Blog (Now featuring Japanese Restaurant Reviews)

Want to order sake but you’re lost? Order this one.

So…there are a couple of ways to become a sake expert; one is to study hard and become a sommelier, and the other is to drink A LOT of sake. I’ll let you speculate as to the route I chose. Okay, full disclosure, I’m still no expert in spite of having consumed A LOT of sake (I blame the hospitality of the entire nation of Japan), but I do know what stands out and this one does. If I were a sommelier I would tell you about all the hints of fruits and vegetables it contains, but since I’m not, I’ll tell you that it’s dry, light tasting, and if you like Sauvignon Blanc, you might like this. Bonus fact: it comes in this giant bottle. It also comes in a smaller bottle, which oddly, is a completely different color (blue), but who wants a SMALLER bottle of sake? Not this guy.

It’s a Junmai Dai Ginjo (translation-extra rice polishing-and get your mind out of the gutter, that means what it says), so it’s not cheap, but if you want to impress your friends and/or date, work a little extra overtime (something I am familiar with). The company (Hakutsuru), is the biggest seller in Japan so this isn’t exactly a micro-distillery find, but it is their top-shelf product. (They go all the way down to cooking-sake caliber, so don’t let the crane mark alone fool you). If you try it (or have tried it) let me know what you think on my Facebook page (or preferrably my Facebook author’s page because that’s an extra click.)  😉

I bought the sake bottle in the middle is from a mom-and-pop craftsman in the Tosa region of Kyushu, so I’m not solely a big corporation shill.

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Review #2 Tsujita Ramen (They call it “Tsujita Artisan Noodles,” whatever, it’s ramen.)

2057 Sawtelle Blvd ,  Los Angeles, CA 90025   And: I guess there’s one in Glendale now, but I haven’t been there so I can’t vouch for it.

 

Almost everyone comes here for the tsukemen (dipping your noodles in a concentrated broth), and while that is certainly a viable (and tasty) option, it’s not what I order. I order the straight tonkotsu ramen. Why? Because for me, ramen is all about the broth and this is the best I’ve had in the United States. I could eat instant ramen noodles in this broth (don’t worry, these aren’t). Broth will be the overriding factor in my ramen restaurant reviews, so if you’re all about the noodles themselves, you may want to ignore me. (My favorite shio ramen spot uses clearly packaged noodles.)

Here, the tonkotsu broth is rich, flavorful, and very pork-y. The noodles are good (thicker style for the tsukemen), and unlike most ramen restaurants where the pork is an afterthought, here it’s thick, meaty, tender, and delicious, so you’re going to want to order the chashu (or “char siu” as they spell it-no idea why, there’s no lone “r” in the Japanese language). My advice is to go with someone whom you don’t mind sharing ramen with, and try both the tsukemen and the tonkotsu. Then when you go back, you can get the one you liked better, but don’t skip the tonkotsu just for the novelty of the tsukemen.

The restaurant is just north of Olympic at the corner of Sawtelle and Mississippi and parking sucks balls. It also gets really crowded so get there by 1130 for lunch and early for dinner as well.

 

Insider tip: Like I said, go early.

Review #1: Honda

 

Type of food: Sushi plus

3629 Pacific Coast Highway, Torrance, CA. (310) 373-8272

Halfway between “my” train station at Katsura on the outskirts of Kyoto, and my **cough, cough** “apartment” (translation: shoebox), was a Mexican restaurant named “Takami.” This Mexican restaurant was owned and operated by two Japanese people who had never been outside of Japan in their lives. The overpriced burrito and chimichanga were wholly inauthentic and completely delicious. The restaurant also served notable Japanese favorites such as; yakisoba, buta-kimchee, and agedashi-tofu. (FYI: Once you’ve had tofu in Kyoto, it’s hard to eat anywhere else.) Eating there once or twice a week was beyond my budget at the time, but I couldn’t help myself; I’d starve at the end of the month. The owner knew me, knew what I liked, kept a bottle of Jack Daniels for me (not my favorite, but hey, embrace the stereotype), and I was friendly with all the regulars. During the summertime we’d take a bus trip down the shore, and in the winter we’d do ski trips to Nagano, Niigata, and Hokkaido. Yes, it was my own “Cheers;” the mythical place that after no small amount of searching, I had previously concluded only existed on TV.

Well, Honda is about as close a place to “Takami,” that I have found (minus the burritos and chimichangas). The owner and wait staff are welcoming, friendly, and remember you (that is, presumably, if you’re not an asshole). I get it, “sushi plus” conjures an image for the sushi snob (I’m a card-carrying member), of a place that doesn’t quite devote the singular focus to sushi that it deserves. Well yes, and no. If you consider that the sushi chefs (one of whom is the owner), dedicate much of their time to interacting with the customers, then yes, they are not singularly focused on the sushi. If you think that the “plus,” which includes izakaya-type offerings like tempura, teriyaki chicken, and takoyaki, have the chefs shuffling back and forth, then no, other chefs work in the kitchen. The sushi chefs work the sushi. Do they do all kinds of crazy rolls that appeal to Americans and are not “authentic?” Yup, at Honda, they’re named after vehicles and they taste pretty damn good. Besides, who am I to say that a JAPANESE chef creating his own original food is NOT authentic Japanese? There are other restaurants you can go to for pure sushi snobbery (see future reviews). I go to this restaurant because it provides the homey, small town, authentic Japanese atmosphere that I haven’t found since Katsura Mexican food.

What food do I recommend? Most of it; order what sounds good to you. I have one friend who loves the restaurant but absolutely, positively, refuses to try the cheeseburger roll because it’s so un-Japanese. Her loss; I like the extra-spicy cheeseburger roll myself. The fish is always fresh (and when I say always…I mean I’ve been going here for about 15 years and never had a bad bite). Consistency is very important to me. Ask the chefs for the fish you like and it may come with a subtle flavoring you’ve never had before. The rolls are huge, but being an American with an outsized appetite and a poor sense of portion control, I also get the grilled chicken from the kitchen which comes out sizzling and smoky with the sauce on the side (for you healthy people).

The owner (Junzo), has daily specials (including half-off wine bottles on Tuesdays), shows LA sports games on flat screen TVs, and many of the customers are Americans (gasp). So how can I possibly call this place authentic Japanese? The Japanese have a word, “nantonaku,” which roughly means “I can’t precisely describe why, I just know it is.”

My biggest recommendation is that you sit at the sushi bar. If you’re not sitting at the sushi bar, you’re not getting the interactive experience with the chefs, and for me, that is what Honda is all about.

Inside tip: Take an Uber and Junzo likes the Orion beer.

Restaurant Review Background

I’ve now moved my reviews to my blog section so people can comment more easily (so you may have already read this part).

Okay, So Let’s start with this: I’m only reviewing the Japanese restaurants I like (at least for now). I have favorite (and secondary) sushi, ramen, yakitori, yakiniku, and izakaya-style spots that I go to in the LA area (mostly near home, sorry valley-dwellers), and those will be the first reviews. I don’t go out for shabu-shabu or nabe because it’s so easy to buy the meat and vegetables at a Japanese supermarket (of which there are at least 10,000 in the South Bay- and yes, I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate count), and cook them at home; less money=more meat.

I haven’t tried everywhere (and nowhere in the valley) so there may be better places out there for the style of food I review, but I’ve found some pretty good ones and I hope you’ll try them. I have no outside incentives (I’m trying to plug a book here after all), and am writing this section only because I’m often asked for recommendations. No, having lived in Japan doesn’t make me an expert on anything Japanese (see my “About” page for background), but I’ve eaten A LOT of Japanese food and you may like my suggestions. So try a couple and see if your experiences agree with me (not all of my spots are solely about the food), at which point you can either return to Yelp, or look for my next review (though the two are not mutually exclusive).

If I find Japanese restaurants that I like in other cities I will review them as well. I do have some spots in Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka that I will get to. I apologize that on my recent lone visit to Houston I did not go out for Japanese food, but when I noticed the Japanese grill restaurants are called “hibachi,” which is a traditional room-heating implement in Japan, I decided to stick with the steak and pork chops. Those, I can happily report, were outstanding.

 

Okay, so Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, and Matt Damon all go to Asia……sounds like a punch line is coming right?

Well, in the case of “47 Ronin,” I would say that is the punchline, but I can’t because I never saw it so that wouldn’t be very fair on my part. Having read the book ages ago, I was excited when I heard the title was being made into a movie, but as soon as the trailer showed a dragon, I was out. I get that a good portion of the book itself (a bunch of masterless samurai hanging out and  waiting……), is not exactly “edge of your seat” material to work with. However, I think a good screenwriter and/or filmmaker could have made use of Kyoto’s beautiful scenery (with a little extra action thrown in), and come up with a good movie without f…..ing dragons. Hey, but for all I know, it’s a wonderful film.

In the case of Tom Cruise, I enjoyed “The Last Samurai,” because it exhibited three of my favorite traits in good historical fiction:

  1. Although the movie storyline itself wasn’t real, many of the films narratives were occurring in Japan on or about that time. (I’m pretty sure there weren’t any American Civil War veterans fighting with Saigo Takamori in the Satsuma Rebellion, but the Satsuma Rebellion did occur and there were plenty of foreign advisors trying to muscle into Japan’s arms market during the Meiji Era.)
  2. The movie takes you into another culture (sure its a little cliche and a little cheesy), but I still enjoyed it.
  3. Lots of action.

If you’re interested in a twist on Westerners going to Asia to rescue Asians, you might like my book. My book is like “The Last Samurai,” but in reverse. This time the Asian travels to England to help an Englishman. Kind of like the old TV series “Kung Fu.” My novel also tries to stick closely to the enumerated points above (with less cheesiness).

As for Matt Damon and his dragons at the Great Wall of China? It looks like a crap-fest, so I’ll let my friends go see it first. If they tell me it’s good, maybe I’ll rent it when it hits Redbox.