Monday, January 31, 2011

Lunching @ Oton

Oton is now open for lunch. As with the sister restaurant Okan, Oton keeps options simple. Here the focus is on value oriented donburi bowl sets, udon, soba. Oton's lunch menu here. [Update: Check out my Part Two lunch visits post here!]

The Yakitori-don ($8 with miso soup, +$2 mini soba substitution).

Came with Tori Soboro seasoned minced chicken, quail eggs, grilled chicken gizzard and thigh meat. For eight bucks and to include miso soup and a small side wasn't a bad deal at all. Really enjoyed the Soboro so I knew I'd be getting the Soboro-don eventually.

I opted for the mini soba for an extra $2. The noodles were fairly standard but the broth that was on the light side had a nice scratch made fresh taste.

The Uni/Ikura-don (cleverly named Hokkai-don, $10.50). You get a choice of regular or sushi rice. I usually get regular.

Was impressed with the fair amount of Uni for the price. The salmon roe was also a decent amount. Loved the tamago, nice and sweet. Too bad the rice was a bit mushy this day. A nice lunch it was though. And the miso soup was great, which is always key for me in becoming a return customer.

The Tori Soboro-don set was the cheapest at $6.50. The minced chicken meat was flavored really well and even without the mini udon option (+$2) it was a good and satisfying fill.

The Udon's broth as with the soba's was on the light side, but this is typical Kansai style execution. The tororo konbu was a nice touch. The udon and soba can be had as a full serving.

I usually never have dessert but this day was an exception I guess. There's always room for azuki ice cream in my belly. But I recommend the Macha Panna Cotta for something a little more different.

For the calorie conscious there were two interesting "Salad Donburi's" as well. Hope to be back with friends next time and take over one of them cozy nooks.. :)

Always nice to have another Japanese lunch option in town!

Oton, 5447 Kearny Villa Rd # D, San Diego, CA 92123

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gajimaru Shokudo

Shokudo's have a serious soft spot with me. I think they roughly translate to cafeterias or diners but they're simple low brow eateries that are a mainstay for the average middle class Japanese. Teishoku set meals are the cornerstone of any shokudo menu and they're usually all very good deals.

I've had my share of eating at Shokudo's growing up in Okinawa, especially in High School during summer break where friends and I would sign up for the much better paying short term blue collar jobs. Sure beat minimum wage McDonald's and with the added benefit of returning to school in September extra fit with a really nice tan, haha.

But I also know for a fact when it came to lunch time, nobody savored and completely enjoyed their meals more than we did. I still don't remember food ever tasting better and still believe that a good amount of physical labor and sweat is the best secret ingredient/spice there can be. BTW, this technically means that any over the top frou-frou "Ultimate Meal" menu course is incomplete without several hours lapping the community pool first (or help build a retaining wall out of cement blocks for a day from 7AM).

Gajimaru Shokudo was one of many that we visited often. (Gajimaru is Okinawan for banyan tree.)

Although Goya bitter melon these days are available year round it's best tasting during summer when in season and so wasn't offered. Scouring other options, a week into my visit I could tell I was a bit over playing tourist and ordered what I've truly been craving the day.

The teishoku here at Gajimaru simply called "Lunch" (ランチ). Comes with a protein party of tonkatsu, sunny side fried eggs, and grilled luncheon meat (Spam) as the main. Rice, a shredded cabbage salad, tsukemono pickles and hot (tangy dark red) miso soup completes the set at a mere 650-yen (~$6.50).

The spam and eggs are under the katsu. The katsu is the pounded thin, large diameter style you see a lot in Shokudo's on the island. And I already know what some are thinking. It eerily looks close to a Hawaiian plate lunch doesn't it? With miso soup though which to me is a necessity to any meal (which is why I tend to wish plate lunches came with), but that's just me and my particular upbringing..

Shokudo is a new label tag from today. Please keep an eye on it. Along with Warm Fuzzies!.. ;)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Okinawan Mexican Tacos - Before The Taco Rice.. Nerd Ramblings

I think some may know about the Taco Rice. Personally occasionally enjoyed one but admittedly never have been a huge follower maybe. Could be I always felt there isn't a whole lot about the flavor profile that lends itself to a surprise. In fact you can easily recreate one by plating a mound of Japanese white rice with ground beef flavored with your favorite supermarket taco mix, some lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sweetened salsa. The accessible and tasty fill it was first quickly spread through the island's military personnel, hungry students and beach goers, and the general blue collar work force. (I was at least in the last three categories at one or more points in my life..) And now we see them everywhere from trendy cafes to family dinner tables.

But well before the Taco Rice, not surprising there were a few popular Taco shops on Okinawa. The fact always felt really random to me, but I later realized it was only one of the many byproducts of post war American influence. To back track, long after WWII had ended, Okinawa still remained under U.S. control until 1972. That's pretty crazy when I think about it now. But anyway the U.S. military still has a strong presence on the island and while Okinawa always had a unique culture and cuisine compared to the rest of Japan, you can imagine there would also be many American influenced specifics also not found elsewhere.

Not sure when the first taco stalls appeared (selling the crispy shell and ground beef filled Tex-Mex variety) but I hear they started out mostly located in towns near U.S. military bases understandably. But I hate pretending to be a food historian when I'm not, so let's quickly fast forward to the present...

King Tacos (completely unrelated to L.A.'s - King Taco, ha) is a very popular privately owned local chain. I'm pretty sure it's the largest, and the original proprietors with humble beginnings are credited to have invented the earlier mentioned Taco Rice. Shown above is a "parlor" where it means (at least in Okinawa) a tiny food operation where you order inexpensive meals on the go. Food Parlor's are usually strategically situated in high traffic areas, near schools, off busy streets. Can be a prefab shack with very basic seating under some shade or occupy a small portion of a building with only an order window.

I'm totally kicking myself for not taking a pic of a single taco but my hands were seriously full this day. The fried crispy shells are curiously shaped not very tall and also with flat bottoms. (which Old El Paso can't really take credit for..).

These were about five-bucks for four. Now kicking myself again a second time for not taking a shot of the tasty hot sauce that was included. But I did of the double order of Taco Rice for the two construction workers in line ahead of me. The individual clear plastic containers were SO stuffed with rice, seasoned ground beef, fresh veggies and grated cheese, that each had to easily have been enough to spread out as two meals (and the friendly guys confirmed).

This bright red sauce (container kinda showing through the bag above) was quite delicious actually. Sweet with Heat. A Tabasco like straight forward hit of heat blended with some tomato and Japanese ketchup for sweetening would be my first guess.

Some description of the funtastic tacos...

First, as I mentioned there's not a lot special about the ground beef mix. Your familiar Lawrys or Old El Paso taco seasoning-ish flavors. What does stand out here though is the locally produced super fresh vegetable toppings. The tomato and shredded lettuce were so packed with moisture. The tomatoes aren't the sweetest but its flavor intensely of TOMATO. The kind that reminds me how flavorless most are that I eat. These cheap snacking gems whether the locals are aware of or not hovers in a strange category of fast food meets farm-to-table in product. One of the fringe benefits of life on the island. Farms can never be far.

The fried-to-order shells are crispy but with little or no masa flavor. The flat bottoms make it stable-on-the-table, but it's really more the consumably friendly Cannoli shape, size and proportions that's genius about them. I don't need to twist my head sideways to eat one, but the way they fit so perfectly into those ubiquitous plastic to-go containers hardly feels like a coincidence either.

Below another King Tacos location I passed by on one of my long bicycle treks. Tried their famous burger too which was also cheap and filling as I heard but had way too much ratio of bread for my liking.

Charlie's Tacos is another famous Okinawa taco shop that claims to have been in business since 1956.

Compared to the value oriented King Tacos, the tacos here are on the high side for what you get but maybe also a bit more artisanally constructed.

The crispy shells also fried to order, the texture and flavor seemed slightly leavened this time. The texture of the shredded lettuce I'm not kidding is akin to fluffy cotton candy. I imagine it's physically impossible to cut lettuce any finer than it is here. The fresh quality tomato is the same Okinawan taco full wedge slice with the strip of American cheese also left whole.

I was curious and tried the sampler which included one each of ground beef, ground chicken, and tuna. (Tuna?)

The house sauce was interesting. Some bitterness of pulverized onions but with some nice flavors of tomatoes and spice heat. Was mildly sweet too.

The Tuna filled was totally snackable if not a bit odd as expected. The ground chicken didn't taste different enough from the beef in my opinion so next time it'll be all beef tacos for me. :)

While I never remembered Tacos ever blowing up in popularity, they were definitely part of Okinawan casual food culture. Also aside from these specialized shops, if you step into a kissaten you'd most likely see a 'three tacos special' advertised next to a Naporitan on the menu.

So while I may have completely failed at being an ambassador to my hometown beloved Taco Rice, those Island Tacos... I think those are pretty darn neat. :)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Ramen Setagaya @ Haneda International Airport

Really jumping around again.. Well I got to experience traveling through Japan's newest International Airport which just opened October last year. Before you had to fly in through Narita or sometimes Kankuu (Osaka's Kansai International Airport). The best part of the new Haneda Int'l Terminal is the featured shopping/eating Edo-koji arcade that neatly replicates a feeling of shops in the Edo era.

The eateries can range from a Yakiniku shop serving A5 ranked beef to relatively affordable sushi, handmade Udon (had a surprisingly long wait line), French, Italian pasta/pizza, and even my all time temptation of proper Tonkatsu.

The chain Setagaya already has a shop in New York. I'm not sure how the fishy gyokai flavors are doing there, it seems Tonkotsu reins supreme as favorite style of ramen amongst most Americans. While I'd never turn down the creamy savory bowl if offered myself, maybe it simply has to do with how Gyokai-kei are still relatively hard to come by in these parts but it's been my biggest craving these days.

I usually try to have an attractive photo kickoff my posts but Tsukemen is usually ever..
They do however pack a whack of some concentrated flavors and aromas to your unsuspecting taste buds that definitely make up for it more than some. I got the Setagaya Tsukemen which I think was the most expensive item offered at 1100-yen. (At the current very sucky exchange rate, ~$13.75)

Came with pretty much all the fixings they offer. Thick cut crunchy menma, a flavored hanjyuku soft boiled egg (it's in there somewhere), cubes of great aburi pork chashu that's been lightly grilled, and even some green laver seaweed Aosa Nori that I now have close to fallen head over heels for. (I just think it's so much better than regular sheet nori.)

The flavor of the soup/dip is seasoned with shoyu as a base but heavily fortified with concentrated dried fish stock (and I also hear dried scallops) reminded me of Nidaime Tsujita's that I had at one of Mitsuwa's fairs recently. Maybe slightly not as tangy and here with some additional char aroma of the grilled chashu also makes it different. Further comparing I couldn't tell if this particular bowl had home court advantage or an airport disadvantage but it was very comparable to Tsujita's which by the way I'm really looking forward to them opening up shop in L.A. this year. Ed from The Ramen Blog said he heard sometime around June.

Anyhow the noodles also weren't as thick but still fairly broad and had that great springy chewiness to them. Perfect for dipping into the extra rich broth. Quite satisfying and quite a fill too. Oh, I almost forgot I had the Japanese gyozas.. :)

The Negi-Kurobuta-Yaki-Gyoza (Berkshire pork fried gyozas with scallions). 650-yen..

Gyozas were fried up excellently crispy and once taken a bite would overflow with juices. The filling was a looser medium coarse texture with a small heat kick. The flavor actually reminded me of ones I had at Mottainai in Gardena (which are half the price) but a bit porkier thanks to the Kurobuta and the skins were better on these. Enjoyed the negi topping but it was hard to have a full bite with them as they tend to fall off easily without a balancing act.

On the visit for my flight out the thought of excellent thick cut, juicy tender, fresh nama panko crusted, roof of mouth piercing, fried in sweet lard Tonkatsu.. was calling me a second time and it seemed like a great way to cap the visit. But I somehow ended up at Setagaya again..

The Tori Shio Ramen (chicken/salt) that a fellow next to me was having my first visit looked really good and it was hard to pass up one that I knew would be made with the shop's wafu stock (on roids).

Soo great and it's hard enough to get flavors like it here but this was quite good. Not an overly intensely flavored bowl, the chicken and dried fish flavors were actually very balanced and was something I could really sink my teeth into day after day, month after month. The topped chicken pieces were tender, as was the photogenic soft boiled flavored egg. The subtle fragrant zest from the garnished rinds of citrus yuzu didn't go unnoticed either.

I had to get some extra Aosa Nori. And even at being close to two-bucks, it was really worth it. The Aosa Nori's green laver / seaweed flavor is much more flavorful and aromatic than your standard sheets of nori and also adds some nice texture on top.

The lighter and balanced Tori Shio Ramen was actually perfect to wrap up my trip, especially since I had a heavier bowl at Jangara only a few hours ago, haha. And it made me almost forget about that luscious pork cutlet... Almost.. ;)