Wasa-Bae. Talk Sushi to Me. Work Hard, Eat Harder. Keep Calm and Sake Bomb. Cringe if you must, but give credit where credit is due: the downtown location of Otto Izakaya unabashedly wears youth on its sleeve. These meme-worthy, Instagram-ready slogans and catchphrases adorn seafoam-colored accent walls in a graphic, typographical spatter. A formal Japanese dining experience, this is not.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. An izakaya, by definition and historical context, is an informal drinking establishment that serves snacks. In other words, it’s like an Irish pub or a Spanish tapas bar. In the case of Otto Izakaya’s West End location, that informality has been amped up and dropkicked into the twenty-first century for Greenville’s ballpark-happy-hour-night-out set.
The concept is the brainchild of restaurateurs Peter Lieu and Doug Yi, and the downtown location shares a name with Otto’s original location on Woodruff Road, but if you ask a roundtable of the downtown location’s staff—executive chef Huy Trinh, heads of kitchen Song Nguyen and Jessy Mai, and bar manager Katelin Shropshier—there’s a distinct identity to this offshoot.
Chop Shop // Chef Huy Trinh heads the culinary team with youthful flair, with takes like the char siu buns with ponzu sauce (below).
“We have a lot of freedom,” says Trinh. With Lieu and Yi’s blessing and encouragement, Otto’s staff isn’t afraid to throw out Japanese cuisine’s traditionally rigid, strict approach to recipes and experiment. “Traditional Japanese sushi is very precise,” says Nguyen. “But we’re not afraid to take that and make it better,” Trinh adds. “That creativity we bring to the table definitely keeps things new and exciting every day,” says Mai.
“Something that’s very exciting to me is that I can play around with the menu,” says Trinh. For example, he approaches the sushi roll menu the same way mixologists approach a cocktail menu. While he’s happy to make anything on the menu, he also welcomes the challenge of creating something specific to a diner’s mood—the sushi equivalent of a bartender’s choice.
This embrace of experimentation, change, and variety also shows up in the kitchen menu. From Japanese karaage chicken wings and yakitori, to Korean-influenced bulgogi sliders and ramen noodles, to Cantonese-style char siu buns and siu mai dumplings, there’s tremendous variety, and all of it is accessible, snackable, and shareable—the best way for trying out new flavors in one go.
That said, one shouldn’t mistake the abundance of style and flair as indicative of an absence of substance. “ATLiens” by Outkast might be bumpin’ in the background, but the hamachi (yellowtail) is as fresh as can be: it’s fileted from whole fish every day, rather than being defrosted from a pre-smoked cut. Presented as nigiri, slices are daubed with freshly prepared wasabi (not the standard paste) are a punchy revelation of fresh creamy fish and sharp mustardy spice. The yakitori similarly elevates a simple premise: grilled skewers of protein. The house-made teriyaki dipping sauce isn’t just one-note sweet, as it finishes with a faint herbal quality akin to the taste of jujubes, a small fruit similar to a date. And the fried baby octopus is chunky, meaty, and thoroughly crunchy—think of it as a marine chicken nugget, if you must—and is much more satisfying than breading-heavy calamari rings.
Otto Izakaya’s West End location eschews the stuffiness and formality of traditional Japanese dining, and instead offers something fun, accessible, of the moment, and tasty. And perhaps even more importantly, it brings some much-needed diversity to downtown Greenville’s roster of late-night joints.
Otto Izakaya Downtown, 802 S Main St, Greenville. (864) 568-5880, otto-izakaya.com; Mon–Sat, 4pm–2am; Sun, 4–10pm