Katsu at J Curry

There is a small Japanese curry stand located on the basement level of the UBC II Building at the mouth of Soi Sukhumvit 33. Outdoors, directly across from the entrance to the Londoner Pub, the J Curry shop is impossible to see when you pass by on the street level. Nonetheless, its excellent homemade curry is worth seeking out.

Made from ground spices, apples, and other fresh ingredients, the curry is tangy and sweet and loaded with antioxidants and vitamins. Combined with your favorite vegetables, some protein (I love their breaded lean pork cutlet, or katsu), a scoop of Japanese rice, and a small portion of pickles, the curry makes for a healthy and satisfying lunch. How they manage to stay in business with such lack of visibility is a mystery, but I’m glad they do!

Breakfast and Lunch in Honolulu

One corner of Honolulu that we found ourselves returning to throughout our two-day visit was Kapahulu Avenue. This neighborhood runs from the north side of the Honolulu Zoo (which is at the south end of Waikiki) to the H1 freeway near Chaminade University of Honolulu. The approximately two-kilometer distance is gentrifying nicely, with lots of long-time shops rubbing shoulders with a new Safeway supermarket. On our visits there, we ate a breakfast and a dinner.

 

Breakfast: Sweet E’s Cafe

P1010550

Located in a small shopping complex kind of hidden off Kapahulu Avenue near the H1 freeway, Sweet E’s Cafe is one of the higher-rated breakfast places on Yelp.com. To be certain, I take Yelp reviews with a few large grains of salt. That said, it looked like a good bet for a decent Saturday breakfast before we started driving around the island. 

P1010557

Arriving early, we found the dining room less than half full. From the reviews, I get the impression that the restaurant is very crowded later in the morning. The interior is pleasant and the servers were helpful, if not exactly warm.

P1010569

Poached eggs with Kalua pork. My big beef with lots of places is that their poached eggs are overcooked. This time, the problem was that the eggs were undercooked. In my mind, the perfect poached egg has solid but not rubbery whites, with runny yolks. When I cut into the first egg, the whites were still watery inside. It was right on the line between “worth sending them back” and “not worth sending them back,” so I didn’t. As the watery whites soaked my English muffins, though, I regretted my decision. The pork and the sauce were tasty, so points there, but the potatoes were bland and would have benefitted from some herbs or spices.

P1010577

Tawn ordered a basic waffle with maple syrup. It was pleasantly crisp, cooked to just the right point.

P1010585

We also ordered French toast stuffed with cream cheese and blueberries. The toast itself was nicely done but the blueberries inside the toast were tough, leading me to conclude that they use frozen blueberries for the stuffing and only place fresh berries as garnish for the plate.

Overall conclusion: Sweet E’s didn’t show such a sweet face for us, at least as far as quality. It has the potential to be very good and if we lived there, we would give it another chance to redeem itself. But if you are just visiting, I would suggest you search out Boot’s & Kimo’s in Kailua.

 

Dinner: Sam’s Kitchen

On Friday evening, we found ourselves looking for a tasty dinner that didn’t involve a lot of expense or effort on our part. Turning to Yelp.com, I searched for “cheap seafood dinner” in Honolulu. Sure, that’s probably the last place you want to eat – somewhere serving cheap seafood – but we got a result whose high ratings were accompanied by thoughtful reviews: Sam’s Kitchen.

P1210843

Located on Kapahulu Avenue right across from a new Safeway shopping center, Sam’s has a slightly retro dive bar appearance. When we arrived about 8:00, we were charmed by its exterior but baffled (and slightly worried) by its almost vacant state.

P1210832

We entered and found only a half-dozen customers (if that) listening to live Hawaiian music. I felt a little conspicuous walking in during their performance – after all, it wasn’t like we could sneak in unnoticed. The lady behind the counter was welcoming, though, so we figured out the menu and placed our order.

P1210836

Sam’s is about as “Hawaiian” as you can get, a fusion of flavors that represent the different cultures that make up the local population. There is a heavy Japanese bent (and it seems that their original Waikiki location is wildly popular with Japanese guide books), but other cultures are represented, too. Dishes are mostly either rice bowls or bento boxes and their garlic sauce is apparently “famous.”

P1210839

Tawn tried the spicy garlic shrimp rice plate, which came with a salad and a half-ear of corn. This was good food – the shrimp is tender and sweet and the garlic packed a punch – and stayed with us for the next day.

P1210838

I had the fried mahi mahi with macadamia nuts. The fish was very fresh, lightly breaded, and the sauce was tasty. Both dishes were simple, inexpensive, huge, and excellent. So much so that on Saturday night, our second and final night on Oahu, we decided to visit Sam’s again.

P1210869

This time we stopped at the original location on Royal Hawaiian Avenue in Waikiki. This location is take-out only, although it does offer some self-service tables if you can’t wait to get back home to eat. The menu is the same and the customers were mostly Japanese.

P1210879 P1210877

Tawn ordered a combo plate (left) with the same two items we had the night before, but half a portion each. On the right, I ordered a garlic steak plate. The steak was tasty, although pretty tough.

P1210875

With two small bottles of wine from the convenience store downstairs, we celebrated our last night on Oahu with a sunset dinner on our balcony.

 

Food in LA – Musha in Torrance

About two years ago, Gary and William took me to the Santa Monica branch of Musha, a Japanese izakaya, or small plates, restaurant.  They have another branch a few miles south in Torrance and I took the opportunity during our June visit to Los Angeles to take Tawn there.  It remains a satisfying place to dine.

An izakaya is a drinking establishment that, in the same way that Spanish bars serve tapas, provides small plates of food to patrons to accompany their drinks, encouraging them (or, perhaps, enabling them) to drink longer.  After all, you can’t continue to sell drinks to someone who has passed out and a little food in the stomach delays or prevents that happening.

P1130755

While at first Torrance may seem an unlikely location, the city is home to many Japanese businesses, including Toyota’s North America headquarters.  As such, there are countless restaurants and other services geared towards the many Japanese who live and work in the area.  Musha is located in a strip mall on the northwest corner of Carson Street and Western Avenue.  With its dark green awning, the building could just as easily house a Starbucks.

P1130750

The restaurant is a small space with a large table running down the center.  Smaller tables line the walls and on the left is counter seating facing one of the two kitchen areas.  The interior is a cozy and several fans are running to dissipate fumes from the grill-your-own dishes that are on the menu.

P1130718

We opted for the counter, giving us a good view of the action in the kitchen and a tempting view of plates and bowls full of some of the previously prepared foods that we could order.  It took a lot of will power to not help ourselves.

P1130721

A must-order item is the Aburi Shimesaba.  The description on the menu, complete with spelling errors that seem to authenticate the Japanese ownership of this restaurant, is as follows: “New creation from the great chef of Musha!!  Fresh mackerelmarinated with rice vinegar, sliced like a sashimi then torched at your table.  Try the taste of “Holly Mackerel !!”

P1130729

While I’ll avoid speculation about the holly mackerel, I will say that this is a wonderfully complex dish made of only the simplest of ingredients.  The rice vinegar helps to cook the fish in a ceviche-like way.  It adds a sweetness to an otherwise fishy tasting flesh.  Then the torching give the skin a crispy texture with caramel flavors.  To top it off, the banana leaf on which the fish is placed starts to char a bit so you get the smoky fruit aroma.  While the dish is really only two ingredients – fish and vinegar – the flavor is multi-layered and complex.

P1130733

The second dish was the lobster roll, a riceless bit of sushi that uses a thin springroll wrapper instead of seaweed filled with lobster and cucumber.  Very tasty.

P1130737

One of my favorite dishes is the spicy tuna dip served with rice crackers.  The name pretty much describes what it is, but doesn’t have any superlatives that convey how tasty this dip is.  Might I suggest something like, One of the Tastiest Things You Will Ever Scoop with a Cracker?

P1130743

Another Musha signature dish is the Takotama.  This is their take on okonomiyaki, a “Japanese style pancake”.  In the case of Takotama, you have the two-layered omelette (pictured sitting on the counter above) with chopped octopus, Tokyo leek, red ginger, bonito flakes, chives, and nori seaweed.  The sauce is a thick, sweet sauce topped with mayonnaise.

P1130747

To finish we had a plate of Typhoon Char Han, a spicy fried rice prepared with ground pork, chili, bamboo shoot, ginger, garlic, and Tokyo leek.  Tasty and filling.

P1130753

Stuffed and running out of time to head to LAX and pick up my sister and her family, we skipped dessert, cleansing out palettes with the complimentary salted plum tea.

All in all, I think Musha offers tasty food at a fair price.  Like all “small plates” restaurants, you have to watch out because the bill can rapidly increase.  That isn’t a matter of the prices being high; instead, it is a matter of ordering more food than you really need.  If you are in the South Bay part of Los Angeles, or in Santa Monica, a stop at Musha would be worth your while.

 

Katsu Set Lunch

Okay, since I did a long, thoughtful, political analysis as yesterday’s post, I just need to write about something fun and easy: lunch.  Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy Japanese food?  It’s healthy, balanced, attentively prepared, and artfully presented.

Japanese make up our largest group of foreigners living here in Thailand, which isn’t so surprising when you trace history back to Japan’s invasion (note: they didn’t colonize, it was just an invasion!*) of Siam in World War II.  They have had a close relationship ever since.

Because of the large presence of Japanese, we enjoy an abundance of good and affordable Japanese restaurants.  The other day I stopped at one for this set lunch:

P1080378

Working clockwise from the upper left: Katsu – pork loin breaded in Japanese-style breadcrumbs served with a salad of shredded cabbage and sesame dressing; a boiled egg custard (savory); stewed vegetables and chicken; another small salad; miso soup; pickled radish; steamed rice; and katsu dipping sauce in the center.

All this for 230 baht, about US$7.00.  For Bangkok, that’s a relatively pricey lunch but it was still a very good value in my eyes.

*As for the asterisk, the Thais are very proud that their country has never been colonized by a foreign power and this is drilled into young Thais’ heads from the earliest age.  Is it true?  Well, you have to add some caveats: Significant portions of the Kingdom of Siam (as Thailand was formerly known) were ceded to foreign powers to avoid a war or potential colonization.  Also, Japan occupied Siam during World War II, ostensibly at the “invitation” of its government.  An invitation at the point of a sword, if you will.  So if you set aside those exceptions, then Siam/Thailand has indeed never been colonized.

 

Ootoya: oishi des ne?

P1060345 I love Thai food and one of the great things about living in Thailand is – no surprise here – there is no shortage of great, inexpensive Thai food. 

If Khrungthep is the Mt. Olympus of Thailand then Thai food is our ambrosia and, ignoring the obvious question of who the gods and goddesses are, blended fresh watermelon juice must be our nectar. 

Even with that plethora of good Thai food, from time to time I still want to eat something else.  Just as when I lived in San Francisco I didn’t eat American food all the time so, too, here in Thailand I like to travel around visiting the different huts in the global culinary village.

One of my favorite huts to stop by is the one run by Ootoya, a Japanese chain that specializes in teishoku, or set meals, comprised of a protein, bowl of rice, miso soup, and a plate of pickles.  Ootoya doesn’t do sushi and is largely about grilled items.  The food is fresh, portions generous but not overwhelming, and the ingredients healthy.  Below: Examples of Ootoya’s teishoku, grilled hamburger with onion sauce on the left and grilled saba (mackerel) on the right.

P1060342  P1060344

There are plenty of locations throughout the city, especially in the mid-Sukhumvit area where there are a lot of Japanese expats.

P1060350 One other nice thing is that Ootoya updates its menu regularly.  There are a lot of “spring specials” on the menu, even though the seasons here don’t quite correspond with the seasons in Japan.  It is just nice that we get to see a wide variety of dishes.  One of their winter specials was baked then grilled slices of daikon radish served with a fermented red bean sauce.  So tasty!  Very simple combination but tremendously satisfying.

For spring we have fresh steamed vegetables, served in a steaming basket and sterno stove at your table.  Unfortunately, it takes practically the whole meal for the veggies to get tender!  Short video segment below.

 

P1060258 In other news, we had a brief visit from our friend Tomas recently, right.  Tomas and his partner Jose moved a few years ago from Houston to London and after a short return to the United States are back in London. 

Tomas was here at a conference and fortunately could make the time to meet for dinner at Curries and More followed by some drinks at the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

Don’t think that Tawn and I aren’t interesting in accepting their invitation to stay with them on our next visit to London.  Prices being what they are in the British Isles and the dollar’s value being what it is, we’ll certainly take the offer of lodging especially when it comes with a generous serving of Tomas and Jose’s warm hospitality!