Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas! And A Burger From Original Tommy's (Beverly & Rampart)

Merry Christmas! And taking the opportunity to also say Happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa!

Couple weeks back I happened to be in L.A. again and decided to drop by the Original Tommy's on Beverly & Rampart for old times sake. I haven't been to this location since the late 90's, early 2000 maybe, my go-to during the days I lived up there being the one in Eagle Rock.

Nice to see not a whole lot had changed. Busy as ever where the griddle seemed to always have been completely crowded with sizzling burger patties no matter how late you visited (this location is 24hrs).

I also remember when soft drinks sold were the standard 12oz cans that you'd grab from those sliding-top coolers. Was sort of based on a trust system where after you pay for you meal, you walked over to one and get your drink.

Well, Five Guys may be better on the East Coast, but a Tommy's is definitely better when had in L.A. The chili, though rich, tastes not as heavy (my guess due to the high turnaround). The tomatoes are usually cut more substantially (this day was smaller) but is there along with the pickles, hiding underneath all that smooth textured chili.

Of course the other special significance to this particular location is that it was none other than where the creator of MOS Burger, Mr. Sakurada had gotten inspiration to start his own burger empire in Japan. Thinking the chili was probably too heavy for the Japanese market, he came up with his own lighter version with a hint of miso as a hidden kakushiaji ingredient.

[MOS Burger]

Have a friend visiting for the Holidays so a quick post for tonight. We're planning on a road trip but haven't decided where at the moment and playing it by ear. If this happens to be my last post of 2012, see you all in 2013!!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Soba Sojibo, Torrance - Quick Visit

After the surprising good quick meal at Ichimi-An, I finally found Soba Sojibo in a nearby mall that I had driven by twice (argh!). Light searching "そじ坊" later on google, it seems they are a chain from Japan under the larger Gurume Kinuya umbrella, the same group responsible for both Mugimaru and DonDon-Tei in the Mitsuwa Costa Mesa food court. Things then started to connect and make sense.

[$7.50 Lunch Zaru Soba Combination (shown, Mentai-tororo-don) at Sojibo.]

The interior is warm and very welcoming, done quite nice with even a few private rooms in the back for larger parties. The menu is without any udon and completely soba-centered with several tempura and donburi rice bowls to be had along as a combo or a la carte. They were all so tempting! And at least for lunch priced attractively.

I was torn between the duck Kamo Nanban, Curry Nanban, and as for sides maybe the Negitoro-don and your basic Oyako-don. The latter only because you often hear katsu and oyako-dons are good at sobaya's due to their usually superior dashi.

[Complimentary Fried Soba Chips at Sojibo.]

On top of these there are also daily specials where the weekend day I was visiting it happened to be with a buta-bara pork bowl. Since it was again a first visit, I went with a simple Zaru Soba for the same reasons of gauging the flavors, but I do happen to like the dipping cold zaru or seiro style given the choice between the hot.

What I immediately noticed was that of the mentsuyu condiments (called yakumi), the wasabi was a raw grated nama type, something usually seen served with higher end sushi and sashimi. The soba noodles themselves were pretty decent, a good notch above off-shelf, but easily paled in comparison to Ichimi-An's. After asking, the proprietary noodles were said to be made fresh in-house, but mechanically and not teuchi in the purist sense. Still I feel they were a leap forward from those near textureless soba served at most mom-n-pop or express shops.

[Mentai-tororo-don (Spicy Cod Roe with Grated Mountain Yam over Rice) side.]

The Mentai-tororo-don was nice and fresh tasting too. I enjoy on occasion Teriyaki Chicken and California Rolls as much as the next person but it's refreshing to have these non-cookie cutter Japanese as options for a change. I poured over some of the leftover mentsuyu and slurped it up with chopsticks lips-to-bowl. The remaining dip I'd dilute with some soba-yu (starchy water used to boil the noodles) to have as a final light tsuyu flavored soup.

While strictly soba speaking I have to say I preferred the wonderfully resilient シコシコ noodles (and quaint atmosphere) of Ichimi-An, it's bargain city at Sojibo for lunch and I can easily see myself dining here again. Again it's all about having options and while I dream of having something like Ichimi-An in SD, I'd more than welcome Sojibo if they ever decided to expand here too.

Soba Sojibo, 1757 W. Carson St., Torrance, CA

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Soba-dokoro Ichimi-An, Torrance - Quick Visit

While I look forward in lunching at Fukada again, after the somewhat so-so Zaru Soba experience and wanting to checkout more Teuchi, or 'handmade' soba spots that So. Cal. had to offer, I decided to trek out to Torrance last weekend to visit Soba Sojibo remembering the friendly word from reader Junichi a while back.

Somehow the directions my phone was giving me to Sojibo was a little off and driving around I accidentally found another sobaya, Ichimi-An in a quaint, off to the side backstreet. Love when that happens! You can say I had my Inogashira Goro moment where I easily imagined I was in one of the Kodoku no Gurume episodes (now in Season Two! But will better explain in a future "Japanese Food Television Shows I'm Into" post...).

[Ichimi-An Zaru Soba ($6.90) with Kakiage side ($?).]

Located in this rather funky crisscrossed street block across from the katsu specialist Kagura is Ichimi-An (official name Soba-dokoro Ichimi Ann Bamboo Garden). Part of the I-Naba group been told this main store honten has been in business for at least ten years and now have a second in the Rolling Hills Plaza. Although the menu is available on their site, I think the print version is more complete which can be found here.

The place is a smaller operation and decor also kept pretty spartan. You order first at the register situated center of the store and then have seat. Hot or cold tea is self-service as well as the Soba-yu to dilute your mentsuyu later as a soup if you're going the Zaru Soba route (which I did).

A cold day like today I would've went hot but having the zaru I feel you can taste directly the soba's flavors as well as enjoy the more resilient texture being chilled-rinsed. It's also a nice way to check out what gives in the flavor department of dashi in the concentrated mentsuyu dip. I was told a small kakiage donburi rice bowl was popular as a combo but asked if I can have the kakiage by itself as a side wanting to leave room for visiting Sojibo later (which turned out to be in a larger nearby mall I had already driven by earlier twice).

For the price the soba was quite excellent with a great koshi chew and nodogoshi - effortlessly slipping down the chute with decent lingering of soba buckwheat flavor. They were cut thinner than typical and was surprised how well they held together despite. Though may be hard to tell by the photo, portion was also good. But knowing how great they are now, I'd be asking for the extra large serving next time. :) [麺がシコシコしててうまい!]

Later learning that the buckwheat for the soba was imported directly from Japan in air-conditioned containers wasn't too big of a surprise maybe. As for the mentsuyu, I think Fukada had the better scratch made flavor edge but Ichimi-An's superior soba noodles easily makes up for it where I wouldn't think twice as to who had the upper hand in overall experience. To the point I had almost forgotten about the seeming previously made kakiage which otherwise had nice flavors of sweet onions and remained crunchy also despite.

Absolutely no regrets in having tried the Zaru but I think the way to go here is hot with whatever toppings fancy's the person. And so much to choose from!

Ichimi-An Old Torrance location definitely has it's own unique charm to me, in vibe reminding a lot of many no-frills Teishokuya's in Japan but with the additional attractive catch of being able to have some handmade soba and udon. Coupled with the few chatter in the background of regular patrons, they made me dust off the ol' "Warm Fuzzies" label tag which I haven't used in a while. :) Can't wait to be back!

Kodoku no Gurume (Season 1), Episode #7

孤独のグルメ#7 by yamutya1

Kodoku no Gurume (Season 2), Episode #10

孤独のグルメSeason2  第10話 by yamutya1

Ichimi-An Bamboo Garden, 1618 Cravens Ave. Torrance, CA 90501

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fukada, Irvine - Quick Lunch Visit

It was a little funny how the moment I drove into Fukada's mall I realized I had eaten here once before many years ago. At the time the place was squeaky new and guessing had just opened. Definitely pre-blogging days where I unfortunately can't seem to remember what I had then for the life of me.

Not sure if they were doing the handmade noodles thing (soba and udon) the time, I think I would've remembered that. But anyway I had picked up their name again earlier in the year browsing through one of those free Japanese publications, then last summer worked out a visit during the few work related errands in the city.

[The soba & udon making backroom at Fukada, Irvine.]

From what I gathered, the place gets really busy during lunch hour where a 20~30min wait to be seated can be typical on weekdays. As far as I know it's the only Japanese restaurant in the area and I noticed most patrons were of Japanese business people and seeming ex-pats, at least when I dropped in. The time being around 1:30PM helped a lot for me to miss most of the rush (lunch ends at 2 here). The menu is available online on their site though some listed prices are outdated by about a buck.

Items offered range from your usual suspect donburi mono (a few Fukada inspired), tempura that can be ordered by the piece (nice), a fairly extensive appetizer list (I'd like to try the Nasumiso and the Tataki's next time myself) all the way to your typical teriyaki as an entree or bento set.

Equally extensive is the soba and udon offerings where my heart was set on having the afternoon. Although by then I've heard the udon was the better bet, since I'm not a huge consumer of it I went the soba route anyway. A Ten Zaru ($9.95) - Cold rinsed soba with tsuyu dip and tempura combination. 

The regular portion as you can see is not that big, extra would cost $2 more. While I'm far an expert of teuchi (handmade) soba I've had my few shares in Japan including once a Jyuwari type where only 100% buckwheat is used (a typical ratio is 70/30 or 80/20 blend with wheat flour).

After preemptively apologizing first to patrons sitting in very close proximity about my meal photo-documenting hobby, ha (we were at the counter and practically rubbing shoulders), I dove right in. A few slurps, it's quickly evident that the buckwheat aroma and flavor were surprisingly low. Also while the first mouthful strands were decent, the rest were pretty brittle and felt a little too waterlogged than it should. I actually have a teuchi soba hobbyist friend and know he struggles with similar results mainly due to not being able to get quality soba flour here. 

Gotta say though that the scratch made mentsuyu dip was excellent. The dashi flavors are vivid and the delicious trifecta of it with sweet-savory of shoyu and mirin was a great balance. I can seriously put down a mugful of this, ha. The tempura of shrimp and vegetables were also pretty good and I'd love to tack on an Anago sea eel and Shiitake next time.

I also tried their house Tebasaki Karaage (fried wings, $5) that came out piping hot. The crispy wings themselves lacked seasoning and thought it could use a longer rest in the marinade maybe. The sweet-savory sauce beneath was tasty but you sort of had to first take a bite of the chicken to get beyond the impenetrable skin layer for it to adhere any. The few last pieces that were let to sit in the sauce longer were definitely better.

I really wished I could've squeezed in at least a second visit before posting especially since I felt I was just getting warmed up familiarizing with their menu, but alas it didn't seem to be going to happen anytime this year. I'd probably try the handmade udon next which I've heard much better praise of though admit the duck-centric Kamo Seiro and Kamo Nanban soba is still tempting.

My personal gist is that Fukada is your good neighborhood Japanese restaurant that takes pride in the theme of healthy eating and use of organic products in cooking. The whole scratch made noodles thing I feel is more an extension of it rather than claims of any true artisanal take. Nothing wrong with that though portions of at least the soba could be better. It in mind with some clever peak hour avoiding, I look forward in being back.

Fukada, 8683 Irvine Ctr Dr, Irvine, CA 92618

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas Comes Early - My Korejanai Robo, Few Ramen Updates And Other Ramblings

I'm probably I know I'm covering too many topics for a single post as usual but here goes another for this night. I'll try to go through them quickly and keep my tangent ramblings to a minimum. Wish me luck!

Christmas came a little early for me last month as a handmade wooden robot called the Korejanai Robo (コレジャナイロボ). Something my friends got me from the land of katsudon and sushi carousels.

"Here you go Ethan, it's the Strike Gundam you've wanted..."

Korejanai, meaning "This is not it..." The gift robot is a parody toy figure sparked from stories that may ring too close to home to some with not so fortunate childhood memories. One of a desperate parent trying to pass off a garage creation as that Christmas gift their kid had been hounding them for months on end.

Korejanai Robo won a Japan G-Mark Award in 2008 and I'm super stoked to add it to my collection. Thanks guys! You know me too well!

As for food, quite a few updates relating mostly to ramen. RakiRaki had started a Tonkotsu about two weeks back and the nerd of me was there the second day it was out to try. I wasn't too surprised in that it was a lighter take and after asking I did confirm a little chicken is also used along with the pork bones in their version.

[Original Tonkotsu Ramen, $9.75]

I'm all welcome for lighter Tonkotsu's, in fact I think there aren't enough of them. But this version I felt was a bit too tame and maybe cut with a little too much chicken borderlining a Kumamoto-style let alone a Hakata which they claim. The benishoga pickled ginger is a nice welcome where not even Yamadaya serves (and I feel they should, especially that it would complement more their richer style).

The star though is definitely their new pork chashu that is marinated in a little X.O. paste then flamed with a torch. The one had first below was extremely tender, delicate and nothing short of delicious. Quite superb actually and I don't use that word very often if only because I always thought it sounded cheesy, ha.

I've since also had the Spicy Miso Tonkotsu (which I thought was too salty but will cover in a future update post) and another side serving of just the X.O. belly pork with a recent meal and unfortunately found them over torched and dry. I did mention it to the kind waitress who's usually eager for comments so hopefully it'll be promptly addressed. It'll need to for them to charge the $4.25 for three slices.

[X.O. Underbelly Aburi Chashu]

RakiRaki Ramen & Tsukemen, 4646 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111

I finally dropped in Ramen Yakyudori after a longer dry spell last month and noticed they had a tsukemen as a November special. I had a strong intuition of what I'd be getting into but thought I'd try it out anyway, and who knows, I just might be surprised.

Sheer volume wise they definitely get a V+ with smiley face for $7.50 asking. All that menma bamboo shoots, pork chashu, half a flavored soft-boiled ajitama egg (that I always enjoyed of theirs), good serving of green onions and a sheet nori even.

The noodles unfortunately were what they use in the ramen, but the all important dip was weak and very amateurish in flavor. My guess of the seeming ad hoc concoction was some of their lunch-only tonkotsu with a little shoyu dare, sesame seeds... I might've tasted a little ginger, I don't know.

Are the owners bothering in checking out the competition? No "E" for effort here. Was filling though and of decent value but I'd much rather have their Hiyashi cold summer noodles. If I could only have Yakyudori's generous Tsukemen toppings with RakiRaki's noodles and Dip!

Ramen Yakyudori, 4898 Convoy St., Suite 101, San Diego, CA 92111

Too bad Ramen Zetton's tsukemen turned out to be a bust too... :( Maybe I was expecting too much but there were just too many questionable intentions about it that at the end of my meal I concluded it be best to stick with their delicate Shoyu Ramen and Shio.

A little rare, you get a choice of hot or cold tsukemen here. If you must try it I suggest going the cold route because the hot noodles with interesting wheat flavor were sticky, gummy and not that great eats. The dip was also way too weak, something I could sip directly and not surprised to find in a regular bowl of ramen. I had used up all the soup only a third ways through the noodles which is a first for me in tsukemen. If anything there's usually a lot of dip left. As Edjusted of The Ramen Blog had reported, the eggs were closer to hard-boiled than soft.

The Keema Curry Bowl (small, $3.50) I had as a side was great. The blanched cabbage between it and the rice was a nice touch to cut some of the richness. The Simmered Hainan Chicken Bowl will be next!

Really looking forward in trying the Shio Ramen while I honestly wouldn't mind playing it safe and ordering the Kotteri Shoyu again. Despite them being in OC, I have a feeling filling up their stamp card isn't going to take me that long. Free meal coming up! :)

Ramen Zetton, 735 Baker St - Unit B, Costa Mesa, CA 92626

The biggest disappointment in my personal ramen world bubble though was that my once favorite bowl of intensely dark Shoyu of Ramen Iroha seemed to have gotten the WD20 treatment since they made the permanent transition into Marukai Gardena. That's short for "Watered Down 20%" which I just made up but to me is really not a kidding matter... :_(

Ramen Iroha is known for bringing their Toyama Black Ramen which I explain in detail in the link above. While it's hard to tell by the photo, the only thing black was the newer bowls. This was more Toyama Umber (?) and really lacking the impact of the previous bowl during the temporary pop-up opening.

I've also tried their newer White Shrimp Ramen and it was just alright. Chicken based and a little gritty from the shrimp powder I'm guessing they used. Are they even using the same noodles as before?? I'm still having trouble getting over the disappointment of the Kuro Ramen. Someone please hug me. *Sniffle*

Ramen Iroha (in Marukai Gardena), 1740 W Artesia Blvd, Gardena, CA 90248

The not too good news continues on at my recent revisit to UnderBelly. My first and last post despite the few kinks I thought they had big potential. The servers are pronouncing Ton-kō-tsu correctly now. Sorry, just one of those pet peeve things of mine, but the more controversial "No spoons policy" is probably much more erking and still in effect.

I thought I'd try the Vegetable Ramen the lunch break ($10) and they were cool enough to let me have the Tonkotsu broth with (it's usually served with a veggie based soup). Was thinking maybe the healthier toppings of various sauteed mushrooms and white asparagus would balance out the rich soup better. I still had to get some pork Chashu Belly though (+$3)! ;)

This particular bowl the soup was substantially thinner and almost bland tasting. Noodles were also too soft and overcooked for my liking but maybe most of their customer base prefer it that way? The pork was melty tender however seemed to be lacking any seasoning or marinade.

I also thought I'd give the Shrimp Gyozas another try ($5) after reading positive comments about them online. Seemed to have been fried on all three sides which is a strange uneccessary accomplishment but were the same limpy experience I had the first. The fillings are decent enough but pan-fried gyozas to me are equally about contrasting textures.

Hate to sound like a cliche' Yelp review by saying I really want to like these guys, but I really, really do! I noticed the autographed Ivan Orkin poster in the bathroom so the owners seem to be actual ramen fans. The place was doing brisk business during the hour I was there so what the heck do I know really.

UnderBelly, 750 W. Fir St, San Diego, CA 92101

I guess in the meantime the king of extra heavy Kotteri ramen in San Diego still remains at Yamadaya SD. They were doing a better job at distinguishing the regular Tonkotsu as it was at much normal levels of richness the last I tried. Shown below is the Tonkotsu Shoyu.

A surprise one visit was how much I liked the Korroke (croquette) Bowl. A hot, rather standard potato korokke over some rice, however dressed in Okonomiyaki camo-fatigues. Almost a meal in itself, I'll be first to say it's maybe not for everyone. But if a person was looking for a quick primer to fill them up before diving into Yamadaya's ramen, it fits the bill nicely.

Ramen Yamadaya (San Diego), 4706 Clairement Mesa Blvd, San Diego, CA 92117

Otherwise my meals haven't been very experimental the last few months with my usual fallback Japanese comfort foods. I've had breakfast at Hinotez quite a few times after these, just haven't posted on them.

Here we have the Basic Set with Karaage, Tororo and Onsen Tamago ($3+2+1+1). Not bad for seven-bucks which include free miso soup refills. I probably could've gotten away without one of the dollar items, but it's hard for me to choose between gooey egg yolks and gooey grated mountain yam over rice.

I've been wanting to suggest Hinotez serve Ramen in the morning. May sound odd but it's been a trend in Tokyo the last few years, nicknamed Asa-Raa, short for "morning ramen." Hinotez serves it for lunch anyway so why not extend it for breakfast? Either way it was good to see several groups this morning. I really hope they keep this Japanese Breakfast thing going in SD.

Hinotez Japanese Restaurant, 7947 Balboa Ave, San Diego, CA 92111

I hadn't been to Oton for lunch in a while so dropped in recently craving their Yakitori Donburi. I instead ended up having the special which was an Iwashi Fry and Sashimi Bento ($13.50).

The panko crusted sardines were great. Were some katsu sauce and hot mustard provided but I think I would've enjoyed them even more simply dipped in salt as fresh as the sardines were. The sashimi was also quite good where the lightly crunchy squid tentacle was probably the highlight.

Posting the Instagram version since it turned out better than the photo taken with my "good camera." Miso soup is pretty solid here though I'm probably partial to Sakura's.

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

Lunching at Wa Dining Okan has definitely been part of my routine the latter part of this year. I feel an update post is long overdue but here is a Gyu-suji Miso Nikomi I had which was the special of the day.

Long stewed beef tendons that are pleasantly tender. This day I didn't taste much of the miso as more a traditional stew flavor but it's ridiculously tasty. I totally agree with the one waitress that said to me, "I don't know why more people don't order it... I think it's so good!" Can't agree enough.

Wa Dining Okan, 3860 Convoy St, San Diego, CA 92111

Izakaya Sakura is also in my regular lunch choice spots though I've been visiting more for an early dinner lately. I recently mentioned their marinated sashimi tuna Tekka-don here, but below is a sweeter interpreted Hayashi Omurice that'd be sure to fill you up if you're into these Yoshoku western influenced variety of Japanese.

Izakaya Sakura, 3904 Convoy St #121, San Diego, CA 92111

And finally, after some light research Tonkotsu Udon seems to be a legit thing. Now served at Mugimaru in Mitsuwa Costa Mesa. For those prices I think it's worth a try.

Thanks for hanging in there. Until next time!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I ♥ Nashville - A Cheeseburger @ Buster's Place

Technically Murfreesboro, but if one just so happens to be in the area... There's a nice burger waiting at Buster's Place, home of the Buster Burger. That's if you also happen to not be in the mood for the excellent smoked wings at Slick Pig BBQ or a great Meat and Three plate at Kleer-Vu Lunch Room. :)

As if an illustrative icon for a burger app maybe, the sandwich visually resembled something Sponge Bob may have made, then served to Popeye's friend Wimpy to eat. From the soft squishy buns that were nicely toasted on flat griddle, to the tall, almost upright, red ripe slice of tomato... The good sized beef patty protruding ever so beyond the diameter of the bun, and the melted bright yellow American cheese just holding its shape around the edges.

While the sight of the handwritten check toothpicked to my meal also brought a smile to my face, the few pickle coins pierced along with I felt were a local thing often seen on Nashville BBQ sandwiches.

Too bad the lettuce and onions were shredded (I prefer folded whole lettuce leaves) but the thick patty more than made up which I'd guess hovers in the third-pound range give or take. Most probably wouldn't be your grass-fed or certified organic either, but the meal in its entirety at $4.75 is undeniably satisfying.

As with my other Nashville institutional burgers at Brown's Diner and Rotier's, I've learned the default preferred doneness in town seems to be well-done. So I made sure to ask for it medium.

Having said that, I've always been in the camp that burgers not always must be cooked the way. It just needs to be moist and juicy which it was plenty between the nicely maillard reacted outer crust. Asking for it pink in the middle is sort of an insurance for it not being dry and overcooked, especially on thick pattied burgers like this one.

I did ask the long time chef how many ounces the patty was, but he just chuckled and said it was whatever filled the palm of his hands and was the way he had been making them for years. Made me wonder if I were the first to ever ask, haha. But Buster's Place is just that kind of local watering hole where the charm is brought in by the people that work there and atmosphere of reciprocated love from town regulars. Would be a delight to be back.

Buster's Place, 1615 NW Broad St, Murfreesboro, TN 37129