Tuesday, June 24, 2008

You know you're a Raw Fishy Fiend when ...

... you go to a popular ramen place and get most excited about the ikura bowl in the combo set!


I got this beautiful bowl at Santouka Ramen in the Mitsuwa Marketplace food court in Costa Mesa - a place I've been meaning to try for a long time on the recommendation of ramenista friend Noodle Girl, reinforced by the kingdom of local ramen bloggers.

Even though it was one of the hottest days we've experienced in recent Junes, I was craving the salty flavor of some good ramen. But when I got to the counter and saw that Santouka has combo sets of ramen and rice bowls, with ikura bowl as an option, I couldn't think of anything else (though the natto fermented bean bowl looked good, too).

Don't get me wrong - the ramen is quite good, definitely living up to the ramen-fanatic reviews. For my set, I ordered a small shio (salt broth) ramen with the ikura bowl, and the slightly creamy broth was perfectly salty and porky-flavorful, not oily nor chemical tasting - really well-stewed soup. No wonder it's the crowd favorite among ramenistas.
It was garnished with a just-right amount of green onion and bamboo and - another nice surprise - an umeboshi pickled plum, which always adds a refreshing taste to foods. The piece of pork was almost-melt-in-your-mouth tender.

I also like how the marinated egg is served separately so you can control how you eat it with the ramen - dump it in all at once to make the soup thicker and heartier, or take bite-size pieces of egg and dip in the soup just before slurping.

It's a testament to how good the ramen is that I actually slurped down the whole bowl AFTER chowing down on the ikura bowl first. I couldn't help it - as soon as I got my order and took a second to look at it (and snap a photo), I dove into the ikura and savored every juicy, salty salmon bite. It was a hearty portion of roe, not chintzy at all.

Ikura on top of rice is perhaps my most favorite Japanese comfort food of all time, something I've loved since I was in elementary school. Because it's not cheap, my parents used to joke that I had expensive tastes even as a 10 year old.

Besides always ordering ikura at sushi bars, I occasionally treat myself to a little quarter-pound tray of it while shopping in the fresh fish sections at Japanese markets, taking it home to pour over hot rice.

But now that I know about Santouka's combos, I'll simply get my ikura fix there: the small ramen and ikura bowl set is a bargain for $10, the satisfaction priceless.

Santouka Ramen, 665 Paularino Ave. (inside Mitsuwa supermarket), Costa Mesa, CA 92626 (714) 434-1101

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Sunday, June 8, 2008

SUMO-palooza!

OK, this post isn't about authentic food, but hey, it is about a uniquely Japanese tradition.
I have to share some photos and observations from the big Sumo Tour that was in Los Angeles Saturday and Sunday, June 7-8.

The Sumo Tour is like an All-Star game in other sports: the top Japanese sumo wrestlers travel to other countries for a cultural and educational exchange that promotes their sport and expands their celebrity. The Sumo Tour has also been to Hawaii, Las Vegas and Europe in years past; during their visits, the wrestlers present exhibition matches so we foreigners can get a taste of the unique traditional sport that is actually pretty challenging to see live in Japan, unless you're wealthy or have connections for tickets.

My 4-foot-9 mom is a huge sumo fan (pun intended) who faithfully watches the real Japanese matches on her Japan TV network feed daily during the 15-day tournaments (the Tokyo tournament was held in May). So when I heard the Sumo Tour was bringing these gigantic stars to Los Angeles, I got online immediately and bought tickets for my parents and me to attend the first day, and I presented them to my mom and dad as their Mother's Day and Father's Day gifts.
"OH!" my elated mom exclaimed, "Your dad and I got so excited about the Sumo Tour but didn't think we could go because of how expensive tickets are!"
This was clearly the best Mother's Day gift I ever got my mom.

So we headed to the L.A. Sports Arena Saturday afternoon and arrived just after the gates opened at 4 p.m.
After standing in line to get in - and our purses given a cursory search by arena staff - we were pleased to find our seats in the middle loge level had a perfect view of the sumo ring, which allowed us to see all the moves clearly, plus even the occasional dramatic tumble off the ring by the giants.

Before the matches officially started around 6 p.m., there were some educational demonstrations of illegal moves, and the stretching and warmup exercises, which demonstrated how tremendously limber those huge wrestlers actually are. Check them out doing the SPLITS:
Because I'm not a faithful sumo follower like my parents, I didn't realize that the lifting of each leg before the match is a stretching move. This is one of the two Yokozunas (sumo champions), Asashoryu, in his ceremonial introduction:
Seeing these giants do this live made me realize how muscular and nimble they really are. (Have you tried lifting your leg to the side that high?)

More scenes from the pageantry...

The entrance procession: In the photo below, the move on the left is a "tsukidashi" or "thrust out," where the attacker uses his hands in repetitive motion to push his competitor; it almost looks like slapping or punching:
More moves, which I'm too uneducated to identify:
There were some theatrics during the matches -- some obvious staredowns between wrestlers and even some overly dramatic posturing by Takamisakari during the ceremonial faceoff before a match -- that my Mom said are never done in the real matches, and were clearly for entertaining Americans.
Entertain they did: the crowd ate it up, hooting and hollering and encouraging more.
Of course, all of the rituals in the real matches in Japan are very serious and characteristically honorific, with the faceoff actually being a moment for the wrestlers to greet each other with a modicum of respect -- not an in-your-face, "I'm gonna bring you down" moment.

The champion of Sumo Tour Day 1, not surprisingly, was Yokozuna Asashoryu, a consistent winner, originally from Mongolia, whose aggressive tactics elicit either strong love or hate among sumo wrestlers and watchers.
Here he walks out for the trophy presentation:
And I was lucky enough to snap this shot of the Yokozuna as he was walking out of the arena after the tournament:
My parents and I literally stumbled onto the exit where the sumo wrestlers were coming out to big buses that would take them to their hotel (The Wilshire Grand). We were looking for the parking lot where our car was when we saw a small crowd kept at bay by yellow tape, and the buses lined up nearby.

I was taken by how regal these large Japanese men looked in their beautiful kimonos:

I came away with a newfound respect and admiration for these impressive athletes. Sumo had always seemed somewhat comical to me, more entertainment than sport. But by allowing me to see these grand gentlemen up close, the Sumo Tour succeeded in educating and drawing me into this unusual sport.

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Echizen comfort food

At long last ... I went, I enjoyed, I'll return to Echizen.

First, a MAJOR correction from my earlier mention: Echizen is NOT a sushi place; in fact, they don't serve sushi at all, though they serve high-grade fish, both cooked and raw, as you can see in the above photo of the gorgeous sashimi plate we ordered.

Echizen is closer to an izakaya (Japanese pub) in its fare and cozy size of the restaurant, but really, it's simply an excellent homestyle Japanese restaurant - like what Mitsuyoshi in Stanton used to be (before change in ownership about a year or two ago), serving authentic dishes that haven't been Americanized.

Like yamakake, white yam grated into a slippery, poi-like (but lighter) consistency and served with fresh cuts of maguro, garnished with wasabi and nori:
As you can see from the photo, Echizen also added some of my favorite shiso leaf as a garnish on the right, adding another refreshing taste to the dish. (I also like to drizzle a bit of soy sauce over it all.)
Echizen serves yamakake in the typical way, the yam grated completely to slurping consistency; a few months ago, I was delighted by Murasaki's fresh-tasting version with slivers of the starchy-gooey yam intact for a mix of textures:
My lovely new foodie friends - Hector, Erika and Ric - and my ever-so-tasteful friend Susan joined me for this Echizen excursion and left me in charge of ordering from the several-pages-long menu. So I got to order all my favorites - which was actually a difficult task because nearly everything on the menu is a favorite, from the small bites and sides to the udon - all nostalgic foods that my parents cooked for us while growing up, or that I've enjoyed home made by family and friends in Japan.

After a good 20 minutes or so of going back and forth through the menu, I finally bit the bullet and ordered a bunch of different things, all of them "old-school" comfort foods for me, but very new to even my foodie friends because very few of your run-of-the-mill Japanese-American restaurants offer them, stuff like korokke ("croquette"), this one a creamy version inside the crispy panko-fried outer skin because they were out of the more rustic potato-ground-beef version; gomae spinach (spinach tossed in a sesame-sugar-shoyu paste - the only proven way to get even finicky kids to gobble up this nutritious green veggie!); even an unagi bowl, with long strips of perfectly broiled unagi spread over a bowl of rice (one of my favorite "fast food" eats in Japan, where there are small eateries specializing in the freshwater eel).

We also had the aspara beef (asparagus wrapped in marinated beef):
And my must-order at any izakaya or yakitori place - grilled onigiri (rice balls):
Echizen offers the grilled onigiri with your choice of taste treat nestled in the middle: broiled salmon or shake (pronounced "sha-keh" in Japanese); umeboshi (pickled plum); or kobu (salted seaweed). I ordered one of each so we could all nibble off each hockey-puck-sized onigiri and taste the variety.
The pickled plum was too tart for some at the table, but is a personal favorite of mine (perfect with the rice!), and Ric enjoyed it too, likening it to the sour and salted fruits offered in Mexico - a brilliant comparison.

And the yellow pickled radish served on the side is another homestyle favorite, even among kids, because it's sweet - more like sweet pickles than tart.

Speaking of comparisons, if you ever go to Izakaya Zero, an upscale, modernized izakaya opened in Huntington Beach last year by renowned sushi chef Takashi Abe of Abe and Bluefin fame, try the grilled onigiri. Zero's version is definitely more refined, brought to you in smaller, mini sizes and with a more sophisticated flavor (subtle hints of fish stock in the rice) rather than the hearty teriyaki grilling sauce that provides most of the flavor in traditional grilled onigiri.

The total bill for all these dishes at Echizen (including the stellar sashimi plate, beers and a small bottle of premium sake): $170. Which means each of us in our party of five spent $40 total, which included the tip.
While I think that's an incredibly reasonable price for all that perfectly prepared food and drink (compared to the $70 meals I've enjoyed at fine-dining spots), my parents would actually think I'm a bit crazy to spend even $40 on a meal like this, since you can make all these dishes at home - or just go to my parents' to enjoy it for free.

But Echizen will become my nearby home away from home, when I crave those comfort foods that I don't have the time to make myself. And knowing I can get those dishes executed perfectly with high-quality ingredients, and order whatever I want, is all priceless.

Echizen Japanese Restaurant, 9111 Valley View St., Ste 113, Cypress, CA, 90630.
(714) 828-2155

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