A non-descript wood panel storefront next to Orenchi Ramen in Santa Clara, with its standard crowd waiting outside, might suggest an uninhabited retail space. Don’t the let the presentation fool you. The hidden gem is, in fact, a bustling robatayaki style restaurant named Iroriya.

Despite the rather empty plaza and a space with no signage on the door, the restaurant has been popular and thriving for the last few years. In a nod to traditional Japanese cooking methods, Iroriya specializes in robatayaki (charcoal grilling), kamameshi (rice cooked in a kettle), and a variety of salting, fermenting and pickling methods.

Diners are immediately greeted by an enthusiastic “Irasshaimase” (Welcome to the shop) from the entire staff. After the hostess seats the guests, a flurry of waiters rotate about the narrow but tall dining area, servicing each table and reading orders to the kitchen. Guests seated at the bar can peek at their orders being grilled or admire the collection of fresh seafood and vegetables—used for the day’s orders—displayed on ice. The seasonal menu is short but attention grabbing while the regular menu lists some must-try signature dishes.

Spring’s seasonal dishes include the Kamo Jibuni (duck stew) for $12. The tender breaded duck breast slices served in a viscous stew and topped with mushrooms and green onions provide a flavorful medley of textures and tastes, which would pair very well with white rice. Tempura bamboo shoots or Himetake Tempura ($8.80) is simple but pure. The young bamboo shoots are tender and juicy with a light tempura coating and served with just a small pile of pink salt. One of the seasonal fish offered on the himono (salted dried fish) section is Renkodai (red snapper), at a market rate of $30 per fish. The whole fish with the head on comes split in half, cleaned of innards, salted, crispy on the outside and with piping hot moist meat on the inside. This is one of the last items to arrive and the painstaking effort to evenly crisp the fish over a small charcoal grill is apparent. The outside is salty and crispy like a jerky, but I preferred the moist flakiness of the meat underneath.

From the regular menu, the Gintara Saikyo Yaki ($16.50) or miso glazed black cod arrives in a glistening slice served on top of a leaf and garnished with one bright pink pickled young ginger shoot. The cod meat flakes off with the touch of a chopstick and is sweet and juicy, while the skin is a fatty miso flavored treat. The garnish is not to go unnoticed with its milder ginger taste and tender texture. The Saketoba salmon jerky ($11.50) was an addictive treat and my favorite item of the meal. Thinly sliced, salty and sweet salmon jerky pieces are heated on the grill and served with a pile of mayonnaise and a sprinkle of dried Japanese peppers. They were so addicting alone, and with the mayo, that I almost preferred to have it boxed up for later to spread out my enjoyment of the dish over time.

A standard offering of Japanese restaurants is the crispy rice ball or Yaki Onigiri ($4.30). Iroriya’s version was a little too oily, not crispy enough, and it did not hold its shape as well. Fortunately, they did very well on the other standard offering of fried chicken, or Otona no Karaage ($7.80), which loosely translates to “fried for adults.” The breaded chicken was crispy and had a drizzle of a delectable sauce and green onion slices.

We rounded out the already full meal with house made Hacho Miso Ice Cream ($8). The first bite was a little off-putting, savory then sweet, exactly what one would expect of frozen miso and cream. The flavor combination became much more appealing as we progressed through the rest of the scoop, and by the end of the bowl we were all fans of the dessert.

A meal at Iroriya will be anything but boring. From the atmosphere, to the staff’s upbeat attitudes, to learning about the cooking processes, there is always something to talk about. Most of the food is enjoyable, fresh and seasonal, and the menu has a good balance of items for the adventurous and non-adventurous diners alike. The service is prompt, food comes out quickly, and the noise level fluctuates but is not overwhelming. The prices are high per dish and quantity size, which is expected of this kind of food—meant more for snacking with drinks. It is no wonder that Iroriya need not spare flashy marketing expenses when word of mouth and a great dining experience keeps customers coming in through that unmarked wooden door.

3548 Homestead Rd, Santa Clara