by Matthew Korfhage
Baby Izakaya was a bit of a difficult birth. But after closing twice during the pandemic, the restaurant has finally arrived as a self-contained patio universe of fine cocktails and left-field Japanese flavors. Its location is a little bit like the real estate version of Inception – an alleyway tucked into yet another alleyway.
To reach Kevin Ordonez’s norm-breaking restaurant, you drive down an unmarked Virginia Beach Oceanfront side road that is so small it doesn’t even get its own number: the near-musical 17½ Street. It’s like stopping an elevator between floors.
Park on an unlined gravel lot, behind a bakery serving Roman pizza and natural wine, and you’ll see the looming hulk of a former warehouse emblazoned with a glowing red spiral. This is Baby Izakaya. But your trek is not over. Instead, you walk down a paper lantern-lined side passage – a throwback to the hidden bars of old Tokyo – to find a spacious barkdust-padded backyard and an alfresco picnic table dining room strung with more lights than a Christmas float.
Here, in a location propelled by dream logic, is Ordonez’s restaurant – an idiosyncratic vision of an Asian drinking hall born from a Navy brat’s childhood in Japan. Ordonez spent a formative period of his youth eating rich-brothed ramen and gentle curries in the coastal city of Yokosuka, where some of the best food didn’t even have a name. “I remember going to this yakitori stand off the main street, a blue street with painted bricks,” he says. “There were no seats. I don’t remember seeing a sign. You just knew it was there.”
Baby Izakaya is a place of gentle salt pickles made according to a thousand-year-old tradition, heat-singed mergers of Japanese spice and pork rib Southern barbecue, and brothless ramen tossed in pecorino cheese and peppered up like an Italian cacio e pepe – an improbably delicious plate that Ordonez has long been making for himself at home.
“You can call it nontraditional,” Ordonez says, “but they are also dishes that mean something to me. It’s something we made with intent.”
From its MSG-spiked cocktails to its koji-fermented sashimi and spice-crackling fried chicken, Baby Izakaya has arrived as a self-contained universe of flavor, a sake- and cocktail-fueled exercise in world-building. At its autumn grand opening, Baby Izakaya seemed as if it was always designed to be exactly as it was. And yet, the path to Baby Izakaya has been as tortuous and unlikely as the Google Maps directions to the restaurant.
The restaurant opened not once, but three times in the same year. The first was in March, a week before dining rooms all over Virginia closed for the pandemic.
“We’d already had a lot of difficulty getting the doors open,” Ordonez says. “We ran into a lot of delays: buildout, permits, construction. But we persevered through all of that. We said, ‘All of this won’t matter, all this heartache, all this stress. We’ll forget about every single one of these days once the doors open.’ And then when we finally opened our doors, we closed the doors again.”
Back then, there was no patio. Baby Izakaya was instead a tight-quartered drinking house with an open kitchen and intimate bar seats close to the chef, where diners in the sold-out room sat elbow-to-elbow. With a pandemic looming, it was a success story that horrified its owner. So, on his sixth day in business, Ordonez temporarily closed not only Baby Izakaya but his other restaurant, popular ramen spot Alkaline in Norfolk. He did so even before Virginia’s governor sent down the executive order limiting restaurants’ indoor dining.
“I remember saying, ‘We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do to stay safe,” Ordonez says. “I remember talking to my managers in Norfolk. I was calling everybody I could call to get money so we could do health insurance – we never stopped health insurance for our employees. This all happened in six hours. We had (close to) 50 employees between two restaurants. I thought, ‘How will they survive, pay rent, buy groceries?’ That day I remember very well. I still feel heartbroken about it.”
Two weeks later, he tried to open Baby Izakaya again, this time as a takeout-only restaurant. But after five days of serving food unfamiliar to most Virginia Beach diners, that version of the restaurant couldn’t gain traction. There he was, sitting on a mountain of food he couldn’t sell.
So, Ordonez turned his brand-new restaurant into a charity, despite struggling to pay his own bills. At first, his restaurant pushed out hundreds of meals to local hospitals. Then, with money from chef José Andrés’ nonprofit World Central Kitchen, they made thousands more meals throughout the summer to feed the food insecure.
“World Central Kitchen, that was a real lifesaver. We weren’t expecting that,” Ordonez says. “I thought, ‘This is a way I could keep my people employed and do some real good.’”
But finally, Ordonez and his staff had to figure out a way to exist as a restaurant during a crisis that simply refused to end. He and the restaurant’s staff – including chef de cuisine Matt Clement and manager Vic Kintanar – set about building a new restaurant outside. With hammers, nails and saws, they built a blond wood fence and a raft of picnic tables, a little rear shack for cocktails and food prep, a world of lights strung above where diners would now sit in the open air.
“I became a handyman,” he says. “Almost everything was done by us – me and Matt and Vic and handful of friends. We’re eager to learn, able to pick things up. And where we lacked experience, I have friends who didn’t lack that. That’s what they do for a living. They’re carpenters, builders, construction workers.”
Baby 3.0 arrived fully formed on Halloween. It is now an uncommonly focused restaurant, a casual, cocktail-fueled hall of inventive small plates whose guiding philosophy is nonetheless restraint and hard-won patience. In addition to its full-flavored ramen broth and Japanese drinking bites, the restaurant has also added a focus on smoked meats that Ordonez adopted while holding drive-thru barbecues during the pandemic.
The restaurant showcases painstaking devotion to developing the flavors of each ingredient: a koji-cured yellowtail sashimi; a festive fried chicken dipped in the ferment of miso; long-smoked brisket folded into spongy Korean rice cakes with an Italian ragout that may as well have been stewed in Naples. The food’s flavors are complex, but each dish can feel almost rustic in its simplicity, well attuned to its outdoor setting.
With only a few seats inside, Ordonez had to order outdoor heaters for the winter. But an unseasonably warm November also helped make Baby Izakaya into a near-idyllic backyard sanctum to slurp buttery, beautifully rich Sapporo-style ramen. The 74-degree days, in the height of autumn, were perhaps the restaurant’s one piece of good luck in a year that had not otherwise been marked by good fortune.
“It shouldn’t be that warm,” Ordonez says. “And it’s probably a sign of the apocalypse. But it was useful. And here we are.”