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Fukujin Izakaya – A fresh take on Japanese Cuisine

Fukujin Izakaya delivers an unparalleled and modern take on Japanese cuisine. The dining experience is a thing of beauty as every dish elevates all the senses, from the way it was presented to the smoky smell of the mango wood. It felt like we were in a poem and it was unfolding itself in front of our eyes.

Words by Joe Sevilla
Photos by Karl Angelo G. delos Santos

The name is derived from the Japanese word, Shichifukujin or the Seven Gods of Luck and Good Fortune in Japan. Each one of the Gods symbolizes a virtue- Honesty, Fortune, Dignity, amiability, Longevity, Happiness, and Wisdom.

Izakayas in Japan are said to be similar to taverns and pubs where they serve alcoholic drinks and snacks to customers. Usually the food here are complementary to alcohol and they serve them in bite size portions. Friends and coworkers typically dine in these kinds of places and they treat it as a perfect way to end the day.

Fukujin Izakaya is located at Unit 201 TNA Building, #17 Jose Abad Santos Street, Little Baguio, San Juan City. It is a very chill resto-bar wherein people can dine to have lunch and dinner with the family, but it can also serve as a hang-out spot during the weekends with their friends.

Two of the owners of Fukujin Izakaya is the father and son team of Wilfred “Jun” Castillo and Chef Paul Castillo. Jun is a product of La Salle Green Hills and DLSU (B.S. Chemistry). 

Wilfred was actively engaged in sports in high school, particularly as a member of the NCAA Softball and baseball teams. After college, he worked with multinational companies such as Nestle, Wyeth, and Mead Johnson. He currently is working as Associate Director – Global Process Optimization and Technical Service. Which brought him to different parts of the globe where they have manufacturing sites- North America, Mexico, Netherlands, Thailand, Singapore, China, Philippines, Australia, and other parts of the globe wherein assistance and consultation are required. Jun also currently holds two Global Patents for Packaging innovation on behalf of the company.

Head Chef Paul Castillo has 11 years of culinary experience under his belt and has studied in the US for his culinary discipline and business degree. Chef Paul Castillo perfected his craft and utilised it to elevate traditional Japanese food into something distinct and long-lasting (flavor-wise). Western techniques, Asian flavors, and local flavors are all incorporated to produce something new without disregarding the cuisine.

Chef Paul narrates, “my background in cooking started in the USA. Went there and became a working student for the University of Southern Indiana. Started working at the cafeteria as a dishwasher, and then became a cook. I also did side gigs for a Japanese restaurant in Indiana as a server, as a cook, and as a sushi chef. That is where I got my first experience in the restaurant. After completing my degree in Entrepreneurial Management at the university, I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to pursue Culinary Arts at Sullivan University, one of the top culinary schools in the US. Same scenario, I was a working student. But this time, I was more aggressive in terms of working in the kitchen. I was working for the school at their student housing, and I also did jobs for different restaurants to broaden my knowledge and further develop my skills. Graduated Cum Laude, and then moved back to Southern Indiana. I wasted no time in applying for a job and got two (jobs) eventually. For an Asian-Western Bistro at night, and a Thai restaurant during the day. I also went to New York to do a stage for David Chang’s Ma Peche restaurant.”

But by 2012, Chef Paul had to go back to the Philippines because his student visa expired. He started looking for a job but then he found it difficult at first. But luckily, he landed a job at Solaire Resort and Casino as a pioneer employee. After working there for a year and a half, he moved to food consultancy and eventually started his own restaurant with his dad and an investor.

Inspired by memories of Japan

Wilfred Castillo reminisces that “Having lived in Japan and understanding the love of Japanese dishes brings back the fond memories of having lived there from age 2 to 13”. Wilfred’s father worked in Japan for over a decade and brought his family along with him. In fact, when Wilfred came back to the Philippines, he could only speak English and Japanese.

Chef Paul admits that the cuisine is not authentic Japanese and they never claim it to be. “It is Progressive Japanese. Innovations on Japanese food is what we aim. We aim to differ from other Japanese restaurants by doing so. As the time progresses, our dishes also change. We reinvent Japanese fares with different flavors, different ingredients, for it to be a different experience. Although we still have the typical Japanese dishes, we also have the different ones that definitely make us a different restaurant. We are not afraid to break traditions to reinvent them. We aim to serve experiences than just normal food. That is why whenever asked, what is our specialty, we reply with “Innovation and reinventing the Japanese Cuisine.”

Chef Paul explains that “Japanese food looks simple to the untrained eye. Looks can be deceiving, for sure. It involves a lot, to be honest. It may look simple, but to be able to put your food out there and be criticized for it, is a totally different thing. Japanese food requires a lot of patience, practice, and creative thinking. From the colors of the food, how to plate it, how it should taste, and the progression of flavors, it is all very well thought of before it even conceptualizes as a dish. And that is why it is perfect for me. Being able to conceptualize a dish that has already been there for a long time and thinking of a different way to present it, or alter its character as a dish without disrespecting the original one, is a great challenge that I try to overcome every time I put out a dish”.

In the middle of everything

According to Chef Paul, “the location was decided since the TNA Building was newly built, also it offered a decent amount of parking space, and it is very near several residential areas. I also believe that San Juan is the perfect place for our restaurant since it is an evolving city and houses families and it is conveniently located in the middle of everything. Our market is more on families during the weekends, and friends who are looking for a place to hang out and chill, without the hassle of parking space. We also cater to people who value privacy and intimacy where they go.  Our regular guests are families coming in after Sunday Mass, and people who are on dates, and people who would like a quick getaway from all the hustle and bustle of the busy city life.

AnimoMagazine had a taste of Chef Paul’s creations – an explosion of flavors bursting in your mount. Some of the best-sellers include the Land and Sea Maki, Salmon Aburi Maki, Cheese Gyoza, Seaweed Kani Salad, Spicy Salmon Salad, the sinfully delicious Fukujin Izakaya’s Roasted Bone Marrow, Chicken Umami Soba, Smoked Halibut Tempura, Yakitori.

For dessert, you should definitely try Fukujin’s Nori Ice Cream, It’s a creamy seaweed-flavored ice cream topped with crushed sweet corn snack. 

Fukujin Izakaya is probably the best Japanese restaurant we have been to in this part of the city. The place has a stylistic Japanese vibe which you can truly feel while inside.

Will surely go back here with my family very soon! 🏹


This article was originally published in Vol. 17 No. 2 of AnimoMagazine

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