Juju in Colonialtown embodies the essence of izakaya dining

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Juju in Colonialtown embodies the essence of izakaya dining
photo by Rob Bartlett

We didn't need a pandemic to tell us that restaurants are a lot more than just places to eat, though the 'rona did emphasize that point, and then some. No question, restaurants are a life force in the community — places to gather, connect and celebrate. They're places we seek for comfort and consolation, but they're also places of discovery and learning. Some are able to transport diners to a different time, to a faraway place or, in the case of Juju in Colonialtown, a distant memory: I'm a 7-year-old boy on a Sunday afternoon sitting two feet away from a Zenith console television watching Gamera wreak havoc across Japan. More so than Godzilla, this prehistoric, fire-breathing, flying turtle monster mesmerized and captivated my imagination, like Juju itself. Not that Lewis Lin's restaurant, in all its Showa-era glory, is reminiscent in any way of the mutated reptilian, but festooning this former Pizza Hut in '60s and '70s Japanese paraphernalia took me back, as sister restaurant Susuru on Palm Parkway did.

But a theme restaurant this is not. In fact, Juju captures the true spirit of an izakaya more than any other restaurant in town making the claim. There's a buzzy conviviality without a lick of pretense, even at the six-seat kappo bar where immersive 10-course omakases are served. The dishes at that bar, like seven-day-aged mackerel kissed by the white coals of binchotan, and a fish-bone "tonkatsu" with aged kinmedai (golden-eye snapper), make the omakase worth the $160 price tag. But there are equally gratifying eats to be had in the main dining room — which, in case it wasn't clear, retains none of the vestiges of its former tenant. Still, ordering a whisky cocktail dubbed "That Old Pizza Hut" ($13) is practically a must. "That's so funny," says one of my dining comrades. "I was just telling my friend the location of Juju and I said, 'It's on Maguire, in that old Pizza Hut.'"

Clearly, she's not the only one.

click to enlarge Yes, it's in "that old Pizza Hut": The Suntory Toki, with ginger-honey syrup, grated nutmeg, orange zest and whipped cream - photo by Rob Bartlett
photo by Rob Bartlett
Yes, it's in "that old Pizza Hut": The Suntory Toki, with ginger-honey syrup, grated nutmeg, orange zest and whipped cream

The Suntory Toki beverage, with ginger-honey syrup, grated nutmeg, orange zest and whipped cream, is even served in a red plastic tumbler emblazoned with both "Juju" and "Pizza Hut." But what we really tumbled over were the skewered meats: specifically yakitori like chicken thigh ($3.50), chicken meatball ($4) and glorious chicken skin ($3.50), all seared over that Japanese charcoal. Order a bunch, enjoy a drink and soak it all in. Everyone else at Juju is doing the same, though if you glance at their tables you might see skewers of beef tenderloin ($5), pork belly-wrapped asparagus ($5) and shishito peppers ($5) being enjoyed. We did. Same goes for bonito-flaked okra ($3), Brussels sprouts ($3) and king oyster mushroom ($3), with the only real miss being overdone morsels of ribeye ($5).

It's not all about the juju, however (juju being a Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound meats make on a grill): There's kombu-cured Hokkaido scallops served over grilled persimmon sauce dolled up with yuzu granita and fennel ($16); teba gyoza, grilled chicken wings stuffed with, yes, chicken! and shiitake mushrooms ($10); and gyoza pocketing bits of A5 strip-loin wagyu graced with shaved black truffles and a slick of black garlic sauce ($14). It's all happy food, and happy are the people who eat and share it.

click to enlarge Juju in Colonialtown embodies the essence of izakaya dining
photo by Rob Bartlett

A more substantial item like mentaiko udon ($16), with a spicy cream sauce of cod roe mixed with uni, butter and marinated egg yolk, also provides a great deal of comfort. "Too much comfort," said one of my guests, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Shoyu-smoked duck ($24), one of the prettier dishes on the menu, has rolls of the fowl snuggled atop miso-cauliflower puree dressed to the nines with nasturtium flowers and flecked with a mild sensho pepper. No Gamera-style mouth flames with this one, though the dish was fire.

At Juju, the choice is yours: all the skewers and a couple of beers or, as they do at a real izakaya, a couple of skewers and all the beers. Just don't have a Shibuya Meltdown — that's not the sort of transportive restaurant moment anybody wants.

Location Details

Juju

700 Maguire Blvd., Orlando Colonialtown

407-412-6678

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