Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Japanese BBQ Specialist - Sansui-Tei (Yakiniku)

Yakiniku, or Japanese BBQ, is one of the less talked about sub-cuisines of Japan. Literally meaning "Grilled Meat," Yakiniku cuisine is essentially the Japanese interpretation of Korean BBQ. While it's not as popular as Sushi or Ramen, Yakiniku cuisine is well-represented in its home country, with their own assocation - Zenkoku Yakiniku Kyoukai (All Japan Yakiniku Association) - representing over 23,000 Yakiniku Restaurants across Japan(!). But here in Southern California, there doesn't seem to be as much fervor for Japanese BBQ, probably due in part to having a large and excellent Korean community, with a plethora of solid Korean BBQ eateries from LA to OC. I couldn't remember the last time I had Yakiniku (Japanese BBQ), with Korean BBQ restaurants so plentiful and cost-effective, most of my Japanese Hounds and I have found it easier and cheaper to visit Koreatown or Garden Grove to satisfy our craving for "Yakiniku."

Looking at some of the Yakiniku places around town, I finally decided on Sansui-Tei Japanese BBQ Restaurant (not to be confused with the similarly named San Sui Tei Ramen restaurant). I called up Jotaru and we headed out to PCH to try their famous Washugyu Kobe Beef.

According to Tenchou (Store Manager) and Executive Chef Hideyuki Sakai, Sansui-Tei's most proud of their Washugyu Kobe Beef, which is an American Kobe sourced from Oregon. He finds the marbling of their Washugyu to be comparable to true Wagyu Beef from Japan, but at a fraction of the cost.

Perusing their menu, the most striking contrast between Sansui-Tei and a standard Korean BBQ restaurant is in their selection of meats, and the different grades offered within each region of the cow. For example, for their Tan (Beef Tongue) section, they offer regular Gyu Tan (Tongue), Jyo Tongue (superior in quality to the regular), Tokujo Tan Shio (DX Tongue - Best, Quality Washugyu Tongue), and even a Thick Cut Superior Tongue.

From there, they offer a variety of more familiar cuts (each with their own section on the menu with multiple cuts) like Karubi ("Kalbe"), Ro-su (Rib Eye), Beef Sashimi (with enticing cuts like Sliced Fresh Beef Liver Sashimi), Seafood, and "Other BBQ" where Offal, Chicken, Pork, Sausage and other cuts are offered.

Every table at Sansui-Tei has a center grill (with a Gas / Charcoal combination) to cook the food. You are also offered 2 types of dipping sauces: Salt Pepper Lemon Sauce, and Soy Sauce, Daikon Radish and Lemon Sauce.

Besides various Mexican preparations of Lengua, my other favorite preparation for Beef Tongue would have to be the simple Japanese method of grilling thin slices of it: Gyu Tan Shio. :) With 4 different cuts of Beef Tongue, I was excited to try a restaurant with this much definition in their cuts of meat. We placed an order for their Tokujo Tan Shio (DX Tongue - Fresh, Thinly Cut Washugyu Tongue), which was listed as their Osusume (Recommended) Item.

Their Tokujo Tan Shio looked impressive in its marbling and presentation, and this was the first time trying a Kobe Beef Tongue (American or Japanese), so we were curious how it would compare with regular cuts of Tongue.

The thinly sliced Washugyu Beef Tongue cooks extremely fast, and trying the first piece without any dipping sauce revealed a very clean, good *beef* flavor, something that seems to be missing more and more from mainstream beef preparations. Their Tokujo Tan Shio also went very well with both dipping sauces, but the Salt Pepper Lemon Sauce was a touch too acidic for my tastes. Overall, this was an excellent cut of Beef Tongue.

The kitchen then arranged our next three cuts together on one large plate. We began grilling their Jidori (Free Range Chicken) first. Normally, I might've tried some other cut of meat before Chicken, but their menu proclaimed their Jidori as "Best Chicken in This World!" so I had to order it once at least. (^_~)

Our side order of Garlic arrived at this time as well: Fresh slices of Garlic in Oil, in a nice foil container for easy cooking on the grill.

After a few small flare-ups on the grill with the fat rendering off, the Jidori Free Range Chicken was done. I was prepared for something dry or typical, but we were both simply amazed at how tender, juicy and *chicken-y* this Jidori Chicken tasted! This was despite a few pieces being a little charred (our own fault since we're cooking our own food :), but each piece was still very, very good. It may sound like an obvious statement, but recently I've experienced too many Chicken and Beef dishes where the essence of the meat is just gone: It's nice to taste Chicken that actually has a good Chicken taste, and the same with Beef.

Continuing on, we then started to grill their Buta Toro (Pork Toro), which looked like a beautiful cut of Pork with a good meat-to-fat ratio.

Our side order of Shiitake Mushrooms arrived as well - sealed in a foil packet for easier cooking - and we cooked both at the same time.

Shiitake Mushrooms are inherently so fragrant and gorgeous in nearly every type of preparation, so I was genuinely perplexed when we opened the foil packet and instead of a beautiful woodsy aroma, we got a rather muted, musty scent. The Shiitake Mushrooms were just bad quality product: They tasted very mild and dull, and the butter that was included in the foil packet was poor quality as well, tasting really old.

With so many different recipes for Fatty Pork dishes around town, there's some tough competition, and a new Fatty Pork dish needs to really excel to stand out. For a simple preparation like Grilled Pork Toro, it's all about the cut and quality of the Pork. Luckily, Sansui-Tei's Pork Toro turned out to be very good: Tender, pure pork fat goodness, with a good meaty texture as well. In some restaurants, the Pork that's served for grilling is too fatty, or too lean, but the balance here was spot on. It's not life-changing, but we both appreciated Sansui-Tei's Buta Toro over Park's BBQ "Tokyo X" Pork Belly, which is another popular, good cut of Pork for grilling.

We then moved on to their Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Kobe Superior Rouse - Supreme Kobe Beef Rib Eye), which was the best cut of Rib Eye from their Ro-su section of the menu. Note that you can order this cut as "Thin Cut" or "Thick Cut," and with Shio (Salt-based Marinade) or Tare (Shoyu-Mirin Marinade). We ordered it Thin Cut with Shio Marinade.

The marbling was simply gorgeous on this Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Kobe Beef Rib Eye), and knowing how fast the fat can render off, we did a quick sear on each side to preserve as much of the marbling as possible.

Taking a bite: Sugoi! It was *so* buttery tender. It stood on its own without any dipping sauce. It wasn't the legendary Grade A5 Hokkaido Gyu from Urasawa, but for a straightforward Asian BBQ experience, their Thin Cut, Shio Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Kobe Beef Rib Eye) was the best cut of Beef I've experienced at this type of eatery, easily surpassing Park's BBQ "Kobe" Style Beef (and I like Park's :). This was the highlight of the evening.

Our side order of Asparagus arrived at the same time as our Karubi. Coincidentally, like the Shiitake Mushrooms, the Asparagus turned out to be really flat. They used the same poor quality Butter in the foil wrapper with the Asparagus that they used with the Shiitake, and the results were similar. It made us hesitant to order any other Vegetable Sides.

From the Kalbe sub-menu (with 4 different cuts), we ordered their most recommended cut of Kalbi: Washugyu Tokusen Karubi (Superior Kobe Kalbe - Best Quality Short Rib). They traditionally serve this cut at Yakiniku restaurants without the bone according to our server.

The presentation was striking: While I was used to seeing excessive marbling with other cuts of Wagyu / Kobe-style Beef, I'm so used to seeing Kalbi (Beef Ribs) at Korean BBQ restaurants that I never imagined that Sansui-Tei's Washugyu Kalbi would be so marbled. We were excited that this marbling would help bring our impression of Kalbi to a new level.

While not as challenging as Feng Mao's do-it-yourself "Yakitori" / Skewer cooking, the excess marbling on many cuts at Sansui-Tei made it a bit challenging to gauge how fast something would cook.

The Tokusen Karubi (Superior Kobe Kalbe) exhibited the same, clean beefiness that we had with the other Washugyu cuts, but it was surprisingly chewy. It was a tender Kalbi Short Rib, but texturally, it was a bit more chewy than we had expected, especially with as much marbling as it had. We tried it medium-rare, medium and medium-well and the results were similar. It was good, but after having the amazing Thin Cut Rib Eye, it made this cut feel slightly disappointing.

Their Kurobuta So-se-ji (Black Pork Sausage) imported from Japan sounded promising but turned out to be just a really salty, typical Pork Sausage.

We also ordered an encore of their Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su, but they brought out a Thick Cut version instead (it was at this time that we learned (the hard way) about Thin vs. Thick Cut). I was curious and decided to try the Thick Cut to see what the difference was.

Since it was the same cut of Beef, I thought that the result would be similar to the previous Thin Cut experience, but it turned out to be the *complete* opposite: Tough, chewy, and losing too much marbling in trying to cook the Beef to a decent level of doneness; the Thick Cut really ruined the beauty of the Kobe Rib Eye. Because it was so thick of a cut, a quick sear wasn't sufficient to properly cook the meat. We tried a variety of methods and tasted each piece about medium rare, but since it was so thick, to get to a medium rare state, the outer surface lost too much fat and became too tough in the process. We even ate a few pieces Rare, but that didn't help it either (tasting rather gross and just undercooked). Definitely order the Thin Cut when trying their Tokusen Ro-su (Kobe Superior Rouse).

For my second visit, I wanted to try their highly-touted Shabu Shabu course (Japanese style Hot Pot where you cook items in a boiling pot of soup). We were seated promptly and after ordering, Sansui-Tei brought out their 2 traditional Shabu Shabu dipping sauces: Gomadare (Sesame Seed Sauce) and Ponzu Sauce, as well as other condiments for the meal.

We were also given their special Kaisou Salada (Seaweed Salad), and a variety of Namuru (Namul - Korean-style Vegetable Dishes). The Kaisou Salada was refreshing and their Sesame Ginger Dressing was decent, but a bit too tart.

The Shabu Shabu Pot was brought out at this point and heated at our table, filled with a Shoyu Dashi (Soy Sauce Dashi) base.

The vegetables for our Shabu Shabu course arrived as well, nicely arranged: Hourensou (Spinach), Hakusai (Napa Cabbage), Shimeji Mushrooms, Asparagus, Tofu, Mochi, Kaiware (Daikon Radish Sprouts), Enokitake (Enoki Mushrooms), and a few other ingredients; definitely a good variety of vegetables for a set course.

While we were waiting for the soup to boil, I just had to try their Thin Cut Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Superior Kobe Rib Eye) one last time, this time with their Tare Marinade. Imagine the disappointment when the kitchen sent us the Thick Cut Washugyu (again). I pointed out the mistake, but our server apologized and said that they ran out of the Thin Cut Kobe Rib Eye. Perplexed, I asked how they were able to generate this Thick Cut Rib Eye if it was the same chunk of Beef, but our server stated that the Thin and Thick Cuts for the Rib Eye are pre-cut for the day and when it sells out, they're out for that day.

I was curious if the Tare Marinade would help the Thick Cut, so we kept this order and tried it out. The Tare Marinade turned out to be simply their Tare Sauce poured on top of the cubed Rib Eye, so there wasn't much time for the flavors to seep into the meat. After careful grilling, the added moisture from the Tare Marinde helped redeem it slightly from the bad Thick Cut, Shio (Salt) version, but it was still a far cry from the Thin Cut Rib Eye we had.

The soup was boiling at this point and we threw in all the vegetables, and after the temperature returned to boiling, we added in the gorgeous meat: Thin slices of Washugyu (American Kobe Beef).

We literally swished the Washugyu Beef around for a few seconds in the boiling soup and it was ready. The result was an excellent, beefiness, tender and with *no* gristle / chewiness at all. It was very good. :)

The Dashi Soup base was a good, neutral base, but their 2 dipping sauces were both slightly too overpowering.

Finally, the Shabu Shabu Course was served with Kishimen (wide, flat Noodles). Unfortunately the Kishimen was slightly overcooked already by the time it got to our table. The result of a quick drop in the boiling soup was a too soft and mushy noodle.

And the included dessert for this course was Green Tea Ice Cream, which tasted like the standard Maeda-en offering.

Sansui-Tei occupies a fairly large size room, and in both of my visits, there were only 2 servers (and no busboys) manning the entire restaurant. As a result, it made getting the attention of our servers very difficult (we had to constantly try and flag one of the two people down to get refills on drinks, or other needs). This was a situation where we wish we had the "Door Bell Ringer" found at most Korean restaurants. :) Menu prices range from $5.80 - $22.80 for the different cuts of meat and vegetables. We averaged about ~$50 per person (including tax and tip) for both of our visits.

Yakiniku cuisine at Sansui-Tei represents an interesting and challenging proposition: Serving higher quality cuts of meat (and multiple choices for each type of Beef they serve), Sansui-Tei is also significantly more expensive than most Korean BBQ restaurants around town (which are somewhat comparable in various ways). On the one hand, I really enjoyed Sansui-Tei's outstanding Jidori (Free Range Chicken), their Buta Toro (Pork Toro), and their Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Superior Kobe Rib Eye), Thin Cut, but the lack of any Panchan (delicious, complementary Side Dishes) or Romaine Lettuce (unless you order it from their Appetizer menu), and their higher prices (e.g., they charge ~$3 per small bowl of rice(!)) makes this a hard place to recommend at times.

Even though I enjoyed Sansui-Tei's best Beef, Chicken and Pork dishes more than at some of the best Korean BBQ places around town, the difference in quality may not make up for the shortcomings. It's an interesting and different experience from the more commonly found Korean BBQ restaurants, but for the prices they're charging and the "high quality"angle they're attempting, Sansui-Tei needs a bit more refinement and polish before it reaches its lofty goals.

Rating: 7.1 (out of 10.0)

Sansui-Tei (Yakiniku)
2529 Pacific Coast Highway
Torrance, CA 90505
Tel: (310) 257-1800

Hours: Sun - Thu, 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m. (Last Order 9:45 p.m.)
Fri - Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 11:30 p.m. (Last Order 10:45 p.m.)


Anonymous said...

How would you say this place compares to Anjin or Tsuruhashi in Fountain Valley, and Shabu Shabu House in Little Tokyo?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Anon,

Overall, I enjoy Tsuruhashi more than Sansui-Tei for certain cuts of meat that are just better. But Sansui-Tei has certain ones (like their Jidori, Buta Toro, and Washugyu Ro-su) that I enjoy more. I like Sansui-Tei more than Anjin.

As for SSH in Little Tokyo... I haven't been there in years... I'll have to go back and compare soon. Thanks for the reminder! :)

You can read more of my thoughts and comparisons between the Yakiniku places here:

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