Monday, September 8, 2008

The Optical Illusion - Ryo Zan Paku

A good Izakaya (essentially a Japanese Pub with emphasis on Food and Drink) is something to be cherished. It's a place where you can gather with friends or family, or just relax by yourself and enjoy a nice selection of good Japanese Sake, Shochu or Beer, and tasty little Small Plates of things that are usually categorized by Fried, Sauteed, Stewed, and more.

While I have a few mainstays in Southern California, I'm always on the lookout for a great Izakaya to rival the experiences in Japan. So when I heard about a "very Japanese" Pub on Pacific Coast Highway named Ryo Zan Paku, I was intrigued and determined to try it out sooner rather than later. (^_~) I finally gathered up a few of my Izakaya Hounds and we made a trip out to Ryo Zan Paku, in hopes that a new eatery would join our regular rotation.

We almost got lost trying to find Ryo Zan Paku (in case you visit, it's in the same *large* multi-row shopping plaza as the AMC Theater and Trader Joe's on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Crenshaw), but we finally found it hidden away in one of the rows of that confusing plaza. From the outside, there were some red lanterns hanging like one would find at a traditional Izakaya, and upon entering it was as if we were whisked away to a neighborhood Japanese Pub in Tokyo: Rustically beautiful dark wood tables and a long counter adorned the inside of Ryo Zan Paku. Soft white lighting, and many large Sake bottles lined another section of the restaurant, and the place was packed, and the Sake was already flowing at many a table. :) This looked promising.

We sat down and looked over the menu, and like the decor and ambiance, it looked very interesting and authentic: A nice handwritten-style Japanese menu (with English translations), presenting an absolute *plethora* of items, from Signature Dishes, to Sashimi, Salads, Ippin Mono (Specialties), Yakimono (Grilled Dishes), Nimono (Stewed Dishes), and many more categories. Knowing that too many dishes can kill a kitchen, I began to worry, but we quickly placed our order and sat back to await the potential goodness. We found out later that a Mori-san was in charge of producing most of the dishes we had this evening.

We started with a round of Koshihikari Echigo Beer, arguably one of the best Japanese Beers still brewed in Japan that has a great taste and smooth finish. It was excellent (and many restaurants still don't carry it, so it's a treat to have one, especially on the hot summer night (^_~)).

Our first dish arrived about 10 minutes after our order: Ume Onigiri (Japanese Plum Rice Ball). Since the temporary closure of Bincho, I've been craving any place that could match the homemade goodness of a fresh-made Onigiri that Tomo-san made, and Ryo Zan Paku's version was decent at best, with the Nori (Seaweed) already soggy when it arrived at our table, and the Japanese Plum filling uneven within the Rice Ball.

Our next item was the eponymous Ryo Zan Paku Tonkotsu Ramen (Pork Bone Broth Ramen Noodle Soup). Firstly, I knew it was asking for trouble ordering Ramen in an Izakaya, as Ramen Noodles are usually left up to specialty Ramen shops in Japan, but they had a whole blurb on their menu about how their Ramen was "from a long-established Ramen restaurant" (I asked our waitress, but she didn't know which Ramen-ya it was from in Japan). And one of my companions was a major Ramen Hound and insisted we take on the "challenge" to see how this stacked up. (>_>)

We were hoping it wouldn't be anywhere near the disaster of the "Ramen" at Honda-ya in Little Tokyo, and after taking a bite, thankfully it wasn't, but it was disappointing: The Ramen noodles were the same ubiquitous yellow, curly noodles found in most Ramen eateries in So Cal, a bit thick and overcooked (very soft). The Menma (Bamboo) was average, and the Chashu (Pork) slices were very mediocre (tasting about ~1-2 days old, i.e., not cooked fresh that day, but rather cooked and refrigerated and sliced 1-2 days later, which was par for the course at most Ramen-yas around town). The worst part about it was the Tamago (Egg) which was hard-boiled and completely flavorless besides the inherent egg yolk flavor, and it was overcooked. The only saving grace was the Broth, which had a very good, deep Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) flavor. Not as good as Tonkotsu broths I've had in Japan, but surprisingly decent at an Izakaya in So Cal. But with all the other missteps we wouldn't order this again.

Part of our Kushiyaki (Roasted Meats on Skewers) order arrived next. I began by sampling a little bit of their Haatsu (Chicken Hearts), which was overcooked and rubbery. We moved onto the Nankotsu (Chicken Cartilage), which used the more commonly found Dark Meat Cartilage. As you can see from the picture, the Nankotsu included too much fat and meat, compared to the Cartilage itself. Finally, we sampled their Sunagimo (Chicken Gizzard) which was average, slightly overcooked, tough and chewy; a far cry from Yakitori Bincho.

At this point, the restaurant remained at full capacity, and we suffered a good ~20+ minute wait until our next dish arrived: Maguro Tataki (Seared Tuna & Sliced Onions). This is a classic dish and we were hoping that something on the menu would be well executed at this point. Fortunately, the Maguro Tataki was very good. The lightly seared outer crust of the Tuna was perfectly done, and when combined with the Ponzu Sauce and Negi (Green Onions), it was good.

Our Negima Shio (Chicken Thigh with Green Onions, Salt flavor) skewer arrived next. It was a little dry, and it tasted decent, but lacked a depth of flavor, and it was nothing compared to the better Yakitori restaurants around So Cal.

One of my long-time favorite dishes arrived next: Buta Kakuni (Long-Simmered Pork Belly). I was really looking forward to seeing how well this dish would turn out. I could smell the fragrance of the Pork and Mirin and Soy Sauce, and visually, it looked pretty authentic and delicious, but after taking a bite, it was pure disappointment: The Pork Belly wasn't stewed long enough, to make it "chopstick tender," but was really tough and chewy (almost inedibly so). The sauce for the Buta Kakuni was decent, tasting of the basic expected ingredients, but lacking the depth found at Toki no Ma, or some of the better versions around L.A.

The Asupara Mentai Mayo (Asparagus with Spicy Pollack Roe and Mayonnaise Sauce) arrived at nearly the same time. On the menu it sounded interesting and delicious, but when it arrived, we found three tiny mounds of Asparagus drizzled with an orange-colored Mayonnaise. It was essentially Mayo-infused with a tiny bit of Mentaiko, but the Mayo flavor was so strong it actually overpowered any taste of the Spicy Pollack Roe.

The Natto Tofu (Fresh Tofu with Fermented Soy Beans) arrived next. Natto is something I just don't eat :P, so I didn't try it. But my Hounds that tried it said it was "very good" with the simple flavors of the Tofu and Natto working well together.

At this point of the evening, we waited *another* ~30 minutes and had to inquire into the rest of our order before a few more items trickled in, starting with their personal Hibachi Grill (similar to those found at Musha): Tan Shio (Seasoned Sliced Beef Tongue). Ultimately, it's a fun diversion, grilling the various meats / vegetables you order, at your table. Since we were cooking it, it was really about the quality of the meat itself and the initial seasoning (which was fine). The Beef Tongue was delicious since I left the cooking up to one of the grilling experts in the group. :)

After our inquiries, another dish trickled in soon after: Geso Yaki (Grilled Squid Legs). It was served with a bit of fresh-grated Ginger and some Lemon Slices. The Grilled Squid was sadly (like many items that night) overcooked, and tough and rubbery.

The Takoyaki (Octopus Pancake Balls) were by far the worst disappointment of the evening. I always remain hopeful that there's some great Takoyaki in L.A., so we wanted to see how Ryo Zan Paku's version was. The order arrived, and looked well-dressed (a bit overdressed, but we each plopped one in our mouths), and took a bite...

If Disappointment could be represented by a food, this would be it: Their Takoyaki was made with a *dense* Mochi-like filling(!), and a small piece of Octopus was lodged inside that thick, hard rice filling. This was probably the worst Takoyaki I've had in my life (no hyperbole). I looked up at this point and everyone at the table had nearly the same expression.

Maguro Natto (Tuna Sashimi with Fermented Soy Beans) arrived next. Like before, I didn't try it, but I trust my companions' opinions when they say it was "tasty."

We waited another ~15+ minutes (after all the other long waits), and finally just cancelled the rest of our order (there were another ~4-5 dishes that we were still waiting on). It's understandable on a Saturday night (their busiest night) that there might be delays, but adding up all the waits inbetween, and it was bordering on ridiculous. Of course, if we had decided to stay for the Sake (they offer two excellent ones: Suigei and Kubota Manjyu), the wait would've been more bearable, but we were there to drink lightly this evening and focus on the food.

It was pretty disappointing, but I wanted to make sure it wasn't a fluke, so I went back for another visit on a weeknight to see if things would improve (that, and visually, the decoration and setting had so much potential, I wanted to like it and hoped that our second visit would be better). On this night, there were only 3 tables in the whole restaurant, so there was no excuse if the service and food preparation time was lacking.

The Bainiku Fukahire (Shark Fin marinated with Japanese Ume Plum, atop Mountain Yam (Yama Imo)) was the first dish of this evening, and it was very good! The Shark Fin cartilage had a very nice crunch to each bite, and the infusion of the Ume (Japanese Plum) paste was a great match, especially with the wonderfully crisp slices of Yama Imo, creating this alternating tartness and freshness. The touch of Wasabi was also a great accent.

This time, we also ordered the Agedashi Tofu (Deep Fried Tofu in Dashi Broth) (which they failed to bring out last time) - a classic dish - to see how it compared to others around town. Visually, it looked pretty good, and we each took a bite, only to be disappointed again: They used a mediocre Tofu (tasted slightly old), with a soggy exterior, and an insipid broth (and I don't like to use that word, but the broth was truly that flat).

Next up was their Izumidai Shiso Norimaki (Tilapia with Ume Plum and Shiso Leaf, wrapped with Seaweed). This sounded interesting, and our waitress recommended it. It was striking visually, with the white of the fish meat, and the green of the Shiso Leaf appearing through the deep-fried batter exterior. But every bite was just the fishy and briny taste of the Tilapia fish, and the really oily battered exterior. Even though visually it was wrapped completely around by both Shiso and Nori (Seaweed), the taste was strangely non-existent. As a result, it turned into a glorified version of fish sticks.

Our order of Tonkatsu (Fried Pork Cutlet) arrived next. I'm always looking for good Tonkatsu as well, and while I wasn't expecting the legendary Tonkatsu I had in Tokyo, I was hoping it'd be decent at least. Sadly, another heartbreak (for a favorite type of dish), as the Pork Cutlet was extremely salty, and the breading was limp and soggy by the time it got to the table, and the breading itself separated from the meat immediately as we picked up each piece.

The Hotaru Ika no Okizuke (Firefly Squid Marinated with Soy Sauce and Sake) was another dish that sounded intriguing. Hotaru Ika (Firefly Squid) isn't very common on most menus in L.A., so when it's offered, it's worth considering. Ryo Zan Paku's Firefly Squid was served raw, and each bite tasted heavily fishy, briny, and slightly metallic. It tasted slightly old, and while it's unfair to compare it to the delicious version we had at Urasawa, this version was so far on the other side of the spectrum, we couldn't finish the dish.

Ryo also offers a nice selection of Korokke (Croquettes), so we tried their Kani Korokke (Crab Croquette), which turned out to be ~99% Potato Puree and 1% Crab Meat. :( The exterior was fried to a nice crispy shell, but the interior was just this pure potato oozing mess that poured out when we took a bite. And while we understand Crab Meat is expensive, the fact that it was basically non-existent was pretty disappointing.

The final dish of the evening was Gyusuji Nikomi (Beef Tendon and Daikon Radish Stewed in Aka-Miso Soup). The Beef Tendon itself was properly cooked, soft and tender, but like their other broths, the supposed Aka-Miso (Red Miso) was practically non-existent: There was a light hint of the Aka-Miso, but it tasted *so* flat.

During our first visit (on a Saturday evening), service was pretty bad in that Ryo Zan Paku had no busboys, so the waitresses (all dressed in Yukatas) had to take care of clearing the tables and serving. Getting more drinks or refills on tea was almost impossible for most of the night (and frustrating). During the second visit on a weeknight, even with only 3 tables, service was better, but still problematic: One large table of Japanese businessmen tried to get the attention of the waitresses and finally had to send one from their table to walk up to the front of the restaurant to get someone's attention (all 3 waitresses were up front talking). For our table, it was the same as Saturday: Just trying to get another drink or refills on tea was difficult because our waitress never came around except to deliver food.

But in the end, as each table was leaving, one waitress would always run outside after the exiting party and bow and thank that group for visiting the restaurant (a nice touch). On each visit with only a few drinks, we averaged about ~$40 per person (including tax and tip).

Ultimately, despite its fetching, comfortable interior decor, great menu variety, and Yukata-clad servers, Ryo Zan Paku falls far short in the important areas of actual food quality and execution, as well as timely service. Add to that a terrible "ventilation problem" where they consistently keep all 3 of their entrance/exits propped open, which results in a constant flow of cigarette smoke throughout the restaurant (and this happened every ~15-20 minutes throughout each of our dining experiences), and that adds insult to injury. I would say that if you're in the neighborhood it might be worth a visit, but considering that both Musha and Otafuku are close by, there's just no way I can recommend this at all. Ryo Zan Paku may have the look, but it's the ultimate optical illusion.

Rating: 3.7 (out of 10.0)

Ryo Zan Paku
2589 Pacific Coast Highway
Torrance, CA 90505
Tel: (310) 530-8720

Hours: 7 Days A Week, 5:30 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.


ila said...

wow, that bad? i've been here before, and i agree, they don't have much to out-shine other places.

Keizo said...

So the ramen was bad too? I'm curious to know what ramen-ya it came from. Thanks for sharing your experience. If they have ramen, I may just have to go someday...

Exile Kiss said...


Yah, I was very shocked at how bad it was. Very disappointing. I mean, the food itself wasn't "Fake Japanese"-bad, but it was so mediocre and just flat, or poor in execution or recipe, that there's just no reason to go back (for me). Especially with Musha and Otafuku very close by.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Keizo,

Yah they have Ramen there, too. But after your amazing Japan trip, I doubt you'd want any of this mediocre Ramen here. :)

I'd definitely go back to Santouka or SSG before this place, sadly. But it's a change of pace (I thought the Broth was decent when I went).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I went with Jotaru about half year ago ( did he tell U how bad it was? ) and I never wanna go back!

Don't know why but their skewers were just lack of taste. Maybe it's americanized?! Can't remember whatelse we ordered. I only remember I paid $40+ and not satisfied. >_<

Will go back to my favorite place ~ MUSHA! ^^

Tiger Kitty

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