Izakaya

So Ya Kebab

Dark brown wood and hand-carved signs adorn the doorway, and a massive red lantern in the window reaches out to guide you in. You scarcely get a chance to peek at the delicious-looking pictures on the window before a young woman in a red kimono swings open the door, singing out the traditional Japanese  “Irasshaimase!”(Come on in).

It’s taken 300 years of izakaya tradition for Victoria to finally get its own Japanese tapas bars, and now we have another one in So Ya Izakaya. The concept of izakaya grew out of sake shops, which began to build seating to allow guests to sample their wines. In fact, the word izakaya comes from the Japanese words “I” meaning “to stay,” and “sakaya,” meaning “sake shop.” Over time these shops began serving a variety of appetizers called otsumami. While the tradition is deeply rooted, it is now a reflection of modern Japanese culture and extremely popular there.

“Izakaya is a place for social gathering, for people to get together, have some drinks, share some good food, and enjoy themselves,” said Soichiro Tateishi, whose mother owns the restaurant. “The idea of smaller dishes to go with the drinks was what we wanted to bring overseas to show that we have something other than sushi and tempura.”



Soichiro had been living in Canada for about eight years before his mother, Mami Tateishi, decided to open So Ya. Mami owns four izakaya restaurants in Tokyo and felt that there was an empty niche in the Victoria scene. She brought over one of her most trusted and experienced chefs, Kiminori Miura, and began to hire more Japanese-speaking staff.


Kiminori & Kana

“We didn’t know anything about opening restaurants in Canada, so we pretty much started from scratch,” said Soichiro. “It took quite a while, actually; we started the company back in September 2012, so it took over a year to put it together.” The restaurant feels intimate and comforting with its dark wood paneling, sub-floor rock garden, and intricate bamboo highlights. With its aged wooden countertops and artfully worn concrete floors, the restaurant looks like it’s been a Victoria staple for years.

So Ya’s izakaya menu focuses on three main types of otsumami: kushiage, which are panko fried skewers; kushiyaki, which are grilled; and seiro-mushi, a square basket that is steamed right at your table. The skewers, running between $2.50 and $3.50 each, are expertly sauced and seared to a perfect crisp on the outside — perfect protein delivery systems to fuel a night of revelry.

The $22-24 seiro-mushi, on the other hand, serves up a healthier option as extra fat drains through the slats, leaving lean and delicious thin-sliced pieces of beef, pork or seafood shareable between 3-4 people. There is also an assortment of a la carte options, desserts, and rice dishes ranging between $5.25 and $13. Their lunch specials also feature the classic Japanese cook-it-yourself hot pot, shabu-shabu, as well as onigiri (rice balls) and deep-fried chicken karaage.

Of course, all these delectables (lunch aside) are designed to be enjoyed with alcohol, and So Ya’s extensive drink menu does not disappoint. So Ya is the only spot in town to offer Japan’s signature Kirin beer on tap, and fruit wines, sake, soju, and a variety of Japan-famous soju sours are also available.

Inside one of the steamer boxes

Inside one of the steamer boxes

When I ask what is unique about So Ya, Mami Tateishi sits back to consider. “Omotenashi,” she says, as her son begins to translate. “It’s a Japanese culture built around hospitality. It’s a mindset about welcoming people and treating them as your best friend, as your family, and trying to give them more than the standard service.” Each time a new customer enters the restaurant, the first staff member to spot them greets them warmly, prompting a round of similar calls from everyone else. Floor Manager Kana and the rest of the young-looking staff are certainly all smiles, making the restaurant a warm and welcoming place to visit.

Is there anything you would like to tell Victoria? The reserved and serious-looking Kiminori speaks up. “Arigato gazaimashta,” he says, in thanks. “Go raiten omachishite orimasu – we look forward to your visit.”

All photos: Sol Kauffman

Written By:

Vancouver-born photographer, writer and designer Sol Kauffman has had his hands dirty in restaurant kitchens for years, washing dishes and slinging pizzas. In 2008 he moved to Victoria to pursue a BFA in Creative Writing at UVic ...

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  • […] the platter for two. Their new neighbours, So Ya Izakaya (Check out EAT’s first look on them here) are delighted to be opening their own patio as well; show you know Japanese cuisine is deeper […]