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My Site: Day 59: Japan

My Site

 
 

Day 59: Japan

Oh, the Japanese. Only in Japan do delicate refinement and absurd passion balance in such stark opposition. It’s a country where you can meditate alongside a beautifully still Buddhist temple after a lunch of subtle raw fish, then go home, take your shoes off, eat a bowl of curry spaghetti and watch game shows that make “American Gladiators” look like “This American Life”. Simultaneously presented as a stereotype of both quiet humility and mad science, Japan has one of those most exciting, addictive and confounding cultures on the entire planet. So where should such a daunting day of cultural understanding begin? Luckily the mysterious and famed food blogger, ExileKiss, has agreed to join me all day as I get ready to eat what promises to be some of the best food of the whole Personal Food Project in Blog Form thus far.


It begins simply, at a soba (buckwheat noodle) house in Torrance— Ichimiann. Coming along for the first few legs of our Japanese journey is “Danielle”, a regular Chowhound poster and one who is more than a little eager to meet ExileKiss, the human behind the food blogging myth. She has brought a friend with her from back home and I’m also accompanied by our resident and committed foodventurer, Mr. Meatball, as well as our friend Shana. We all pack into the tiny soba house, which is tucked away on a small side street but is already bustling with eager soba slurpers as ExileKiss tells us about the chefs here who wake up every morning and make their noodles by hand. The restaurant has a diagram up front, telling you to follow a circular path, checking the menu first, then ordering, then taking advantage of their complimentary hot or cold tea. They also have soba water, which is the starchy water that has been reserved after cooking the noodles. This, ExileKiss points out, is for adding to the condensed cold noodle sauce after you’ve finished eating, making it more diluted and drinkable.



We place our orders and stake our claim at a long bar at the side of the restaurant. It’s not long until a variety of noodle and rice dishes slide in front of us, immediately making me happy to be alive. Soba traditionally comes either cold or hot and the noodles here can be ordered thin or thick. I suck the hot tororo (Japanese yam) soba with thin noodles into my mouth, slurping loudly, then chewing and quickly feeling like I’m only now having soba for the first time in my life. In Japan, soba is a delicate dish which takes a true master to be able to prepare properly— often giving expert soba chefs just as high a distinction as any sushi chef. The texture of these noodles and the true taste of buckwheat are what make the soba of my past experiences so inferior. Tender, delicately chewy and, like with true Italian food, the noodle is the star. The broth or sauce is an accessory— a condimento. The tororo soba is the most basic form, and we all rotate bowls, trying the next variety. Fish cake and ginger with thick noodles is also excellent, but the noodles are softer and not nearly as exciting to me. The accent of the ginger in the broth, however, is a real treat. It is the mentai oroshi, meanwhile, a cold noodle dish with cod roe and thin noodles that will have me coming back here every chance I get. The temperature really brings out the true constitution of the noodles, allowing them to exist in an unadulterated form, but the cod roe is a strong enough accent to really add something to the flavors without getting dominated or leaving the noodles in its wake.

Cold noodles are generally my preference, especially when made with such excellence, and I’m floored once again when I have the opportunity to try the cold soba with ume, their superbly tart, house made pickled plum, which brings a welcome acidity to the equation. Then, just in case we weren’t going to be eating enough food today, we all pass around a bowl of oyakodon— a chicken and rice bowl with onion, egg and pickled ginger. It puts to shame the diner equivalent versions I’ve had previously, and really comes out of its shell with a sprinkle of dried chili. A sample of ExileKiss’s unadon (eel and rice bowl) is an especially great counter point to the cold soba, offering a dark, nutty contrast.




I’m craving more, but know we have a lot of eating ahead of us, so decide we’d better move on to the next phase. “Danielle” has now officially reached groupie status with ExileKiss , making me feel immediately inferior as a Personal Food Project in Blog Form writer, as she waits with perked ears to hear this person’s thoughts on various food purveying establishments across our fine city. We wander just a few blocks away to the massive Mitsuwa marketplace, an all-purpose Japanese market that could bitch slap most Whole Foods into submission. There is, conveniently, a sweets fair going on today with rare imported sweets which don’t usually surface here in the states. Our caravan staggers its way to the parking lot and I find myself wandering aimlessly, trying to find all the members of my group. When I discover Mr. Meatball and Shana, the former has already purchased a solar powered toy depicting a frog reading a book on a toilet. I feel like the phrase “Oh, Japan…” will enter into my thoughts a lot today. “Danielle” and her friend come inside and we eventually find ExileKiss, who is wielding a sweets fair catalog with breakdowns of all the imported goods.





We all make some purchases, then ExileKiss excitedly leads the way to a tea stall, ordering us all the frothy and thick, iced macha green teas (macha is the powdered form of green tea, which is very highly regarded and much more rare in the U.S.). In my experience, people are usually either extremely reluctant to call something “The best ______ I’ve ever had in my life” or on the other side, throw it around too readily. But I think for a moment and can’t remember ever really being blown away by an iced tea until now, and I do love green tea, so calling this the best iced tea I’ve ever had in my life is an extremely simple decision. The dark green color of the macha really makes you understand that the stuff you get at Starbucks is basically just caffeinated piss water. We try to give ExileKiss some money, but are rebuffed with a a simple “No, no. They’re just beverages.”





We find a table at the wooden seating area of the food court and start laying out and unwrapping our sweets. Little fluffy cakes that are roughly the shape of a twinkie, but with a creamy and light strawberry custard inside, are The Hostess snack company’s wet dream. I take a bite of fruity jellies that actually taste like, can it be…fruit? Hey, why doesn’t my candy have the subtle nuanced flavor of “laboratory”? Where’s my yellow dye number five? A huge disappointment, as I was really hoping to eventually experience total pituitary shut down. Oh well. Japanese inventiveness comes into play next as we take out an apple dessert the size of the softball, but with the weight of two of them. The apple pie inspired crust surrounding the treat is wrapped up in that foam netting that’s used to protect pear apples and I do my best to slice the heavy treat in half with the handle of a plastic fork. Once dissected, the interior section reveals a baked apple, skin and all, but where once there was a core, now there is a sweetened apple pulp. We attempt to cut segments, but decide we’re much better off just taking big bites. Like the end of a juicy pork chop, some things are better off simply gnawed on with your hands. The strange apple creation tastes like the fusion of an apple pie and a baked apple— two very similar but still distinctly different things.





We chew skewered balls of super glutinous rice with a sweet teriyaki glaze, but my eyes begin to turn toward a food stand called Italian Tomato. Like a seductive siren that preys on my Italian food upbringing, I have no choice but to sample the Japanese take on my childhood cuisine. I’ve noticed for quite some time that Japanese markets sell the country’s own brands of spaghetti, but at five dollars a pound, I always wind up backing out. But now I’m going to give an order of the stuff a try. A bowl of mentaiko (spicy cod fish roe) spaghetti garnished with dried seaweed and served with a side of pre-buttered bread is advertised as today’s special, and in the Japanese custom, it is available for your viewing pleasure in the form of a plastic model re-creation set out front. The real thing eventually comes and I bring it back to a table full of skeptical eyes. I take the first bite. The noodles are chewier than their Italian counter parts, similar to what spaghetti looks like when it’s eaten in a cartoon. But it’s creamy, fishy and really a lot of fun. As Mr. Meatball points out “If any country can re-appropriate other people’s things and make it their own, it’s the Japanese.” ExileKiss agrees, adding that “It really works in its own weird way.” I conclude, in the end, that it’s probably better than forty percent of the Italian food served in Los Angeles and I would certainly rather eat here than at Sbarro or The Olive Garden.


Completely full, our group wanders through the grocery section of the market, even coming upon ExileKiss’s “favorite Engrish”, packaged, sweet dairy filled cracker rolls called “cream collon”. We pass some uncomfortably bright red beef meant for sukiyaki, a huge assortment of pre made lunches, produce, frozen goods, beers and wines before the group starts to break off. “Danielle” leaves with her friend, Shana goes to meet up with her sister— and I could use some quality alone time with the inside of a bathroom stall. The next phase of the day is supposed to be okonomiyaki , the everything-goes-pancake creation which originated in Osaka, but they don’t open until 5:30, so we’ve got a good hour and a half to kill, even after my porcelain siesta. ExileKiss informs us that there is a pastry shop right next door to the okonomiyaki place, which has not yet been tried, but is reputed to have cream puffs which are even better than the very popular ones from Beard Papa. I don’t exactly need more sweets, but a nice place to sit down, have a light snack (but oh God, I’m so full…) and a cup of tea sounds like a pretty good option, so ExileKiss leads the way and we continue our forward momentum, running to our cars through the very Japan appropriate rain which has just begun falling rather heavily.



We arrive at Pâtisserie Chantilly in Lomita, a Japanese twist on a French pastry shop and enter into their world of clean, white minimalism. The three of us sit down to green tea and a trio of cream puffs. “These are lighter than Beard Papa’s and less sweet,” says Mr. Meatball. “They are the the opposite of heavy.” ExileKiss nods in agreement and we all conclude that the original, with plain cream filling is the best. The chocolate is pleasant, but a little rich, and the sesame is just plain overwhelming. Our Japanese food battle of delicate versus playful rages on, with this course certainly falling into the “delicate” category. We continue chatting as we sip light, mellow green tea (though Meatball has opted for espresso) and continue to be amazed by the delightful being that is ExileKiss. I would give more information as to what this person is like, but that information, sadly, is highly classified. Though I have been considering just telling everyone that ExileKiss is actually Jennifer Aniston, but that she wanted her food blogging to be rated on its merit, rather than her celebrity. Or maybe I’m just pretending that I was “considering” it, and figured that this is the only way to tell you who ExileKiss really is without enraging Jennifer and/or her publicist. So is ExileKiss really Jennifer Aniston? Well I’m not saying that she isn’t. So let’s just leave it at that.




The 5:30 mark has arrived and we step right next door over to Gaja Moc, the restaurant often referred to as the only place in Los Angeles to get really good okonomiyaki. A television pointing to the parking lot shows a constant loop of a hilarious okonomiyaki infomercial (“Cook yourself!”), as if people would be walking past this strip mall parking lot and suddenly be persuaded to step in for a meal because of it. This battered mass of just about anything you could possibly want (the food literally translates as “what you want, cooked”), fried into a crispy pancake has been the extreme craving of Mr. Meatball since long before Man Bites World came into existence. So we three committed Japanese eaters sit down at the table, which has a big griddle in the middle where we will be handling our okonomiyaki preparation, and ExileKiss shows us the different varieties (presented on menus with burn marks all over them). There is Hiroshima style (layered, usually with noodles added and one of the larger versions), Monjayaki (Tokyo style, and more on the runny side) and the more traditional Kansai (Osaka style). We decide to go with the modern Kansai, which incorporates some of the more popular things from Hiroshima, such as noodles, and get it with beef, pork belly, shrimp, squid, pickled ginger and of course, the batter.





A pitcher of beer (it is beer drinking food after all) and more green tea arrives, followed by our bowl of uncooked ingredients. We allow ExileKiss to do the honors, and once the griddle is hot enough, start cooking the meat and seafood. Once it’s close to completion, half of the batter is dropped down on the other end of the griddle and left alone to get a crispy crust. The noodles are cooked up with the meats and seafood, then tossed on top of the batter. This is where patience becomes essential. If you get antsy and start trying to do too much, you’ll ruin the crust. Once it’s gotten good, the rest of the batter is poured on, then with as much skill as can possibly be mustered, the whole thing is flipped over and— if you’re lucky— you’ve got a perfectly flipped okonomiyaki. More patience is then required as the other side is given its appropriate time for crusty goodness.




Finally, it’s time to move on to the next phase. I’m still not hungry, but this stuff smells really darn good. It’s flipped one more time and now has a beautiful crust going. ExileKiss adds okonomiyaki sauce (often described as similar to a thick, sweet Worcestershire sauce), some dried blue seaweed and Japanese mayonnaise, then cuts it into equal portions and drops it on each of our plates. I slice my fork through the brown crust, into the creamy, gooey insides and slide a bite into my mouth. Anyone who doesn’t like this stuff is an idiot. That’s all there is to it. Anything this crispy is basically good all by itself, but when you add all the other components and the smooth interior filled with chunks of things that are tasty on their own as well, what can possibly go wrong? It disappears all too quickly and the whole day is making me seriously start wondering why I shouldn’t abandon my friends and family and just move to South Bay.

We’ve been out and about for quite some time now and don’t really need any more food. But how could this day be complete without a big group of friends and some Saturday night drinking, Japanese style? FuRaiBo in West L.A. (on the strip of Sawtelle referred to as Little Osaka), a chain restaurant in Japan with cheap pitchers and a quality comparable to, say, Applebee’s, is walking distance from Mr. Meatball’s house, so we take a sizable downgrade on the tastiness front for the sake of convenience and all meet up at Casa Meatball for a moment of downtime and a little Nintendo Wii. Now, all of my friends who are too lazy to drive 25 minutes to eat some of the best Japanese food they’ll have ever had in their lives, are all very excited to come join us at the place they’ve all eaten multiple times before. But such is life. We arrive at the restaurant, but find that there is an hour wait, so we put our name down and pop over to Karaoke Bleu for some drinks and comedic atmosphere. Karaoke Bleu has been a place of much confusion for my friends and me over the years. It’s actually a legal smoking bar (for reasons listed on a large sign on the wall, which include ventilation, no cash bar and volunteer waitresses), the servers are very attractive, but seem like they might be prostitutes, there always seems to be a bouncer out front, no matter how empty it is inside, they serve cold sake in a large tumbler filled all the way to the top, but skimp mightily on mixed drinks and there is a sign on the stage which actually says “No Dancing”. GirlfriendBites, who has been busy working all day (the one downside of self employment is that you often end up working on weekends), has joined us, and we all drink the aforementioned cold sake and bottles of Sapporo, while GFB makes her way up to the stage to sing “A Fine Romance”, but suffers the all too familiar karaoke pitfall of “I had no idea this song had four hundred and fifty three verses.” (Don’t ever try to sing “The Hokey Pokey” at a karaoke bar. Just trust me on that one.)





In what seems like no time at all, our two adjacent but separate tables are ready, so we quickly down our drinks and head next door. The night at my table escalates with pitchers of beer and ExileKiss ordering a bottle of sake bigger than the heads of Barry Bonds and Humphrey Bogart put together. I feel like every time I think I have a chance to catch my breath, ExileKiss yells “Kampai!” (the Japanese version of “cheers”) and everyone raises a glass and downs more sake. Somehow I feel like I keep getting prodded into drinking more than anyone else. My guilty pleasure of hanpen cheese arrives— fish cakes wrapped in seaweed, deep fried, filled with Kraft singles and dipped into a light brown sauce— then the salty, beer balancing equivalent of a McDonald’s filet-o-fish vanishes just as quickly as it appeared. Messy, tasty sauteed beef tongue with spicy mustard, a simple ground chicken and rice bowl, fried wings, the hangover-rescuing red snapper and kimchee soup and chicken hearts all get devoured. The beer and sake is eventually finished off, and in true Japanese businessman fashion, I am legitimately drunk. Somehow, ExileKiss decides to continue being the nicest human being on the planet and goes about buying everyone at our table dinner.

We had originally planned to return to Karaoke Bleu, but our group has grown rather large and more people are on the way, so GFB and I decide to move the traveling party to our apartment. GFB, the responsible designated driver, leads the way and we eventually make it back to Culver City, but not before I convince ExileKiss to leave insulting messages in Japanese on the voice mails of my friends who live in New York and who weren’t respectful enough to answer their phones at 4 AM east coast time. Whatever, losers. (Does this mean ExileKiss is Japanese? Or maybe ExileKiss is Indian and just happen to speak Japanese. Or maybe ExileKiss can just do everything.) “Danielle” returns, now with folk hero Jason Bernstein, along with a growing group of happy comrades. But with all due respect to Jason Bernstein, the real hero of the night is ExileKiss, who puts my friends and I to shame with tremendous knowledge, vibrant enthusiasm, impressive humility and a genuine personification of true and absolute goodness. ExileKiss took our Japanese outing and elevated it to greatness, which I continue to think about and appreciate as my friends and I relax, chatting our way into the wee hours of the night. This was, to be sure, one hell of a day. Now when is this project ending so I can go back to Torrance for dinner?

Ichimiann
1618 Cravens Ave
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 328-1323

Food Breakdown: 6 soba dishes, 3 rice bowls
Price: $24 (for the 3 soba dishes and 1 rice bowl ordered by Meatball, Shana and me)
Distance From My House: 17.8 miles

Mitsuwa Marketplace
21515 S Western Ave
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 782-0335

Food Breakdown: 6 iced green teas, a plethora of sweets
Price: A total mystery, lost in the shuffle
Distance From My House: 17.4 miles

Italian Tomato
21515 S Western Ave
Torrance, CA 90501
(310) 782-0335

Food Breakdown: 1 entree
Price: $7
Distance From My House: 17.4 miles

Pâtisserie Chantilly
2383 Lomita Blvd
Lomita, CA 90717
(310) 257-9454

Food Breakdown: 3 caffeinated beverages, 3 pastries
Price: $17
Distance From My House: 18.7 miles

Gaja Moc
2383 Lomita Blvd
Lomita, CA 90717
(310) 257-9454

Food Breakdown: 1 okonomiyaki, 1 pitcher of beer
Price: $32
Distance From My House: 18.7 miles

Karaoke Bleu
2064 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-4794

Food Breakdown: 2 bowls of crackers, 6 cold sakes, 4 large Sapporos
Price: Another one lost in the shuffle
Distance From My House: 3.6 miles

FuRaiBo
2068 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 444-1432

Food Breakdown: 2 pitchers of beer, 1 enormous bottle of sake, 5 dishes
Price: No clue, with special thanks to ExileKiss
Distance From My House: 3.6 miles

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Comments

  1. mamabites · Nov 04, 12:33 PM

    Wow. I’m so sorry that I didn’t make it as promised! I really missed out on a great night. It’s funny that both you and Jason (growing up on my Italian cooking) always wanted to be taken out for Japanese food on your birthdays! I can’t wait to try Ichimann. ExileKiss, I’ve enjoyed your commets very much and sorry I missed your expertise. I’m glad Noah took good notes!

  2. Mr. Meatballs · Nov 04, 01:30 PM

    This was a really amazing day to be a part of. So much fun, so much great food, and a total revelation that the South Bay isn’t just another armpit area of LA. This post would be perfect if it wasn’t for the single worst picture of me ever taken. In all honesty, I’d sort of like it taken down. Or at least give me a chance to doctor it.

  3. Noah · Nov 04, 02:02 PM

    Picture replaced. You sound like my mom.

  4. ExileKiss · Nov 04, 02:21 PM

    Hi Noah,

    It was great meeting you, Mr. Meatball, “Danielle”, GFB, Shana, folk hero Jason Bernstein, and everyone else who’s handles I’ve forgotten (forgive me). :) It was a blast partaking in your culinary journey to different countries; and I only wish we could’ve sampled more great Japanese restaurants. Next time, for sure! :)

    Your journey has provided so many interesting discoveries for me; I can’t wait to see what country you try next. :)

  5. H.C. · Nov 04, 02:38 PM

    Wow you hit quite a few of my favorite Japanese places! Glad you had a wonderful time discovering Torrance & Sawtelle strip eats — and I’m sure you can return for dinner before your project concludes (do a breakfast/lunch worldly meal?) ;)

  6. mamabites · Nov 04, 03:32 PM

    Hey, that wasn’t me that said it was “the worst picture of me ever taken”- and had you take it down……that was TVGSM. Although, I think MOST of my pictures fall in that category!

  7. ExileKiss · Nov 05, 12:31 AM

    Hi Noah,

    I also forgot to mention: (As they say in Nihongo) ie ie sonna koto nai desu! You give me too much credit. It was an honor to hang out with the Man Bites World crew. :)

  8. ExileKiss · Nov 05, 02:23 PM

    Hi mamabites,

    Thank you for your compliment; I felt like it was more of me learning about life and the world from Noah on that day. :)

  9. Abba · Nov 07, 10:23 AM

    What a spectacular day! I’m super envious – not just because of all the wonderful food but because you all got to meet the lovely and highly impressive ExileKiss. You guys did Japan proud!

  10. Hungry Grace · Nov 08, 10:38 AM

    i am a new stalker thanks to good ol trusty thrillist. so glad you found Gaja! i’ll be looking forward to going through all your entries. i may be salivating at an exponential rate at work though. and that may not be pretty…

  11. Noah · Nov 08, 10:39 AM

    Hey, Grace! Thanks for checking us out!

  12. Shawn · Nov 08, 09:13 PM

    Noah,
    Great writing, really enjoyed your Japanese food world outing and as ExileKiss mentioned there is so much more to discover and enjoy in the world of Japanese food. Try to check out my favorite Noodle spot also in the South Bay ( Gardena ) Otafuku Noodle House on Western Ave. Also hope you’ll venture into Yakitori and Yakiniku. Did you do palestine yet? Looking forward to more exciting outings.

  13. Bex · Nov 11, 10:19 AM

    When in Japan for a few weeks last spring, I somehow managed to eat Okonomiyaki 5 times in 5 days it was THAT good. I cannot wait to get out and get some at Gaja Moc, as I have been making my own variation in the comfort of my kitchen, but it just isn’t the same as sitting back at a restaurant and relaxing to a giant bottle of Sapporo and slathering that delectable sauce (which also comes in a “spicy” variety!) and chowing down. God I miss Japan.

  14. Brad · Nov 15, 06:23 PM

    I don’t read for a few days and this is what I miss? I live in the South Bay and have several friends in Gardena/Torrance who I consider “in the know” and you’ve successfully blown our collective minds. If only you had gotten some Hakata Ramen from Shin Sen Gumi…..

  15. ila · Nov 20, 11:01 PM

    holy crap, all this in one day? you’ve hit all the major favorites! next time, you should also visit tama-en bbq, off of PCH in lomita. exquisite meats, mmmhm.