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Where the Japanese Go to Eat Japanese

January 03, 1988|MAX JACOBSON

Turtles live 10,000 years, reads an ancient Japanese proverb. Most Japanese would never be so immodest as to boast about it, but the fact is that, as a group, they lead the world in life expectancy. Some gerontologists think this is due to their diet, which is high in fiber, low in fat. It makes sense to me. If not for the stress factors in their society, they'd probably all live to be a hundred. Then the turtles might have proverbs about them.

So what exactly do they eat every day? Sushi? Nah, too expensive. Chicken teriyaki? Nope, they don't even serve it. Let's follow our Japanese friend, a visiting businessman we'll call Tawa-san, as he eats his way through a typical week in some of Los Angeles' more authentic Japanese restaurants. Maybe we'll pick up some of his secrets along the way. But don't follow him home. Like many Japanese men, he's helpless in the kitchen. He's never even learned to boil an egg.

Monday

Soba , hand-made buckwheat noodles, are purely Japanese and a great lunch favorite. Here in Los Angeles, the tastiest ones are found at Mifune, a seven-stool counter located in the Aji-no-mei-tengai, a second-floor restaurant emporium in Little Tokyo. Tawa-san chose it today because he's pressed for time.

He can choose from specials like ikura oroshi soba , topped with salmon egg and grated radish, or nabeyaki combination, a giant, heated ceramic bowl overflowing with vegetable tempura, seafood, chicken and a choice of soba or udon , fat wheat noodles more familiar to Western palates. Whatever the preference, expect them splattered with a raw egg and piping hot. Toppings, which can be ordered a la carte, include such goodies as marinated herring, grated yam, baby fern or exotic mountain vegetables from Japan. Just remember, they charge separately for each topping, like a pizza parlor.

Try the inexpensive tanuki soba , just like millions do daily in savings-mad Tokyo. It's a hot, soup-laden bowlful, with a few chunks of deep-fried batter floating on top, and perfect in winter. Mifune gives a giant portion, bigger than ever found in Tokyo (surprisingly, the dish is slightly cheaper in Tokyo, even with the inflated yen), and well suited to a hearty appetite. Mifune respects the appetite; as a special bonus for the true trencherman, if you can consume four boxes of soba in under six minutes, the meal is on the house. If you can't, don't worry; it only costs $3 a bowl.

Mifune, 356 East 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-0697. Open weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Weekends, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Full bar. Validated parking after 4 p.m. All major credit cards. Noodles for two, $5 - $10. Other dishes for two, $10 - $15.

Tuesday

Hiroshima is the cheapest show around, a poor man's Benihana with simpler props. Tawa finds it convenient for informal socializing. He seats himself between two strangers at one of the two counters in the middle of the restaurant and peers through the glass at young chefs flipping, scraping and juggling orders like acrobats, taking time to crack jokes with the waitresses.

The specialty here is okonomiyaki , griddled batter stuffed with meats and chopped vegetables, done in the unique style of Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki originated in Korea, and most Japanese know them as heavy, filling snacks. In the city of Hiroshima, however, they are fashioned with grace: a delicate and crepe-like base, an impromptu middle and a wispy egg batter on top. The basic version at the restaurant, Etashima , is faithful to form, containing a simple filling of pork and vegetables. Go up in price and things like squid, shrimp, noodles and scallops will be added dollar by dollar. The Japanese love to smother these pancakes with a thick, barbecue-like sauce with the texture of Pepsodent but, thankfully, here they serve it on the side. Bottles of this elixir are sold at the cash register.

Hiroshima (Otafuku), 424 East 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 620-1223. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Validated parking. No credit cards. Food for two, $7-$14.

Wednesday

It's another busy Wednesday at the company, and Tawa is stuck in the office. Good thing he stopped by Hokka-Hokka on his trip to the bank. This sunny little take-out and eat-in specializes in bento , attractively boxed Japanese lunches that combine color, value and variety. It's just like being on a picnic--without the flies. Bento have the added advantage of being easy to carry, since they are compact and eaten cold.

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