Sakura Japanese Restaurant – Del Rey, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

One of the best parts of living in LA is that there are just so many dining options it would be nearly impossible to eat at them all. In an effort to explore our immediate surrounding neighborhood (yes, we have lived here for over two years and still haven’t tried everything), we decided to have an impromptu date night at a local favorite – Sakura Japanese Restaurant.

A bit stunned by AP (analysis paralysis), we asked our sushi chef if he could arrange an omakase for us with a modest budget of $60. He said sure and put on his number-crunching thinking cap. Martin pointed out that he seemed relieved to see a change of pace from the many veggie rolls we had seen him assemble in just the short time we had been sitting at the counter. This is the progression he created:

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Yellowtail (hamachi) – A sushi staple, this piece of hamachi spoke volumes of the quality of the meal ahead. The neta (the slice of fish atop nigiri) was a generous portion in all its dimensions.

Blue fin tuna (maguro) – Far from the generic dull-red fish we find at cheap sushi places, the blue fin tuna here was gorgeous, tender, and just wonderful.

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Monkfish Liver (ankimo) – I love ankimo but every other time we have had it, it was served gunkanmaki-style (mashed into a paste and scooped atop a mound of rice that had been wrapped in seaweed to form an oval-shaped vessel, like uni or ikura nigiri). This was the first time we’ve ever tried it in its most pure form — large fatty morsels simply garnished with scallions and ponzu and served with a sunomono-style salad of cucumbers, seaweed, and strings of daikon. Decadent and a steal at $8!

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Albacore (shiro maguro) – Definitely not to be missed, this albacore was served in its typical style with ponzu, scallions, and a hint of garlic. The fish melted in our mouths!

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Halibut (hirame) – A mild white fish that has a firmer, slightly chewy texture, it is always interesting to have sashimi-grade versions of fish that are more frequently served cooked.

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Spanish Mackerel (aji) – The most mild mackerel I’ve ever had, not a single hint of oily fishiness that usually comes with aji or saba. Beautiful!

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Sea Urchin (uni) – Super creamy and smooth, this Santa Barbara delicacy was among the best we’ve had at any sushi restaurant.

As many others have mentioned before us, Sakura Japanese Restaurant is a hidden gem on the mini restaurant row of Centinela Avenue of our humble piece of the Westside and we’re happy to have finally tried it for ourselves.

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Check out Sakura Japanese Restaurant:

4545 South Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90066

See their Yelp reviews here!

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Food Pic Friday: Sushi Central (Re-visited)

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

First, a personal update for NomNomCat Readers (if you’re just looking for drool-worthy photos on this Food Porn Friday, scroll past this paragraph): WE’RE BACK! Our deepest apologies for our three month long hiatus. For those who are interested, here’s the reason for it — as you may well know, life offline can get in the way of blogging. And boy has 2014 already been a crazy adventure… With this food blog about to celebrate its third birthday, it should come as no surprise that food is a huge passion in our lives. So much so, in fact, that I decided to change my career trajectory to the culinary arts; I currently work in a professional kitchen as a line cook, having jumped head-first into Kitchen Life. Working sixty hours a week in a physically strenuous, mentally challenging, and emotionally stressful environment leaves little time to sit down and write about the latest LA hot spots three times a week like we did before. But I still love to write, and I sincerely missed this forum for communicating my (and our) love for celebrating life through eating and cooking. And so I make this promise to come back with new content once a week. The format will likely be different though; gone are the days of 1,000-word entries. Instead, the focus will likely shift to local food news and events, photos from new and new-to-us dining experiences, and, if we can manage it, make-at-home recipes now and then. Thank you all for your understanding and support these past (almost) three years! We’ll definitely have to do something fun for our blogiversary!

And now for the food.

Back in 2012, my bff S and I celebrated her birthday with affordable but delicious omakase at a tiny hole-in-the-wall in Palms (West Los Angeles): Sushi Central. The sheer variety and quality of the fish and the expertise of Chef Phillip Yi behind the counter blew away all of my preconceived notions about strip mall sushi. Recently, Martin had a sudden and insatiable sushi craving and we decided to pay a visit to this neighborhood gem.

Maguro (Tuna) Sashimi

Maguro (Tuna) Sashimi

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IMG_0705Forgive me, I generally pride myself on being able to remember details about my dishes, but this dinner took place back in March and I have since forgotten which fish above is which. I believe they were halibut, snapper, and sea bream (not necessarily in that order) but please let me know if YOU happen to know and I will happily edit this entry.

Ono (Escolar)

Ono (Escolar), super juicy with a smoky char from being oh-so-briefly torched.

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Liver(?) from the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Liver(?) from the Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)

Amaebi (Live Sweet Shrimp)

Broth made from the shells of the amaebi

Broth made from the shells of the amaebi

Crispy Fried Amaebi Heads

Crispy Fried Amaebi Heads

Sushi Central offers my all-time favorite amaebi preparation and I say that with full confidence. Where else could you get a tasty shooter, an umami-rich broth, a well-seasoned piece of nigiri, and a crispy fried head all from one little shrimp? Chef Phillip puts forth a great deal of effort to showcase the beauty that is amaebi and it is certainly appreciated.

Salmon Belly

Salmon Belly

Live Scallop (and the crew - Chef Phillip on the right and Seiji on the left)

Live Scallop (and the crew – Chef Phillip on the right and Seiji on the left)

Live Scallop Nigiri Sushi and Sashimi

Live Scallop Nigiri Sushi and Sashimi

An Artist at Work

An Artist at Work

"Dirty Rice" made from the hinge muscle and innards of the scallop

“Dirty Rice” made from the hinge muscle and innards of the scallop

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) - my personal favorite

Ankimo (Monkfish Liver) – my personal favorite

Spanish Mackerel - a fishy, oily bite to end our meal

Spanish Mackerel – a wonderfully fishy, oily bite to end our meal

At $100 a head (we originally aimed closer to $50 but added on the live amaebi, live scallop, AND ankimo), it was a splurge for a weeknight meal but definitely well worth the expense. Chef Phillip had even stayed overtime by a full hour just to show off more of his freshest and most interesting fish. Don’t dismiss this place if you’re deterred by the online menu full of California Rolls and Dragon Rolls. Bypass all of those run-of-the-mill offerings, pull up a seat at the counter, and let Chef Phillip do what he does best. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Japanese Chicken Curry (From the Box)

Main Dishes, Recipes

Back in college, I used to spend a lot of my time (and money) perusing the local Japanese supermarket in the Sawtelle / Little Osaka area. Some grocery shopping trips would yield a cornucopia of fresh ingredients like enoki mushrooms and sashimi grade salmon, and others would be geared toward restocking my pantry with staples like furikake and yakisoba. Among the latter would always be a box of Japanese curry mix. Heavily seasoned blocks of curry roux, these were essential to making a hearty meal in the dead of winter when I was too busy studying to truly make something from scratch. Nowadays, I still keep a box or two around for weeknight meals that appear impressive with minimal effort.

Japanese Chicken Curry over Spaghetti

Japanese Chicken Curry over Spaghetti

Japanese curry roux generally comes in three levels — mild, medium hot, and hot/spicy. There is also a variety of brands available depending on your area and grocery store. Even if you are not located near an Asian supermarket, you could probably find S&B Golden Curry at your local grocery chain in the “Asian food” aisle. I prefer buying the mild kind and spicing it up with La Yu chili oil to my preference. This enables you to taste the flavors of the curry mix without the spice level dominating your palate. Also, the first step (marinating the protein in mirin) is optional, but I think this sweet rice wine is ideal for bringing out that great umami flavor that sets this curry apart from your neighbor’s.

Ingredients:

Ingredients:

1/2 medium onion, diced

1 lb boneless chicken, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 lb potatoes (I used mini yukon golds and quartered them)

2 carrots, sliced

2 tablespoons mirin

salt & pepper

2-3 cups water

1 100g (3.5 oz) package of Japanese curry mix

few drops of La Yu chili oil (optional)

Side/grain: rice, noodles, spaghetti, or crusty bread

Marinate the Chicken

Marinate the Chicken

Cut up the chicken and place in a large bowl. Season with salt (or garlic salt as pictured) and black pepper and drizzle with mirin. Toss to combine and set aside.

Prepare your mise en place

Prepare your mise en place

Chop the onions, potatoes, and carrots. Set aside. If using mini/young potatoes, you do not have to peel them.

Saute the Onions

Saute the Onions

In a large pot (I used my 4.5 quart dutch oven), saute the onions in a light drizzle of oil, about 1 teaspoon, on medium heat. You want them softened and translucent but not too browned.

Add the Chicken

Add the Chicken

Add the chicken, mirin and all, and try to caramelize each side for added flavor. Saute for a few minutes.

Add the Veg and Water

Add the Veg and Water

Toss in the vegetables and pour in enough water to cover. The box instructions will likely say 500 mL (about 2 cups). I added extra, but not more than 3 cups total.

Testing the Potato

Testing the Potato

Bring the pot to a boil and then turn the heat down. Leave it at a steady simmer until the potatoes and carrots are fork-tender, about 15 minutes.

Adding the Curry Mix

Adding the Curry Mix

While still in the package, break up the curry roux into chunks. Tear open the package and add the chunks to the pot. Stir well to evenly distribute and let simmer for another 5 minutes for the sauce to thicken, stirring constantly.

Ready to Nom!

Ready to Nom!

Serve immediately over steamed rice or noodles or even pasta. If serving over rice, might I offer a suggestion…

Rice Well

Rice Well, Ready to Pile High

Using the paddle that you used to scoop the rice out of the rice cooker, press a small well into the center of the mound. This will hold in the “good stuff” while letting the sauce run over the sides to flavor all of the rice.

Voila! Japanese chicken curry over rice.

Voila! Japanese chicken curry over rice.

Personally, I prefer noodles over rice, so I will often cook up some boxed spaghetti or utilize leftover pasta as my starchy base for Japanese curry. I also like my curries spicy, so if you look really closely, you can see the glistening crimson drops of chili oil on my portion…

Japanese chicken curry over spaghetti

Japanese chicken curry over spaghetti

Itadakimasu~!

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PS: I know our posting schedule has fluctuated over the years. While I would love to continue with twice a week posts, I’ve made a (good) major life change lately that will no longer allow for me to feasibly keep up with that schedule. We appreciate your patience as we revert to our once-weekly schedule (ideally Mondays, but sometimes Tuesday or Wednesday). :) We love you, Nom Nom Cat readers!

Marugame Monzo – Little Tokyo

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

We’ve been talking about ramen on this blog quite frequently lately, but with my insatiable love for noodles of all sorts, we did not forget about another one of Japan’s specialties – udon. Thick, white strands made from a wheat flour based dough, udon is like a blank template for a variety of serving methods. Hot or cold, soupy or saucy, the best udon dishes start with the best udon noodles, and for those, be sure to stop by Marugame Monzo in the heart of Little Tokyo. This tiny storefront is located adjacent to the Downtown location of Daikokuya with its characteristically long lines weaving onto the sidewalk. Marugame Monzo is quite popular as well, though we were lucky to be immediately at prime seats at the counter one late Wednesday night. Thankfully, not too late to catch the Noodle Master making his last batch of handmade udon. I’ll repeat that one more time — HANDMADE UDON.

The Noodle Master

The Noodle Master in Action

I had bookmarked Marugame Monzo since earlier this year when they took Little Tokyo by storm, opening up shop in the former Fat Spoon. Martin boasted that he had the opportunity to have lunch here sometime this summer with his coworkers, but I had the last laugh – their signature sea urchin cream udon is only served on the dinner menu. And that one dish, my friends, is a powerful motivator to get me in my car on a weeknight and brave traffic all the way to DTLA. So when I got to choose our dinner destination, Marugame Monzo was first choice on my list.

Hand-cutting the Noodles

Hand-cutting the Noodles

We were both mesmerized by the swift and deliberate movements of the Noodle Master at work. He rolled out the dough flat, folded it onto itself, and rolled it out again. Then he centered a piece of equipment that looked like a custom built swinging-arm paper cutter. With an (unnecessarily?) large blade and a very watchful eye, he cut dough into noodle like a machine. With each cut, I could see the hinge of the blade slide over just the tiniest bit, allowing him to make the next cut with absolute precision. Using his hands to measure out portions of noodles, he grabbed bundles by the fistful and twirled them, distributing the excess flour and ensuring that none of them stuck to each other. Amazing. Somehow we managed to tear our eyes away from the magic and place our order.

Chicken Karaage (Fried Chicken)

Chicken Karaage (Fried Chicken)

First, an appetizer. I was tempted to try the beef tataki but we both were swayed toward the idea of fried chicken. Japanese style fried chicken, known as 唐揚げ (chicken karaage) or simply フライドチキン (furaido chicken), is often lightly battered, very crispy on the outside but juicy on the inside, and well seasoned. Such was the case here, as our server explained that the chicken could be eaten on its own or with the optional condiments of sweet Kewpie mayo or curry salt.

Chicken Karaage - a closeup

Chicken Karaage – a closeup

Martin enjoyed the chicken it its purest state – savoring the slightly salted and not at all greasy coating that surrounded the moist morsels of poultry. I really liked the curry salt and dipped the corner of each piece to get that extra flavor boost. The mayo was a bit much (fried AND fatty?) but I love sweet Japanese mayo so I didn’t mind using a teeny bit to help the curry salt to better adhere.

Mentai Squid Butter Udon

Mentai Squid Butter Udon

So as I mentioned earlier, udon is served in many ways — in a steaming shoyu-based broth (kakeudon), cold with a tsuyu dipping sauce (zaru udon), in a stone pot with a thick curry sauce, and perhaps most creatively, in the style of Japanese spaghetti (blanched noodles dressed with a sauce made from otherwise traditional ingredients). Ume (pickled plum) and cod roe are common spaghetti toppings, which are even sold in Asian grocery stores as prepackaged sauce packets for regular ol’ boxed pasta. But we opted for some fairly unique fare. Martin had the mentai squid butter udon, tinted pale pink from the generous serving of mentaiko (Alaskan pollock roe). The shredded nori is a must to add a bit of crunch to the otherwise very rich sauce. The squid is impressively tender and plentiful.

Uni (Sea Urchin) Cream Udon

Uni (Sea Urchin) Cream Udon

My selection was the long-awaited udon with a sea urchin cream sauce (うにクリームソースうどん). It was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped it would be. A balance of briny sacs of sea urchin roe swimming in an Alfredo-like cream sauce, this decadent dish was accentuated by the chewy texture that only comes with fresh, handmade udon noodles. There was a LOT of uni, so despite being the most expensive dish on the menu (at $15.95 per plate), I really felt like it was a great deal.

Showcasing one of the (many) pieces of uni

Showcasing one of the (many) pieces of uni

I had never had cooked uni before, only nigiri-style atop perfectly formed mounds of rice at sushi places. When cooked, the roe shrivels a bit and firms up, yielding an almost brittle texture. A stark contrast from the lush mouth-feel when eaten raw. Overall, I loved it and would certainly order it again, but be forewarned, there was a bit of diminishing return by the time I finally devoured the last strands of sauce-coated udon… or perhaps it was my rising cholesterol levels begging my hand to stop lifting fork to mouth.

If you can get seats at the counter, take them. You’ll have the best seats in the house to observe the Noodle Master at work. If you sit along the side of the glass enclosure, you can even peek into the kitchen, where a female chef is manning the burners and sauteing multiple orders simultaneously. An awesome experience rounded out by friendly service and amazing eats, Marugame Monzo is a must-try destination in Little Tokyo!

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Check out Marugame Monzo:

329 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90012

See their Yelp reviews here!

Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle – West Los Angeles, CA

Food Adventures, Los Angeles

Tsukemen ramen, or “dipping noodles,” is no ordinary bowl of noodles. In fact, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that that noodles have no soup in them at all! In this style of ramen, hailing from Fukuoka’s Hakata region like some of our other favorites, the soup is dense and served on the side (either hot or cold) as a sauce. Lift the noodles with chopsticks and dip them into the sauce to savor the melding of flavors that only 60 hours of simmering could produce. This 60-hour tonkotsu broth, and the unique serving and eating method, is what brought us to Tsujita LA on a lovely Sunday afternoon.

Tsukemen Ramen - the setup

Tsukemen Ramen – the setup

We met our friends Lilia & Anthony there and wow, was there was a crowd! There’s quite a wait during lunch, likely because it features ramen prominently on the menu. Dinner at Tsujita LA transforms into izakaya style fare, although they expanded across the street to add Tsujita Annex, serving up ramen all day long. On the bright side, the wait staff took our order ahead of time so the food arrived shortly after our table was ready. We were finally seated at a secluded outdoor 4-top, almost as though we had our own private patio. Best seats in the house! (Well, outside…).

Tonkotsu Ramen

Tonkotsu Ramen

First off, the traditional ramen that one usually thinks of — thin, pale noodles swimming in a creamy, fatty broth and topped with thick slices of chashu. Martin was in the mood for soupy Hakata ramen and slurped away this deceptively filling portion. He commented that he liked how the broth did not have a cloying aftertaste like Yamadaya’s, but that it was too salty and not quite as rich as Daikokuya’s. Good but not life changing. Mine on the other hand…

The Noodles

The Noodles

Well let’s start at the beginning. The noodles are thick with an excellent texture – firm, chewy, toothsome. Or as the Taiwanese slang goes, very QQ. There’s a suggested method to eating tsukemen ramen in three phases. First, dip the noodles, as is, into the thick and very decadent sauce-like soup.

The Soup

The Soup

This is the soup. If we refer to a regular ramen soup as “broth,” then this by comparison is practically a demi glace. Intensely flavored and incredibly seasoned with the pork bones (which, according to their website, had stewed for 60 hours). However, because it was so concentrated, I found this sauce-soup to be a bit on the salty side as well. After polishing off about a third of the noodles, proceed to phase II – squeeze lime over the noodles and enjoy a whole new explosion of flavor. It’s a different experience entirely, with the bright citrus cutting through the unctuous sauce. No bite is exactly the same.

The Egg

The Egg

All three of us (aside from Martin’s tonkotsu) had the ajitama tsukemen ramen. Ajitama, literally “flavor ball,” refers to the soy sauce marinated soft-boiled egg. The egg at Tsujita LA completely blew me away. I mean look at that show-stopping ooze of gorgeous bright orange yolk. AMAZING. Absolutely amazing. I would return just for the chance to split open another one and experience the joy of a perfectly cooked egg all over again.

Extra Menma (Bamboo)

Extra Menma (Bamboo)

Anthony mixed things up with extra noodles and Lilia made sure to ask for extra limes (proudly described as “FREE!” on the menu), so I wanted an extra of my own — bamboo! I love menma in my ramen, and you can tell by the dark color of these that they are nicely seasoned. Note that the regular order does include a few slivers of bamboo by default.

Sesame Grinder

Sesame Grinder

While we were all personalizing our individual bowls, our friends demonstrated a nifty little item on our table. See that red thing in the middle that kind of resembles an upside-down bird feeder? It’s a sesame grinder! Crank the little knob and you’ll end up with broken up goma dust to add a pleasant nutty flavor to your noodles. (They like it so much they bought one for home use!)

Pickled Mustard Leaves

Pickled Mustard Leaves

My favorite garnish, hands down, was the spicy pickled mustard leaves. Dark brown wilted leaves coated in fire engine red chili oil, a forkful of these really pack a punch. The picture above illustrates my first tentative taste, but rest assured, after I discovered how awesome they are, I piled it on high and turned all of my noodles a festive red hue. Sniffling through my nose and sucking in air to cool my tongue, I really, REALLY enjoyed my tsukemen ramen with that addition!

Oh, yes – the third phase of eating tsukemen (which we actually didn’t get to participate in.. possibly since we were sitting outside, away from the kitchen). The staff provides hot water to dilute the dense sauce into a drinkable broth. Sounds like it would really round out the meal! More reason to return and enjoy a complete experience.

As we mentioned last week, the Best Ramen in LA is a contentious topic among diners, bloggers, Yelpers, anyone who enjoys patiently lining up to slurp away some form of this Japanese noodle soup. For me, Tsujita LA just rose to #2 on my list, edging out Shin Sen Gumi and second only to Daikokuya. Martin will may disagree but just shoot him a quick message and I’m sure he’ll be happy to share his personal list with you. ;) I’d venture to guess that every Angeleno has a ranking of favorites. But if your idea of ramen is simply soup and noodles in one bowl, you’ll definitely have to try tsukemen ramen for an experience unlike any other.

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Check out Tsujita LA Artisan Noodle: tsujita-la.com

2057 Sawtelle Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025

See their Yelp reviews here!

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our-growing-edge-badgeThis post is part of the monthly link up party Our Growing Edge. This event aims to connect food bloggers and inspire us to try new things. As a lover of ramen and all things noodle, I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had never tried tsukemen ramen before going to Tsujita LA. But I tried it, I really liked it, and I’m a better noodle-eater thanks to this experience.

This month is hosted by Becky at My Utensil Crock. Cheers!