Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Your old college friend from the Midwest rings you and says he’s coming to town…and he’s in the mood for truly great Japanese food. After all, Iowa isn’t known for its tempura and grilled eel. Where to take him? You rack your brain and rifle through the mental rolodex—some swank place in Santa Monica? That concentrated strip of Japanese cuisine on Sawtelle? Hey, aren’t Gardena and Torrance where lots of Japanese people live? There must be good food there, right? But then it hits you. Ahhhh. For something truly exceptional you should go to Boyle Heights!
Boyle Heights? Home of Mariachi Plaza, the legendary restaurant La Serenata de Garibaldi and the new Gold Line Extension (Not to mention the shiny new Hollenbeck Community Police Station)? Really?
Decades ago, in the years before and after the Second World War, Boyle Heights was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. It was also heavily populated by the Japanese (Little Tokyo, after all, lies directly across the First Street bridge). There were any number of Japanese businesses, including a hospital and cinema. In 1956, in a spot that was formerly an ice cream parlor, a small restaurant opened on First Street. In 2010 it’s still there, making it one of the oldest Japanese restaurants in town. It’s also one of the best.
Now on its third owner, Otomisan is the dictionary definition of “Mom and Pop”. In fact, mom and pop brought grandma too. (She sits in the back booth.) Walking into Otomisan feels like you’ve just stepped into someone’s home. The lovingly worn furnishings and formica eroded by decades of caresses are accented by an innumerable amount of good luck charms, lucky cats and even a photo of protector-deity Sylvester Stallone.
Warmth greets you in the form of a friendly, smiling Mrs. Yayoi who welcomes you as if she’s known you her whole life. She offers you a stool (leftover from the ice cream parlor days) or one of the three red pleather booths.
On first glance, the menu is comprised of comfortable old favorites and perhaps nothing special—teriyaki this, tempura that. But classics carried to wondrous heights are still wondrous nonetheless. Fundamentally, Mr. Hamada, the genial man-in-the-kitchen uses high quality ingredients and executes flawlessly. The chicken is juicy, the pork is thick and moist, the beef is tender, the shrimp is sweet. He even makes sumptuous New Year’s meals for the local temples and other Japanese organizations nearby.
In the many visits to Otomisan, me or my dining companions have treated ourselves to selections from across the menu. Starting with the homemade gyoza, hand-folded and steam-fried to pleasingly contrasting tender crispiness. The dumplings aren’t over-stuffed and strike a delicate pose on the plate when they arrive at your table. They are served with a bit of chili oil and vinegar.
Otomisan also boasts a respectable menu of well-prepared sushi rolls. Though they aren’t necessarily sushi specialists, Otomisan’s rolls are sizeable, flavorful and just as good as a fancier place in a tonier zip code. A particularly authentic and relatively hard-to-find item in LA is futomaki (or “Fat Roll”), which stuffed with colorful, healthy goodness—steamed spinach, sweet egg, sweet gourd called kampyo and a sweetened shiitake mushroom, carrot and imitation crab meat. That cheerful, pink powdery stuff—denbu (powdered, boiled, dried fish) recalls the futomaki of your faraway youth. (The roll was so good, I forgot to photograph it before it disappeared.)
The Spider Roll is also noteworthy. The creamy avocado and cool, snappy cucumber and carrot counter the crispy, meaty, fried soft shell crab. One evening, the crab was presented in a way that looks like its try to desperately escape from the roll.
One rainy evening when the dishes were slow to emerge from the kitchen, Mrs. Yayoi gifted us a complimentary spicy tuna roll whose character was in keeping with its fellow sushi-menu mates. The roll was broad in diameter and stuffed to the gills with chopped tuna.
Miso is normally an afterthought in many Japanese restaurants, but here takes on a depth that only your Japanese grandma, armed with her decades of cooking secrets, could pull off. Bits of tofu and seaweed dot the scene, and the broth is simultaneously and surprisingly rich and light.
There are several not-to-be missed items. The Seafood Tempura is an oceanic monster of a dish—including several large prawn, squid rings, and a whole soft shell crab. These are backed-up by a selection of vegetables like broccoli, squash, and zucchini. Tempura is often the benchmark dish for the rest of the menu and Otomisan’s is fantastic—light, crispy and not terribly oily.
The other house speciality is Sukiyaki—beef and vegetables cooked in a sweet soy sauce broth. The beef is tender and the green matter is plentiful. Enoki mushrooms, onion slices, green onion, bean sprouts, tofu cubes, and udon noodles make this an incredibly satisfying-impossible-to-eat-by-yourself dish. You have the option of eating it Japanese-style by dipping these morsels in raw egg. No one will shake their head if you choose to forego this option.
Finally, I must put in a word for the Tonkatsu, the fried pork filet. Again, a sizeable and greaseless portion of high quality meat prepared skillfully to a perfect crunchy outside and tender inside. It is served, oddly enough, not with Japanese karashi mustard, but good ol’ French’s Yellow. This is the one odd note in an otherwise flowing song of authenticity. You can request the dish be topped with curry, which adds a slight bit of spice to the arrangement.
Otomisan is not the place for glamour, sequins and sparkles. The entire menu is composed of dishes that precisely aim for, and squarely hit, your brain’s centers of comfort, nostalgia and domesticity. Mrs Yayoi once proudly told me, “If its on the menu, its definitely good!” Otomisan is the place you repair to settle into a familiar, warm and comfortable world.
Your friend from Iowa will love it.
Parking Note: The parking meters are active from 8am to 8pm in this neighborhood, so be sure to feed the beast before leaving your car!
Otomisan is not open on Sundays.
2506 E 1st St
Los Angeles, CA 90033