Thursday, May 15, 2008

A Taste Of Japan in So Cal? 2008 Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Fair

Thanks to Keizo's early posting, I discovered that Mitsuwa Market was holding a Food Fair, dubbed "2008 Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Fair." It's being held this weekend from Thursday, May 15, through Sunday, May 18, at select Mitsuwa locations (for So Cal, their website lists the Costa Mesa branch and the Torrance branch). I was able to plan ahead and visit the Mitsuwa Gourmet Fair on its opening day for lunch.

From reading the website it sounded like there'd be 2-3 main eating attractions and that'd be it (like the last Ramen Fair, last year). Imagine my surprise when I arrived to see numerous food booths (all tightly compacted) in the center of Mitsuwa's main walkway, and a massive line for fresh Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls), in addition to the other eateries I was looking forward to.

First up, we tried the stand with the longest line: Takoya Kukuru's Fresh Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls).

I was pretty excited about the Takoyaki, since who isn't beguiled by the seductive fragrance of fresh dough being cooked to crispy, fluffy perfection? (^_^) It certainly smelled great, and they even proudly showed their "#1 Ranking" according to votes from some survey.

They even had a nice diagram explaining how their Takoyaki was so different, using a dash of White Wine, in addition to the usual Octopus, Flour, Powdered Seaweed, Red Ginger, Bonito, etc.

It took about 15 minutes (since they make them fresh in batches), and I finally got my order. I sat down (within ~2 minutes) and we opened up the box to partake in Octopus goodness!

But sadly, the Takoyaki already started to "melt" together! Traditionally the Octopus Pastry Balls are served piping hot (they were), and topped with the vendor's Takoyaki Sauce and some Mayonnaise. We had literally gotten them fresh off the grill only ~2 minutes beforehand and when we tried to pick one up, each Pastry Ball had already started to turn into a gooey mess! :( There was no crispy exterior at this point, it was literally just gooey. Undaunted we dug in, and the actual *flavor* of Kukuru's recipe was definitely standout from most Takoyaki in So Cal. You could taste and get a big piece of Octopus (good thing), but it was marred by the fact that the rest of it was all just a liquid mess at this point. Sigh. The Takoyaki I had in Ueno Park from the local vendor far outshined this in the end.

On a side note, Kukuru states that they have branches in Tokyu, Odakyu, and Mitsukoshi Department Stores in Japan.

Rating: 6.3 (out of 10.0)

Continuing on, we tried the Gyu-Tan (Beef Tongue) at Gyu-Tan Senmonten Tsukasa. It seems that Tsukasa is a specialist in Beef Tongue, hailing from Sendai in Miyagi prefecture in Japan. The fragrant smell of grilled Beef was wafting across Mitsuwa at this point. We ordered their Gyu-Tan Teishoku (Seared Tender Beef Tongue Combination Plate), and it came with their signature Oxtail Soup as well.

Our order arrived and I took the first bite: Tender, delicate Beefy goodness! Their Gyu-Tan was very tender, and extremely flavorful. The manager recommended that I wrap each bite of Beef Tongue with some of their special Sendai pickled vegetables, and it was an excellent suggestion! The lightly pickled, earthy, vegetable flavors combined perfectly with the fresh-grilled Beef! And the rice they served was really nice as well! They had a special grain of rice mixed with a type of other grain as well (Japanese oats?), and it lent a nice fragrance and taste to the meal.

Lastly, their Ox Tail Soup was surprisingly good. Not "amazing," but very tasty and simple; honest and straightforward. Overall, Tsukasa was the highlight of the Costa Mesa Mitsuwa Gourmet Fair. Very tasty!

Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0)

Next up, we tried out the sole Ramen specialist that arrived from Japan as part of this Gourmet Fair: Kujiraken's Shina Soba Ramen. Kujiraken is from Yokohama in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan. I didn't get a chance to try any Ramen from Yokohama during my last Japan trip, so I was looking forward to what this was like. We placed our order and eagerly awaited the Ramen goodness!

Our bowl of Ramen (sadly) arrived in a simple styrofoam bowl. I realize it's easier for disposal and they are only borrowing space for a few days, but eating out of styrofoam certainly doesn't help in the flavor department.

Kujiraken takes pride in the harmony of the ingredients in their Assari-style broth, lighter and simpler in some ways than more popular Ramen-ya's around Tokyo that I tried. However the broth ended up being on the overly salty side, and the noodles were soggy. It's definitely difficult to get a broth perfected when you're working overseas in a foreign kitchen and it's only the first day, but it was still disappointing. It wasn't "horrible" or anything, just "Ok." The Bamboo was also a little too potent and overpowering at times.

The highlight of the bowl of Ramen was their Chashu: The Pork was very fresh and tasted as if it was just freshly cooked that day (since it was the first day of the Gourmet Fair, I'd imagine it was just made that morning (^_~)). It was a little chunky and chewy in parts, but overall, much better Chashu than most Ramen shops in So Cal. Overall, Kujiraken was a disappointment, but a decent departure from the usual Ramen eats around here.

Rating: 6.8 (out of 10.0)

The next item we wanted to try was the Korokke (Croquettes). Mitsuwa invited Kuriyama Korokke from Hokkaido, Japan to sell their specialty Croquettes! At first glance, I felt as though I were transported back to the ultra-cool Depachikas in Tokyo (massive underground "Food Courts" (featuring endless rows and rows of freshly-cooked foods of all types in 1 place!)).

Kuriyama was selling 10(!) types of Korokke at the Gourmet Fair: Potato, Kabocha (Pumpkin), Yasai (Vegetable), Corn, Kuro Edamame (Black Edamame), Hotate (Scallop!), Kani (Crab), Sake (Salmon), Tomato, and Crab Cream Croquettes.

At this point I was getting beyond full, but luckily I was sharing with my friends (^_~). I tried the Salmon Croquette and Potato. The crust was perfectly fried and nicely crispy. It wasn't "piping hot," due to the fact that they must've had to batch prepare them for the lines of people waiting, but they were still warm and pretty tasty. I've had better Korokke in Japan, but for getting all those different flavors, it was decent and a pretty fun diversion. The Salmon flavors were well integrated with the Potato in the Croquette, with a nice flavor combination. No complaints. The Potato was just classic; a simple taste, yet good. At ~$1.70 - $3.50 (depending on the filling), it's a good deal.

Rating: 7.1 (out of 10.0)

I couldn't eat another bite, but we walked around to see all the other vendors. There were some yummy-looking "Waffles" from Fugetsudo with a variety of fillings.

There was also a Sushi vendor, selling a special Goshima no Saba (Mackerel):

There was also Chaimon Yaki-Imo (Roasted Sweet Potato), and a special type of Potato Apple Pie (yes, very strange combinations of foods being sold there (^_~)) -

And there was also a Nagasaki Tempura food booth:

And then one vendor selling special Bento Boxes (Lunch Boxes) in the traditional Japanese style, with some rather extravagant ingredients:

They also had some very unique Inari Okawa (Inari (Fried Tofu Skin) filled with unique grains and herbs and vegetables).

I think there were a couple other Food Booths I missed, but it was time to go at this point.

Overall, I applaud Mitsuwa for organizing this little Umaimono (Delicious Things) Gourmet Fair. I still want to try the rest of the food vendors before my final thoughts, but out of the items we tried so far, while the food vendors are from various parts of Japan (and they have so many factors against them (foreign kitchen, limited access to the ingredients needed for their recipes, etc.)), it still falls short of a true "Taste of Japan" in Southern California. Some interesting vendors and places like the Beef Tongue Specialist "Tsukasa" make it worth trying out at least once. I'll try visiting the Torrance branch's Gourmet Fair later this weekend to try the other vendors exclusive to that fair, but overall, it's a fun diversion and worth visiting if you're in the area (for this weekend only). (^_^)

Mitsuwa Market (Costa Mesa)
665 Paularino Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 557-6699

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