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Posts from the ‘Japanese’ Category

Shovel Time: Menkuikinya

Everyone–at least Americans–seem ramen-crazy. I like ramen, but I might like udon more. Soba? I could take it or leave it. So, I tracked down this counter that was walking-distance from one of the gazillion temples in Kyoto.

 

 Even though it was prime lunch time, there were two open spots at the far end of the counter, which was great but not so great for fat-asses sucking-in and shuffling sideways between the open foot of space between the customers’ backs and the coats hanging on the wall. (I felt better when I Google-translated some Japanese-and-Korean-language reviews that made reference to the narrow space.) I do like that there are always coat hooks in restaurants in Japan, though. 

I just ordered a simple kitsune udon because I love the sweetness of the broth and eggy texture to the big flat sponge of tofu. But the thing here, apparently, was udon with a big tuft of tempura green onion. It was a total Kyoto-style Bloomin’ Onion.

Tending to the noodles


Later on the subway, I thought I was clever for noticing the resemblance to the screens used for draining tempura to shelves for bags (I couldn’t even imagine shelves on the NYC subway). Then I started noticing food-like objects everywhere. The sponge in our Airbnb had a very tamago-like quality.

Who are you calling a baby?

Menkuikinya *112-2 Hakatacho, Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, Japan

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Portland Update January 2018

It is still slightly weird that I’ve been back to Oregon so many times since January 2016. Portland has its charms but I’m still wary of fully embracing them. It’s not a bad place to eat, though.

Nimblefish I wasn’t really impressed with Portland fave Bamboo Sushi or even Nodoguru, though that was due to more of a vibe thing than a reflection on the product, so I was curious about Nimblefish which seemed to fill the niche between generic sushi and omakase. You can walk in; it’s not a big to do. You check boxes and each piece is made and placed in front of you one-by-one, which I prefer to all-at-once on a plate. It’s not cheap since it’s a la carte not combo-style, but not prohibitive (many nigiri are $3-$4). The menu is tightly edited and changes based on availability. I wanted to try both Hokkaido and Santa Barbara unis (which I’d seen on Instagram) but only the latter was on hand. That was fine. I ended up ordering more than I had intended–seven pieces in all–because I was fresh off of multiple happy hour vodkas at Kachka: hotate, tako, maguro, uni, akami (not pictured), chu toro, sawara. I would probably go here regularly when I get the urge for good sushi without a wait or too much fanfare.

Ate-oh-Ate  I’ve probably said this before but Portland has an outsize Hawaiian presence. I’ve been told it’s because a lot of Hawaiians go to University of Oregon and just stay after graduation. Maybe. I don’t know. I was staying at an Airbnb and tried to acclimate to my daily 10:30am NYC work call at 7:30am, which is very West Coast. Just like the inexplicable Hawaiian thing, people start work very early on the West Coast–at least in Oregon–even if they don’t do business with the East Coast. Like an 8am start time is normal. My mom, who just retired, started around 7am, I think, and her crazy husband gets to work at like 5am when he doesn’t even need to. People think I’m nuts when I say I don’t go to work until 10am (which is more like 10:30am but I don’t want to shock them too much). Anyway, I was working “at-home” and wanted lunch delivered. The Seamless scene is kind of sad, delivery is not a thing, and extra fees abound. Ate-oh-Ate did deliver, though, and why not a plate lunch? The double starch of macaroni salad and rice always gave me pause but I’ll admit it’s really good together (one scoop of each is plenty, though). I completely underestimated mayo-heavy macaroni salad, here served with teriyaki beef, and a side of chili water (the middle container), which might be my new favorite condiment (it’s spicy vinegar, not water).

Langbaan I still love what Langbaan is doing. On my third visit the theme was Bangkok street food (both other visits happened to be Central Thailand). Not all the dishes sounded alluring on paper (think I was just objecting to the “spinach noodles”) but none turned out to be duds. The salad of oyster, tripe, trumpet mushroom, wood ear mushroom, ginger, scallion was up my alley and my favorite might have been one of the three entrees: kor muu pad kapi/pork jowl, shrimp paste, jalapeno, crispy betel leaf, which hit all my fiery, funky, fatty buttons. I discovered that the long-distance boyfriend isn’t really a tasting menu person, which I kind of knew but I wanted to treat because I enjoy the experience from time to time. It can be pretentious for a server to (over)explain all of the ingredients (his complaint) but that just goes with the territory. I’ve been to Yarowat, Bangkok’s Chinatown, but I’m not going to be a brat about someone explaining it to me in the context of a dish.

Chart House When you start your workday at 7am, you can kick off at 3pm, which is disorienting. That seems like a vast amount of free time but then you realize you can’t stay up as late as you’re used to. But one advantage is being able to go to happy hours, something I’m rarely able to do in NYC. Plus, happy hours are more of a thing in Portland, not just at bars but restaurants, even nice restaurants. Chart House is a “nice” restaurant in that it has a view (supposedly of all three area mountains) and it’s where people go for their anniversaries and maybe 50th birthday parties. This is probably the case in all cities (it’s a Landry’s chain). Apparently, in its former incarnation, Hillvilla, my mom went with her eighth grade class for lunch. When I ended eighth grade, we only got to go to Oaks Park on a school bus where the kids were screaming along to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” and mocking the lyrics. I would not eat at Chart House, the restaurant, but I was curious what the downstairs lounge would be like for happy hour. There is cheap wine and well spirits (the discounted cocktail are all too sweet) plus calamari, fish tacos, sliders, ahi nachos, and the like. Nothing mind-blowing. On the non-discounted menu, they featured cocktails made in those Porthole infusers made famous by The Aviary, a trickle-down effect in the wild.

Kachka I still haven’t eaten a proper meal here since I’ve only been solo during happy hours, which are very good value. I ended up with steelhead roe with challah and smetana butter (like creme fraiche), cabbage roll stuffed with beef, pork, and lamb, plus green walnut-infused vodka, cranberry-infused vodka shot and a beer, and one more vodka that I don’t even remember.

Clay’s Smokehouse I wouldn’t seek out barbecue in Portland, and have no desire to try the few spots that get acclaim (and even less desire to try vegan barbecue) but my vote for pizza was nixed when I discovered pies named after old-school Portland music scenesters. Farther down Division Street, it appeared that a long-time barbecue joint that I had never heard of but the companion always liked, moved across the street, so I was amenable to checking it out. The ribs were fine, I don’t love home fries, I wished the Texas toast was cheese bread, and the kale with almonds in a very tangy dressing was surprisingly good. I was more enamored with the Miller High Life pony bottle.

Un-American Activities: McDonald’s Japan EBI Filet-O

 

I’m not one of those McDonald’s nuts who has to pay a visit in any city, but it was late and the Marriott I was staying at for two nights in Osaka had a skybridge attached to the train station  with a McDonald’s on the other end that happened to be still open right as I was heading home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

And the EBI Filet-O a.k.a. shrimp burger seemed to highlight the differences between American and Japanese tastes best. It’’s a classic, always on the menu, not a limited edition. Shrimp is a perfectly fine thing to make a patty out of, though this is more like a flattened croquette, crusted in panko and fried. The sauce was kind of tartar and kind of thousand island. For some reason in Japan, fried food doesn’t seem like an unhealthy choice.

These cheesy potato puffs, a.k.a. American Cheddar Potato, were part of an “American Deluxe” promotion. Less like tater tots, these were mashed potato mixed with cheese and fried. Yes, like another croquette.

Shovel Time: Bar Masuda

I am a planner by nature, leaving little to chance or happenstance on vacations. I mean, I wander, but I often already have places in mind to eat or drink in the area I’m going. I didn’t, however, research drinks in Osaka. No idea why since I had a list of bars for Kyoto, none of which I ended up going to.

While joining the early evening crowds roaming Dotonbori, I did spy an unexpected fat-fetishy hostess bar, La Potcha Potcha, which is the kind of place I wouldn’t try to enter without prior research. Maybe I could write about it? Strangely, one of the only English language articles I found about it was in Vice from a few years back and it made it sound like white guys would be turned away, and definitely no women would be permitted. I don’t know if that’s true, but as a socially anxious lady, I wasn’t bold enough to test it out. I’ll never know if this was a missed opportunity. I’m no gonzo journalist.

But just down the street, there was a stone arch marking a non-flashy bar. It just seemed right, and by accident we stumbled into maybe the best bar in Osaka, Bar Masuda.

It had just opened so we had no problem getting a seat at the long narrow bar. There was a menu, which opened to a page that I think was meant to emphasize the importance of drinking water with your alcohol.

Osaka was the land of dubious drinking claims (though I’m not saying staying hydrated while drinking alcohol is dubious).

The menu also contained lists classic cocktails by primary spirit and Bar Masuda originals. Only titles were in English, ingredients were in Japanese so the so-called classics I’d never heard of like the King’s Valley or Emerald Cooler remained mysteries. Unlike in New York (or Tokyo, though Tokyo is surprisingly less expensive on many counts than NYC) the drinks were completely reasonably priced, many in the $10-$12 range.

There was a leg of what looked like serrano ham on the counter. This was promising.

It turned out to be Kagoshima Black pig, a local specialty, served in slices with cilantro, Japan by way of Spain.

And then I noticed a bunch of enamel pins high on a shelf, one of “Uncle Tory,” the ‘60s-style Suntory mascot, that I had just bought at the Yamazaki Distillery in Kyoto.

The bartenders were also wearing a few Bar Masuda pins on their lapels. I used my Google translate app to ask the young man behind the bar if I could possibly buy one. He went and got Mr. Masuda (son of the original Masuda) himself, silver suit jacket to match his hair, to come over. And just like everyone in Osaka, though we could only communicate in piecemeal English, he was chatty and generous. He reached down under the bar and pulled out a long piece of fabric with pins attached and gave me both that I had been asking about. Normally, this would call for a nice tip but no one even accepts them.

Boiled peanuts. I had no idea this was a thing in Japan.

When the lights dimmed and a pyrotechnic show started at the end of the bar, I was convinced to switch from my simple, well-made martini to a Blue Blazer. 

The drink really isn’t more than a hot toddy with scotch–at least in the US–but this version, a Blue Blazer II, added Grand Marnier and swapped lime for lemon. It is served warm in tin cup, heated by a flame that gets dramatically transferred from one metal mug to another as the liquor is poured from a great height. This is the specialty of the house, and I say it was worth the theatrics.

Bar Masuda * 2 Chome-3-11 Shinsaibashisuji, Osaka, Japan

Shovel Time: Kushikatsuryori Katsu

There are a handful of regional specialties unique to Osaka and environs, takoyaki being the biggest one, which I completely forgot to eat. That’s crazy. I’m also still kicking myself for not buying takoyaki Pringles that every single souvenir shop was selling.

Lesser known (at least to me) is kushikatsu, a.k.a. kushiage, which is kind of tempura on sticks. It’s deep fried meat, seafood, and vegetables, so yeah, the only difference is breadcrumbs in the crust where tempura is more puffy.

This was an accidental pitstop since we were in Osaka station, just wanting a snack, but around 5pm every restaurant was packed wall-to-wall. You’d think as a near-New Yorker I’d be used to squeaking into cramped seating arrangements but Japan takes close quarters to new extremes.

This place, which had no English name (that I have since deduced with 95% accuracy is Kushikatsuryori Katsu, based on many image searches), had open seats. The menu was a little bit confusing (no English, but pictures) so I ended up picking a set meal to split rather than going blindly a la carte, so it was a little pricey (for train station food) but it came with soup, a lot of cabbage and raw sliced vegetables, and a surprise scoop of ice cream at the end. It was also a little fancier than other kushikatsu restaurants I’ve seen online as there is no communal dipping sauce.

 

I have no idea how the chef decided what to place in front of my vs. my travel companion. We just went with it.There was a prawn, a giant stalk of asparagus, ham wrapped around a giant oyster that wasn’t battered at all. The fun is kind of in the dipping sauces like hot mustard and worcestershire-heavy tonkatsu sauce, some which we were advised went with specific skewers.

The star, though, ended up being a seasoned salt that just looked like salt with maybe a grayish hue and scant dark specks. I have no clue what was in it (Googling kushikatsu salt gets you nowhere) but probably MSG because it made everything taste more savory and amazing.

I only spent two days in Osaka, but my impression was that staff, while we couldn’t communicate well, were super friendly, more so than in Tokyo or Kyoto. We ended up with parting gifts at three establishments: chopsticks at a yakitori place, enamel pins at Bar Masuda, and here, the mysterious salt blend. We were talking about it while we ate but I’m fairly certain no one was eavesdropping. Maybe everyone gets salt to take home?

This was a very exciting part of the trip.

Kushikatsuryori Katsu * 1-1-3 Shibata, Kita-ku | B2F Hankyu 3-Bangai, Osaka, Japan

Chains of Love: Ichiran

I used to get excited about foreign chains in NYC but lately I’m more indifferent. Case in point, Ichiran opened right around the time I went to Japan last year for Thanksgiving and I still haven’t checked it out and it’s almost the end of 2017. I don’t want to go to Bushwick to eat overpriced ramen, as in $19, even in a so-called flavor concentration booth. (I’d liken them more to library carrels, which I just spelled “carols” even though I’ve worked in a zillion libraries.)

Bowls of ramen are practically all under $10, even with tip, in Tokyo where novelty comes cheap and with the territory. Ichiran in Tokyo is 24 hours, you buy a ticket from a vending machine with large photo buttons kind of like a cigarette machine (you do remember those?), look for an open seat on the big electronic wall display, then proceed into a hushed room flanked by two rows of stools. You can fill out a card with preferences like degree of noodle doneness, richness of broth, garlic or no garlic, spice level, and extras and add-ins. And of course there is a red button if you want service. 

Each seating space has an individual water dispenser which is amazing. If you order a ramen that comes with a tea egg, it will be presented first in a little dish. At least I don’t think this is an appetizer as much as it looks like one. You will only see hands and lower bodies beneath the screen and once the hands place your order in front of you, they will drop the screen altogether.

As to the ramen, I never have the wherewithal to go nuts with flavor descriptions. I don’t think I’ve yet to encounter a meh bowl of ramen in Japan, and Ichiran’s was better than average. What makes it so? The tonkotsu-style broth is rich and assertive as a pork broth should be, but it’s not overpowering.  There is a balance to the amount of noodles and sliced not-that-fatty pork with just a pop of salt and heat. 

I hate to say that ramen isn’t my first choice unless I’m starving, but it tends to make me feel too stuffed and tired afterwards. I’m sensitive to carbs, though. I’m also not usually a food-sharer–in fact, I’ve been called a “food hoarder,” disparagingly– but I ended up giving some chashu and noodles to my travel companion (you can also fold the wooden walls to make a shared space). I can’t even imagine ordering extra noodles, which you can. I was the only one at group meals (even with super fitness-y women) to order a small rice instead of the standard and was the only one who didn’t finish it.

More to the point/less about my adorable eating habits: I would recommend Ichiran for the full immersive experience if you happen to be in Japan. There are 60+ locations around the country so it’s likely you’ll pass by one.

Ichiran * 3-34-11 B1F Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan 

Shovel Time: Momiji

I’m sure there are exceptions but state capitals tend to be almost non-places and definitely not food destinations. Sacramento? Albany? Salem? Have you ever been curious about sushi Oregon’s capital? Probably not.

Salem is full of lesser regional chains like Izzy’s and Pietro’s, and also a Sizzler. (I can’t believe the only one left in Portland that I was supposed to go to on a Tinder date but ended up going to with my grandma is gone.) I went to the Oregon State Fair earlier and decided to stay the night. Momiji was one of the few places open late on Sunday (until midnight) and I kind of like this level of non-purist sushi: crazy rolls, all-you-can-eat specials, and saloon doors separating a video poker room. A lot of businesses in Salem are low-slung and windowless like they are up to something. 

You don’t even have to wear shoes.

When in Salem one must order the Salem roll, a holy trinity of cream cheese, avocado, and fake crab, fried tempura-style and drizzled with eel sauce. Momiji is the kind of place where you don’t feel guilty for ordering sushi with sweet and creamy sauces, though I still got some unadorned ikura and maguro.

I might’ve guessed that the poke on the appetizer list was just riding the wave of Hawaiian raw fish popularity, though it’s hard to say because I forgot how much of a Hawaiian presence there is in the NW. I’ve heard because many Hawaiians go to the University of Oregon and end up staying. I’ve been to multiple luaus in the 20 months that I’ve been visiting Portland. All that plus tempura was too much food.

Momiji * 4590 Silverton Rd., Salem, Oregon

 

International Intrigue: Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya

kizuki facadeRamen is all good and well, of course, though there is something to be said for the journey rather than the main event. Which is to say, there is practically nothing I love more than uncharted suburbs (and stumbling upon US chains abroad) and I’ve realized I miss driving through them. I’ve been away from Portland for nearly 20 years, and in my absence planned communities have sprung up from fields on the outskirts of town and people want to live there. (My first encounter with this boxy sprawl was in 2002 when I met my former library coworker at an Indian restaurant in the still-developing Orenco Station enclave.)

This visit 15 years later, I met a high school friend in a suburban strip mall on the westside because it was close to her office even though we both grew up in an eastside suburb where she still lives in the exact same house with her parents since the 1980s.

cedar hillsFirst, I had to find a Walgreens because I’d ran out of a prescription and ended up in some area called Bethany Village that seemed to consist of one giant earth-toned outdoor shopping center surrounded by new apartments, likely with vessel sinks and carpeted bedrooms. Or is Bethany a neighborhood? I don’t recognize fully half of neighborhood names in the Portland area and they are not inventions that nod to geography like South Slope or BoCoCa. No, they are confident, seemingly historical names like Arbor Lodge, Overlook, and Brentwood-Darlington that  materialized post-millennium and are now accepted as fact by new residents. If someone says a restaurant is in Cully, I have absolutely no idea where that is.

The young white woman who was working at the pharmacy had blue and magenta hair and she complimented me on my wallet, which only now I’m realizing was blue and magenta. I put a plastic bottle of Perrier in my purse and walked out without paying for it like an old shoplifter starved for attention.

To get to Kizuki (formerly Kukai, as it still reads on the facade, Kookai in Japan, but apparently the word means poop in Hawaiian?) my GPS steered me through ‘80s upscale neighborhoods anchored by a country club until I popped out in another development that looked like Bethany Village but without unified branding. These modern strip malls always seem higher-end but on closer examination this one contained a generic grocery store called Market of Choice and a Supercuts (though also a barre studio).

suburban cowboy

 

Even though these developments are meant to evoke small towns, there is no foot traffic, everyone drives. So a craggy man in a cowboy hat, maybe in his 50s, cigarette dangling out his mouth while taking a small dog for a walk seemed wildly out of place. I tried taking a few creepshots but he was too far away to capture all the detail. A woman my age with a grade school daughter glanced at my feet, either admonishing or admiring my grass green Swedish Hasbeens. I shot a glare at the back of her head to psychically signal that she couldn’t judge me because I’m not a Portland mom.

kizuki ramen

 

Will I get to the ramen? Maybe. I’m more ramen enthusiast (udon is more enticing, honestly) than expert. I ordered the gut bomb version, garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen, with a photo in the middle of the menu, larger than the rest, which was pointed out to me when I asked the enthusiastic server what was most popular. I like a rich pork broth, though this was extra oily, with a whole soft-yolked egg, and lean cut of chashu. I’m a slow eater so my big bowls of noodle soup always cool down before I get to the bottom, which makes the fattiness more pronounced. I would try the yuzu shio next time to see how it compares to Afuri’s signature yuzu-spiked version.

I was surprised that my friend said she couldn’t use chopsticks, despite my knowing that Filipinos don’t traditionally use them, and yet unsurprised because there was something very Portland about this, like no matter your heritage or place of birth, each decade spent in Oregon diluted any evidence of being “ethnic” despite your appearance. Some go the other way as adults. I know non-religious black people who became Muslim and changed their names and Jews who I didn’t even know were Jewish move to the Upper West Side and become orthodox. But more typical are minorities who support Trump, which I discovered when I accepted a Facebook request from a middle school friend.

Upon arrival, I got the no seating incomplete parties story, which is unusual for the area, particularly since the restaurant was nearly empty. We overstayed our visit, lingering at our table for two that was blocked by a wall from the main dining room, and as we left, I noticed the restaurant was full with people waiting not just in the lobby but outside as well. Clearly, the suburban ramen chain has an audience.

Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya * 11830 NW Cedar Falls Dr, Portland, OR

 

Sunday Best: Izakaya’s Miso Tongue

izakaya miso tongue

I don’t go out as much as I used to, though I was recently reminded of the disgusting charms of being tipsy and sweaty, wandering around the East Village in 98% humidity. I’d already shared a plate of omurice and croquettes at Bar Moga and still wasn’t opposed to snacking a little more before heading home.

Izakaya is tucked into that Sixth Street strip that used to be wall-to-wall cheap Bangladeshi-run Indian restaurants. Like the name states, it serves drinking food, casual and homey, tip inclusive. I know tongue isn’t for everyone, but it should be. These slices were slightly rare, hyper-beefy with a pleasant chew (though my dining companion gnawed on hers for a long time then put the remains on her plate, which I didn’t comment on at the time) and just a hint of sweet char from the grill.

P.S. I ordered delivery last night and added an extra lengua taco so I could eat it for lunch today. Here’s to tongue in all forms!

International Intrigue: Tsurutontan

tsurutontan udon

Tsurutontan rode in on the wave of imports late last year that included Ichiran, Tim Ho Wan, and the promised Inkinari Steak that didn’t get off the ground until 2017. (I’m so mad they are going to add chairs in the US.) I meant to check one out when I was in Tokyo but put it off until my last night and I couldn’t get it together for the 9pm last order (I kind of appreciate the anal-ness of publishing last calls for food in Japan) but was dying for udon and couldn’t deal with the 10 person line outside of Shin Udon. I did end up getting a bowl of cold udon, which was maybe weird in December but it was on offer, at a restaurant up a flight of stairs with no English name. I finally was tough enough after two weeks to handle an all-Japanese language menu.

Tsurutontan, off Union Square, is no noodle hole-in-the-wall, with prices that are more akin to Ipuddo and beyond. Also, without the wait and counter seating. I liked the row-facing-row with a partition separating the sides for solo diners. Plus, the Japanese thing where you can order regular or large amount of noodles for the same price, thick and thin.

I chose thin for my summer special of cold dashi broth with uni. The broth was light but the sea urchin added creaminess, and a slight bitterness, plus shredded shiso that gave the dish more bite and held it just back from being too rich. This doesn’t look like a big portion (regular noodle fyi) but it was oddly filling. I let the little batter nuggets turn to sog and scooped them out with the giant metal spoon at the end, then slurped all of the remaining sesame-studded cloudy broth like fishy cereal milk.

Tsurutontan * 21 E. 16th St., New York, NY