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O.C. Eats | Forget specialized menus. Mitsuyoshi has
got your sushi, teriyaki, tempura and more.

Japanese Family Favorites

October 05, 2000|TOM VASICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Around here, you can easily eat teriyaki, sushi, Japanese noodle dishes or teppan-yaki--that sizzling-steak-and-flashy-knife-work show--but usually in restaurants specializing in one genre. It's rare to find a restaurant serving all these kinds of Japanese food.

This is common in Japan. There, specialization reaches such a pitch that there are restaurants offering only one or two dishes.

But one does not live on sushi (or teriyaki or ramen) alone. Good luck for us--hidden behind strip-mall neon in a nondescript section of Stanton is one of our few all-purpose Japanese restaurants, and it's perpetually filled to capacity with a mostly Japanese American clientele, there for a fine meal and nothing else.

To put it in American terms, Mitsuyoshi is a family-style restaurant. Its pale-green dining room is comfortable, not flashy, with a notable absence of gimmicks. There's a small sushi station to the rear of the dining room, but it's not the focus of attention. There isn't even music playing in the background. What you get at Mitsuyoshi is just good, down-home Japanese food.

For this reason, Mitsuyoshi is not the most accessible place if you don't speak the language. The waitresses are extremely kind, capable and attentive, but they will have problems explaining menu items if you can't converse with them in Japanese. I've found, however, that lots of pointing to the menu and nodding usually does the trick.

Because this menu features 30 appetizers--to say nothing of sushi and sashimi--a little help from the pros who work there comes in handy. When going to Mitsuyoshi with a group, I always try to order about five or six appetizers, giving us a good sample of this wide variety.

A good simple start would be a mess of boiled green soy beans (edamame), served cold and salty. They whet the appetite for other appetizers, such as sanma shioyaki (a whole broiled pike), tough to pick apart with chopsticks but worth the trouble for the fish's smoky flavor. A little more conventional (and simple to eat) is ika fry, a deep-fried breaded calamari cutlet. The calamari is exceptionally fresh and the crust light and crunchy. The best part, though, is the tangy plum dipping sauce that accompanies it.

My favorite appetizer, though, is shumai, a plate of six savory seafood dumplings. The filling, a blend of various fish and shellfish, has a subtle flavor, so I recommend caution when using the powerful mustard dipping sauce.

Mitsuyoshi doesn't provide a sushi menu if you're sitting in the dining room, rather than at the sushi station, but I've found the nigiri sushi sampler covers a good deal of ground with its 10 selections: tuna, shrimp, mackerel, yellowtail and octopus, just to name a few. As sushi goes, this is not the freshest or tastiest I've had, but Mitsuyoshi can hold its own against many area sushi places.

As with the appetizers, the dinners feature a wide choice of interesting options--soups and ramen dishes, meat entrees (chicken, steak, pork, fish) and teriyaki and tempura combinations.

Now, I'm not much of a teriyaki and tempura fan, but the combos at Mitsuyoshi deserve mention for the rich, salty teriyaki sauce and the exceptionally light tempura batter. Like many Japanese dishes, these are presented in an artistic and clean way--almost too pretty to touch.

The dinner choices tend to be simple meat dishes with starchy rice, steaming miso soup and salad on the side. Chicken kara-age--deep-fried chunks of dark and white meat--is somewhat bland, but other dishes, flavored with alluring broths and sauces, are much more intriguing.

Shoga-yaki, for example, features a deliciously tangy ginger broth. You have your choice of pork or beef, the pork shoga-yaki being the better choice of the two; the flavor of the thin, tender cutlets blends perfectly with the broth.

The seafood dinners also are quite simple, but a good cut of fish always can hold its own. The broiled salmon shioyaki is a long, thin, slightly charred filet strip with impeccable flavor. The same approach is also taken with yellowtail.

On one recent night, I decided to pass on all my old favorites and have one of the nabemono dishes. Nabemono means one-pot cooking; everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown into a simmering pot. The best-known nabemono is sukiyaki, a dish of beef and vegetables thought to have been invented in the late 19th century when the emperor of Japan ordered his people to start eating beef. Mitsuyoshi's rather soupy sukiyaki comes in a sizable metal bowl that can easily feed two.

Sukiyaki broth is quite intriguing--a blend of dashi (a broth of kelp and dried bonito), soy sauce and sake, with sugar thrown in for sweetness. Mitsuyoshi's version is a bit heavier on the soy sauce than others', but not so much that the sweet flavor is overwhelmed. In this broth swim thin slices of beef, green onions, cellophane noodles, mushrooms, tofu cubes and bamboo shoots.

In the classic sukiyaki fashion, there's a bowl of raw egg in which you dip the beef strips before eating. This sukiyaki is a thoroughly hearty and satisfying meal, and I don't find it too often in our Japanese restaurants.

But I can say that about many of Mitsuyoshi's dishes. After all, you can eat sushi and teriyaki only so often.

Mitsuyoshi's prices are mid-range, with appetizers ranging from $3 to $6, dinners from $9 to $15 and nabemono choices from $13.50 to $15.50.

BE THERE

Mitsuyoshi, 12033 Beach Blvd., (714) 898-2156. Lunch Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-1:50 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m.

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