Camino Brewing has become quite an incubator for San Jose’s burgeoning pop-up restaurant scene. From keto tacos to fried chicken (made by yours truly) to modern Filipino, there is always something exciting and tasty happening in their downtown taproom.

One of my favorite pop-ups is Wren, featuring the cuisine of Chef Kimi Walker-Ahrens. A former cook and sous chef at Incanto, the legendary San Francisco restaurant, Walker-Athens is making her version of izakaya cuisine. Best described as Japanese bar food, it is not unlike Spanish tapas or British pub grub. Walker-Athens combines a Japanese heritage with classical training for a new and exciting style of cuisine.

Japanese food is defined by its simplicity—nothing excessive, no needless garnishes, everything balanced. Presented in an honest, unapologetic manner, the food and flavors have no choice but stand at center stage.

As with most pop-ups, the menu at Wren is limited but far from simple. Like a painter using only primary colors,Walker-Ahrens separates herself from the pack through deliberate and thoughtful restraint, working with a constrained but bold palate of flavorful elements. She uses a variety of soy sauces from several countries, a Chinese mustard found only in Japanese grocery stores and tiny plums suspended in a salty brine. All of her painstakingly selected ingredients work together in a delicate harmony.

The pork tonkatsu sandwich ($11 with potato salad) sounds rather basic on paper and on the plate, where a white bread sandwich sliced in half arrived in front of me. The menu states that it comes with two sauces but doesn’t elaborate. One is tangy and tastes almost like barbecue sauce; the other is a generous helping of Kewpie mayo—a sweeter, richer and more umami-forward cousin of Western mayonnaise.

Biting into the sandwich is a study in textures. There is the delicate softness of the bread, the crunchy panko and the dense meatiness of the pork. It is rich and very satisfying.

The mushrooms gyoza ($11) are deep-fried to a very crispy consistency. The mostly shiitake filling was so deep and savory that I had to double-check the menu to confirm that they were indeed fungi, not meat. Served with a sweet dipping sauce, it’s easy to imagine eating a dozen of these and then considering a second order.

In a night full of standouts, the chicken skewers ($11) might have been my favorite. Two large skewers arrived hot and steaming atop a mound of Japanese-style potato salad; the smell was enough to make my mouth water. Chef Kimi ditches the traditional use of breast meat for the much heartier (and, in my opinion, far superior) thighs. The chicken is charred over an open grill, creating a crispy exterior that yields to a tender, moist center.

It is the sauce, however, that makes this dish pop. Somewhere between barbecue sauce and sweet and sour glaze, it highlights the umeboshi, or Japanese salted plums. The addition of these tiny delicacies is electric, intensely sour and salty; the plums provide a perfect counterbalance to the rich, savory chicken. The potato salad looks straight out of Betty Crocker, pale yellow and studded with pickles. But looks can be deceiving. A fine dice of pickled vegetables add a lovely crunch and zing of acidity. Kewpie mayonnaise and the aforementioned Chinese mustard are mixed in to create a creamy, pungent dressing for the potatoes that rounds out the pickles.

The attention to detail present in all of Ahrens dishes is something one can only get from years of experience. Take, for example, the Indonesian fried rice ($12). This dish contains many varied ingredients and could quickly turn into a bland muddy mess. In Chef Kimi’s hands, however, each bite is unique and delicious. The tiny shrimp are plump and juicy, the caramelized sausage adds a touch of sweetness, while a fiery sambal chili paste makes you sweat under your eyes and sip a bit faster from your beer. Paired with a soft boiled egg that is everything you want it to be, it is a challenge to make it last beyond two deliciously oozing bites.

Japanese Izakaya Pop-Up
Instagram: @wrenfoods