I just turned in a 10-page research argumentative today for my history class.
My history class is Japan After 1945…an in-depth study into the fall and restoration of Japan after World War II. It wasn’t really a class I wanted to take at first.
I had originally planned to take a course on Korea or China to fulfill my civilization credit requirement for my East Asian Language & Cultures minor. Japanese history was not something I thought was relevant to my life, as most of the Asians I interacted with are Koreans and Chinese.
But due to my packed schedule and my reluctance for a Friday class, Japan After 1945 was the only class that fit into my schedule and fulfilled the civilization requirement for my minor.
I’m so glad I took up the course now. It is fascinating. I haven’t taken history classes in a while, and it reminded me just how much I used to enjoy my history classes in high school.
History has so many interesting components to it. On one hand, it reads so much like a novel. The facts and events and characters that played a real-life role just dance out to play out stories that are just as engaging and titillating as plays.
But on the other hand, there are so many layers to it that pertain to current events: political, social, cultural, religious, racial, economical, ethical, philosophical, etc. The issues discussed then are either still debated now, or have produced the society that we live in now.
Being a Korean, and having been educated in Singapore, I’d always been bombarded by bitter history lessons on “Why the Japanese Are Evil Bastards.”
I won’t argue that many Japanese soldiers during the war acted truly inhumane and atrocious. The women they raped and mutilated, the babies they speared, the men they tortured and beheaded, the POWs they mistreated…those were truly sickening.
But having a wonderfully diverse class with all kinds of opinions and backgrounds gave me a different perspective towards Japan as a whole.
The professor of my history class is a Japanese who got ostracized by her Chinese friend because of her nationality.
Then there is this earnestly nationalistic Korean FOB, who gesticulates dramatically as he maintains that Japan deserved the atomic bombings.
There’s also an all-American guy who comes from a few generation of military officers, whose grandfather was present at the Pearl Harbor site.
There is a Hispanic architect major who wants to build buildings in Asia and wants to
There is a half-Japanese sorority girl who wants to know more about her mother’s background.
And then there is these two Indian and Arabian dudes who are just fascinated by all things East Asia and speak up the most during discussions.
It’s all very…enlightening. I won’t get into the eeny meeny details of it as this is not a history blog, but it’s just so interesting to see the tangible impact and presence a small country like Japan can have on the world, and also invigorating to see a group of racially diverse students sit together and share their different views.
It’s equally tasty when you meld the different tastes and experiences into a single Japanese restaurant.
Take Aburiya Toranoko, for instance. This restaurant just opened at downtown L.A.’s Little Tokyo about a month ago by restaurant guru Michael Cardenas.
You’d think that after more than a dozen successful restaurants, the guy would retire contentedly to Malibu Beach. Nope, not with Mr. Cardenas.
He opened the kick-ass Lazy Ox Canteen last year, which was acclaimed 2010’s Best New Restaurant by Angeleno Magazine, and this year, he opened Aburiya Toranoko, a Japanese restaurant. Oh, and guess what. Next year, he’s opening another restaurant in the vicinity. The guy just never stops popping out restaurants!
Cardenas is Mexican-Japanese, and he was raised in Japan, but trained as chef in New Orleans, before spending another 6 years in San Diego. I blame this guy for the sudden obsession for sushi Southern Californians had in the 80’s.
But dang, what a mix of interesting backgrounds, eh?
Anyway, I’m just so thankful that Mr. Cardenas decided to bring his restauranting prowess into my neck of the woods. Downtown’s culinary scene still definitely needs more revamping, and it’s especially in need of more hip yet casual places like Aburiya Toranoko.
I knew I just HAD to visit this place. Every Angeleno blogger was blogging about its opening, months before the place even opened doors. So when I told my foodie friend Renee about it, she agreed to visit it with me the day after Aburiya’s first opening.
There’s my two lovely friends. Renee on the right, Jessica on the left. Jessica is not a foodie at all…but she’s lovely and she eats almost everything, so we dragged her along.
The atmosphere is banquet- hall-meets-izakaya, a Japanese after-work drinking place.
The narrow, rectangular dining room squishes an open sushi bar against the back wall, while several tables are pushed together in the middle of the room to form a long strip of canteen-style eating surfaces.
What’s cool about Cardeno’s concept is that he really brings together a local pride into the community.
For example, the brick walls are splattered with brilliant graffiti art by a local artist called Prime. Graffiti art in a snazzy Japanese restaurant? Go figure.
The mural behind the sushi bar, boldly painted by local tattoo artist Jiro, also gives Toranoko a sublime balance of humble and hip:
Meanwhile, the ceiling was adorned by European-style chandeliers:
The chefs, however, are “authentic” trained Japanese chefs. Executive chef Hisa Kawabe and kitchen chef Taku Sugawara were both trained at Nobu Matsuhiba (If you don’t know what Nobu is, ARRGH! Slap yourself!!!).
You can spot the same Nobu-style emphasis on simple ingredients radiating complex tastes in their dishes. The menu is creative and reminiscent of a typical izakaya menu, but slightly retooled with new ingredients for different modern tastes.
Everything is served tapas-style, meant to be shared between sips of Sapporo Beer or sake. You can check out the full menu here.
Everything sounded soooo good, I just didn’t know what to pick. Eventually Renee and I figured out some dishes to order. Jessica allowed us to help her order because she couldn’t understand the menu with its Japanese terms.
It was. the best. freaking. eggplant I’ve ever had. This ain’t eggplant. It’s a flavor bomb. I never knew miso and eggplant could transform into this sticky, caramelized, savory-sweet candy.
Second dish was Toranoko French Mountain Potato Fries with plum aioli:
This was a less sweet deal. I was underwhelmed by the plum aioli, which basically was just basic aioli with Chinese plum sauce. Though the potatoes for the fries were definitely fresh, perhaps it was the freshness that made for a disappointingly uncrispy and bland chunky stick.
Mr. Cardenas who passed by recommended that we try sprinkling the potato fries with green tea salt, though:
And then all was good. Come on. It’s GREEN TEA salt.
Goodness mia. I started shaking the green tea salt into my tongue, it was just so intriguingly good.
The third dish was a 100% success, and all it was a simple, mundane item typically found in school lunchboxes: Yaki Onigiri.
Or Baked Rice Ball. I hereby petition that every bowl of rice be molded into a ball and baked or fried.
Now that I think of it, I was robbed. It is nothing but a ball of sticky rice baked into a lovely crunchy, toasty shell with gooey innards. I paid $7 for a small ball of white rice. But dang, was it YUMMY!
Inaniwa Somen with onsen tamago in oden soup:
Or somen noodles with soft-boiled egg, salmon roe, and okra in cold fish cake soup.
When we read oden soup, we all expected the broth to be hot, but it turned out to be a light, refreshing broth very much like the sauce for soba.
The salmon roe was a lovely surprise; it wasn’t in the menu, but I was not complaining! (Confession: I never liked salmon roe until I found out how pricey it was).
Unfortunately, the next dish wasn’t as solid. I ordered the Chawan Mushi, or steamed egg custard with seafood:
Chawan Mushi is one of my favorite Japanese dishes, but you don’t really see it much in the U.S. I really wanted my friends to try it, but it turned out to be a failure.
I’d never had a Chawan Mushi so watery. The ratio of broth to egg was just off. Here’s a picture with flash (urgh):
The following dish cheered us right back up: Jidori Fried Chicken with orshi sesame.
“Jidori” really just means organic, free-range, vegetarian chicken. It’s the chicken of the highest grade, and boy can you tell!! Each crispy nugget was not just texturally perfect, but bursting with wonderful, meaty juices that you just don’t get with chicken these days.
By the way, if you can’t tell already, I was alternating between using flash and not using flash. I seriously hate using flash because of the bright, greasy quality of the pictures, but in this case, the restaurant was so dim that flash was necessary most of the time.
This fried pork and vegetable pancake arrived in the grand manner that it rightly deserves: sizzling and sputtering on a hot plate, speckled with dancing, paper-thin bonito flakes and drizzled with both Japanese mayonnaise and a thick, tangy sauce.
Even the strips of pickled ginger on the side are spectacular — sour, pungent, yet intriguingly sweet. And here’s another pictures with flash:
YES, I AM GONNA BOMBARD YOU WITH OKONOMIYAKI PICTURES SO THAT YOU SHALL NEVER FORGET HOW AMAZING OKONOMIYAKI IS!!!!!!
A-hem. And finally, we ended with a nice little dessert: Green Tea Creme Brulee:
Love the sweet play on the yin and yang symbol. It was light, perfumed with warm, bitter green tea tones. Perfect sweet ending!
Not such a sweet ending when I realized I spent more than $25 for a meal. Oh well, I expected Aburiya Toranoko, with its fancy sustainable, local, high-quality ingredients to on the pricey side anyway. And I’d love to be back, if only I had a fixed income.
The best thing about Aburiya Toranoko is that when you get below the food, there is such an interesting mix of backgrounds, cultures, influences, and collaborations. I think the graffiti and mural best projects this diversity.
By the way, I just HAD to take a picture of this:
It’s a Japanese grandpa and grandma hobbling past Aburiya Toranoko while my friends and I waited for the restaurant to open. They were like two heads shorter than I, and they had these absolutely adorable wrinkled faces and serene smiles.
“Look at them, they’re sooo cute!” Renee gushed, despite the fact that they are probably more than twice her age. “I love his checkered shirt. I want Ben to dress like that when he’s old!”
Ben is Renee’s husband. They’re both in their early 30’s.
As I said, history repeats itself. Hee hee hee.
Question of the Day: Any history buffs out there? What kind of history fascinates you the most?
My favorite is U.S. History. I so dig Teddy Roosevelt. I’m also getting very fascinated with General Douglas MacArthur, the man who commandeered Japan after World War II.
My second favorite is probably Russian history, ever since I started loving Russian literature.