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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON : Market's Booths Dish Up Japanese-Style Fast-Food

May 25, 1990|MAX JACOBSON

COSTA MESA — At Yaohan Market, you can find anything from a chair that massages your head to a scoop of Japanese red-bean ice cream served at a Robin Rose stand. Have the ice cream--it'll set you back a lot less than the chair, and we can all use more dietary fiber.

The place is organized a little like the Irvine Ranch Market at Fashion Island: a supermarket plus a lot of little booths and a collection of tables, all under a single roof. Six of the booths (including the ice-cream stand) are grouped together as the Food Court, a term which in Japan refers to a dimly lit cluster of stalls found at every major department store, usually on an upper floor somewhere. Here in Costa Mesa the stalls sit in a bright, spacious area on the ground floor.

Well, hey, this isn't Japan. But just as in Japan, the stalls at the Food Court sell the kinds of food Japanese people eat on the run (and I don't mean McDonald's). A full-fledged sushi bar sequestered behind Japanese curtains is the nearest thing to an actual restaurant. At all the other stalls, you order your food, wait until your number is called and take it to one of the tables to dig in.

At lunchtime the table area is packed, mostly with working women and Japanese housewives shopping with their small children. A moderate number of businessmen from local Japanese firms can be found hunched over heaping plates of rice and curry.

Unlike a food court in Japan, however, this one also gets quite a few non-Japanese curiosity seekers who have never seen much of this stuff before. You'll find them staring in wonderment at the more exotic-looking dishes, or rather at the wax models of dishes on display at every stall. The craftsmanship on the models, by the way, is astonishing.

The sushi bar, Hakone, must have the lowest prices in Southern California, starting at $1.50 per order. However, the sushi is merely competent, and it's no surprise that you'll find a smaller proportion of Japanese eating here than at any of the other concessions. There is a good mirugai (giant clam) at only $2 per order. The eel is fine too, at an unheard-of $2.50. But the uni (sea urchin), at $3.50 the most expensive item on the list, has almost no flavor at all.

You'll find most of your favorites here: Spanish mackerel, tuna, the various hand rolls such as salmon skin or California, a combination of crab and avocado. The sushi men are very speedy, so if you're looking for a quick fix you've come to the right place.

But if there is one thing that the Food Court demonstrates, it is that sushi is not necessarily what Japanese people prefer to eat for lunch. If you want to know what they really eat in Japan, look no further than Atami, a rice bowl and bento stand. Be prepared to stand in line, because this place is popular.

Bento, the Japanese box lunch served in a lacquered tray, has infinite variety, but a few basic components might be rice, pickles, sashimi, some stewed or fried vegetables and a few fish cakes. The bento I tasted at Atami, unfortunately, was totally uninteresting. Almost nothing on it, from the cold, soggy tempura to a rubbery, flavorless fish cake, had any personality.

My advice here would be to go with a plate of their tonkatsu curry, a reasonably good breaded pork cutlet on a mountain of steamed rice smothered with a thick, sweet curry paste. This is a filling dish and you may not be able to finish it. Atami also prepares rice bowls (donburi) topped with tempura, chicken or beef. All are reliable and, again, really filling. So if you're really hungry, line up.

Surugaji is a noodle shop specializing in ramen, long, skinny noodles in garlicky broth with a variety of toppings. You eat the noodles with chopsticks, slurping permitted, and then you drink what's left over. In Japan, men eat ramen in the evening but women rarely eat it at all because of its strong flavors.

Surugaji ramen comes in a huge bowl topped with a variety of finely shredded vegetables, such as spinach and bamboo, amid slices of pork and hard-cooked egg. They also serve ramen with seafood, fish cakes, or beef. You can't go wrong. The noodles here are fresh and well prepared, as good as you have a right to expect.

By the way, for ramen you can substitute soba, the thicker, more nutritious, more traditionally Japanese buckwheat noodles. Ask for plain dashi (broth made from shitake , and dried fish) to go with the soba. It's the lightest noodle dish I know of.

Pasco is really a bread company, one of Japan's largest, and the Pasco Cafeteria stall is really a bakery. But it's also the place to go for yakisoba, noodles cooked on a griddle with pork and eaten with ginger and seaweed. You get a free show when you order it--Toshiko-san, the manager, prepares it with gusto behind the kitchen window.

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