Thursday, September 3, 2009

For Locals Only - The Straightforward, Welcoming Japanese BBQ of Tamaen

The crackle and sizzle of thinly sliced Rib Eye searing in front of you. The mouth-watering smell of Pork Belly rendering on the grill. These are some of the reasons why Yakiniku, or Japanese Barbecue, is still so popular, even in the height of summer. While I've enjoyed Yakiniku quite a bit this year, one place that I've always been curious about is Tamaen, sitting in a secluded corner of a large strip mall along Pacific Coast Highway. Out of all of the Japanese Barbecue restaurants in So Cal, Tamaen runs the largest and most eye-catching ads to the Japanese community, and when one of my Japanese Hounds had the craving for Yakiniku, I figured it was finally time to see what Tamaen was all about.

Entering the mini-mall that houses Tamaen, I realize that I must've passed by this restaurant countless times over the years, never realizing its existence. The playful lettering of their main sign (in both Japanese and English) reflect the relaxed, casual atmosphere within. Opening the door, a wave of aromas hit you at once: The magnetic smell of beef, chicken and pork grilling at every table engages your brain, making you even hungrier. :)

You then come face-to-face with a large sign proudly listing Tamaen's top quality Beef, their Gokuguro Kobe Gyu (Snake River Farms Kobe-Style Beef).

Tamaen was opened about 5 years ago by Chef-Owner Masafumi Higashiyama, who learned his craft in Osaka, Japan, at the original Tamaen before it closed. He then moved to the U.S. to open this new incarnation. While not much in the way of decor, the long wooden seats along the outer walls (with cushions), simple wooden dividers between tables, and bright, soft lights give Tamaen the most homey and Japanese feel out of all the Yakiniku restaurants in So Cal I've visited so far.

Every table is outfitted with a circular, inset grill, powered by premium Ebisu Binchotan (Charcoal) from Japan, which helps in imparting a decent, solid smokiness to the night's grilling.

As with other major Yakiniku restaurants, Tamaen's menu offers up most cuts of meat in 3 different grades, here with Tokujo Gokuguro Kobe Gyu (Special Selected Kobe-Style U.S. Beef (their top offering)), Jo Gokuguro Kobe Gyu (High Quality Kobe-Style U.S. Beef), and U.S. Puraimu Bi-fu (U.S. Prime Beef).

On this visit, we quickly start off with their highest quality cut of Gyu Tan (Beef Tongue): Jo Shiotan Saikuro (High Quality Kobe-Style Beef Tongue, Dice Cut with Salt Marinade).

Thick cut Beef Tongue isn't very common around town so I was curious how Tamaen's cut would turn out (and how well their Gokuguro Beef would stand up to a thick cut being grilled).

Anticipating a bit of gristle and a hearty chew, Tamaen's Jo Shiotan Saikuro is surprisingly easy-to-chew, extremely juicy and tender and so delicious. There's a good bovine essence permeating each bite. It's a touch salty, but if eaten with some Beer or various Vegetables (be sure to order some Sanchu Lettuce) or a bowl of Rice, it's perfect.

Our order of Yukke (Beef Tartar (sic)) arrives about the same time. Tamaen's version of Yukke features rough cut slivers of Beef, topped with Sesame Seeds, Sesame Oil and a Raw Chicken Egg Yolk. The Beef is thankfully tender and gristle-free, and while the viscous Yolk lends a nice wash over the dish, the liberal use of the Sesame Oil and Sugar tend to overpower the Beef itself. It's nowhere near as charming as a good Steak Tartare, but a decent choice if you're in the mood for some Raw Beef and in the neighborhood. :)

I'm crossing my fingers as the Tontoro (Pork Fatty Meat) arrives. A good quality Pork (Bacon / Belly / Cheek) dish never ceases to bring a smile to people's faces. :)

Tamaen's version is quite tender and moist and meaty without being overly fatty. It's also a bit too salty as well, but tastes quite fresh and pure in its flavors. Our guests and I enjoyed Sansui-Tei's version more, but this one is still fine.

For the more adventurous, be sure to try their Tecchan (Intestine), which sadly was mixed in with our order of Tori Momo (Chicken Leg) (not by request).

Grilled Intestine is always an interesting experience, but the Tecchan is too chewy for my tastes. One of my guests this evening is a big Tecchan fan and concurs with my assessment. The Tare Sauce stands out here, a great balance of savory and sweet, but it's the thickness of the Tecchan that detracts. (We try this with medium-rare, medium and well-done versions and the results are the same.)

Marinated in the same Tare Sauce, the Momo (Chicken Leg) fairs much better, wonderfully supple, but maybe a touch too sweet. I prefer Sansui-Tei's Jidori (All Natural, Cage-Free Chicken), but Tamaen's surpasses Tsuruhashi's version easily.

For garlic lovers, their Purin Kappu Ninniku (Garlic) is a good order, a side of peeled Garlic Cloves in Oil, which makes a great accompaniment with any of the grilled meats.

One thing that's a bit oddly coincidental with the bigger Yakiniku restaurants around town is that their top quality (and most expensive) cuts are seemingly always sold out. At Sansui-Tei, their Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Supreme Kobe Beef Rib Eye) Thin Cut was sold out for every visit except once. Same with Tsuruhashi, and their Kobe Ro-su (U.S. Kobe Rib Eye Cap (which is their highest quality offering)). So it is here at Tamaen with their Tokusen Gokuguro Kobe Gyu, Tokujo Ro-su (Special Selected U.S. Kobe Beef, Rib Eye). Speaking with the servers at each of the restaurants, they all state that the quantity is just extremely limited, and the general availability is the same way.

So we went with their 2nd tier option of Jo Ro-su (High Quality U.S. Kobe Beef, Rib Eye), which arrived on the same plate as our final dish of the evening, the Tokujo Karubi (Special Selection Short Ribs).

After a quick sear on both sides, the Jo Ro-su is fork-tender with good marbling, but a touch heavy-handed on their marinade (at Tsuruhashi, for example, they offer their homemade Shoyu Tare (Soy Sauce-based Tare Sauce) and Misodare (Miso-based Marinade) as dipping sauces, to let the customer decide how much or little to use. Here, the Rib Eye has been saturated with their Tare already. It's actually quite good, but I enjoy both Sansui-Tei and Tsuruhashi's versions better: Their cuts of meat sing to my palate more and they are less heavy-handed with the marinade.

Finally, we wrap up this visit with their only Special Selection item not sold out this evening: Tokujo Karubi (Special Selection U.S. Kobe Beef, Short Rib).

We're impressed by their premium Short Rib's extreme marbling and carefully watch over the pieces (note: with any Kobe-style Beef, it's easy to lose most of the wonderful fattiness by leaving it on the grill for too long. For example, applying the same amount of time to get a medium-rare on a regular cut of meat will be too long for the Kobe Beef. Adjust accordingly. :).

Their Short Ribs turn out to be nicely fatty, with this natural savory deliciousness coming through with each bite. Tamaen uses the same marinade as their Rib Eye on this cut, and like the Rib Eye, it's a bit too sweet, but otherwise a very good offering. There's also a bit of gristle in each piece, but we ran into that with all the local Karubi offerings so far.

For my 2nd visit, I catch up with long-time 'dachi Jotaru and we arrive for an earlier dinner. We start up with their Jo Shio Tan (High Quality U.S. Kobe Beef Tongue, Thin Cut, Salt Marinade).

Served with the classic pairing of fresh Lemon, the Beef Tongue has a good clean taste, only lightly fatty, striking that delicate balance with the hearty, meaty aspect. But unfortunately, it's too salty (surprisingly so).

As with before, a side order of Sanchu Lettuce is a must. :)

Their Kaibashira Yaki (Scallops) turn out to be surprisingly good, holding up well on the grill: Fresh, tender yet still maintaining a good texture, with a touch of the ocean, this serves as a good break from all of the beef dishes this evening.

On this evening, they are sold out (again) of their Tokujo Ro-su (Special Selected U.S. Kobe Rib Eye) and the Hire (Special Selected Filet). Our waitress sadly shakes her head and says that they might not restock it for a "long time." Oh well. We order their only other items on the Tokusen (Special Selected) Menu: Tokujo Karubi (Special Selected U.S. Kobe Short Ribs) and the Tokujo Saikuro (Special Selected U.S. Kobe Beef Rib Eye Dice Cut).

Trying their best quality Karubi (Short Ribs) a 2nd time, it's just as buttery and sweet as the 1st time, but there's still a bit of gristle / connective tissue in each piece (as before). Otherwise, it's a good offering if you're in the mood for Short Ribs.

Their Tokujo Saikuro (Special Selected U.S. Kobe Rib Eye Dice Cut) doesn't fare so well. Our waitress confirms that this is the same cut of Beef they use to generate their most popular Tokujo Ro-su (Special Selected U.S. Kobe Rib Eye, Thin Cut), but served in this Saikuro style.

Like Sansui-Tei's Thick Cut disaster (but even more so), the way the U.S. Kobe Beef is cut really highlights an extremely chewy mouthful of gristle. We're baffled, so we try cooking it rare, medium-rare, medium and medium-well, all to no avail. The Dice Cut's thickness doesn't absorb very much marinade; it's surprisingly bland, lacking the usual wonderful sweetness or fattiness in most Kobe-style cuts, and it's just a lot of connective tissue. Terrible. :(

We move on to their Nama Reba- (Raw Beef Liver), a delicacy and wonderful if done right.

Sadly, their Raw Beef Liver falls short: A light creaminess gives way immediately to a sharp iron-y, liver aftertaste (that doesn't go away). (>_>) It's a far cry from the silky, ultra-smooth, fresh, zero-aftertaste version at Tsuruhashi. We ended up grilling the rest of them for fear of lack of freshness.

For offal lovers, be sure to look out for their on-the-wall special item (in Japanese) filled with all types of Beef Offal; just ask for their "Horumon Tsubo" (Offal Jar) and they'll bring out an order.

Within the Tsubo, you'll find a mix of their Jo Mino (Beef Tripe), Shinsou (Beef Heart), Reba- (Beef Liver), Tsurami (Beef Cheek) and Tecchan (Beef Intestine) marinated in their housemade Miso.

It's an interesting experience for a non-Offal lover: This special Miso-marinated version of Tecchan (Intestine) in the Tsubo is still very hard to eat; very hard to break through the lining. The Mino (Tripe) fares slightly better, but nowhere near a beautiful version in something like a Menudo; it's still very chewy and tiresome to eat.

Their Tsurami (Cheek) is the most disappointing: After enjoying quite a few Cheek meat preparations this past year (all non-grilled), this grilled version turns out to be a shockingly gristly experience.

The one decent offering in the Tsubo is their Beef Heart, which has a very good, pure, focused beefy taste. It has a subtle firmness, with no gaminess nor aftertaste.

We finish up with their Taretan (Beef Tongue Marinated in Tare Sauce), using their lowest cut of Beef: U.S. Prime.

Similar to the results we found at Tsuruhashi, there's a drastic falloff from their upper-tier Beef Tongue and the bottom tier version. Even though it's been pre-marinated for hours, the Beef Tongue is very lean and very tough (we try rare, all the way up to well-done, and the results are similar (but even worse at well-done naturally)). For Beef Tongue, definitely order their Jo Shio Tan (High Quality Kobe-Style Beef, Salt Marinade) instead.

Service has been adequate at best: It's not that there's anything malicious with any of the servers, but rather in this medium-large restaurant, the servers always seem to be busy in the kitchen or running around and sometimes you have to shout out your "Sumimasen!" to get ahold of one of them as they attempt to juggle multiple tables' requests at once. Price can vary drastically depending on what one orders: The Special Selected U.S. Kobe Beef sub-menu ranges from $18.50 - $25.50 per dish; the High Quality U.S. Kobe Beef sub-menu is $10.50 for each plate; while the U.S. Prime Beef sub-menu ranges from $5.50 - $6.50 per dish. Other dishes (from Vegetable Sides to Seafood Sides) range from $2 - $12. We averaged about ~$47 per person (including tax and tip) for each of our visits.

In many ways, Tamaen represents that simple, neighborhood Japanese BBQ restaurant with a great, homey ambiance, lively customers, and adequate-to-good cuts of meat to grill at your own table at a decent price. Depending on your personal preference for sodium levels, Tamaen may rate a little higher or lower, but for me, Higashiyama-san's heavy-handed seasonings detract from many of the dishes we've tried. Currently, I'd say Tsuruhashi is my favorite of the Yakiniku restaurants in So Cal, followed by Sansui-Tei (for certain cuts), Anjin and then Tamaen. With all their colorful ads (showing some enticing plates of ruby-red meat), I was hoping for something more, but it's just fine if you're in the area and crave some good, smoky Yakiniku.

Rating: 6.8 (out of 10.0)

Tamaen Japanese BBQ
1935 Pacific Coast Highway
Lomita, CA 90717
Tel: (310) 326-0829

Hours: 7 Days A Week, [Lunch] 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.
[Dinner] 5:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. (Last Order, 12:30 a.m.)


ila said...

too bad tamaen didn't work out for you... it's one of my favorite yakiniku joints! we used to hold birthday dinners here all the time, before i had to move down to mission viejo.
you should try visiting them on 8/29 every year - it's called niku no hi (2="ni", 9="ku") and everything is half off. the lines are frickin' insane.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi ila,

Thanks for your thoughts on this place. It's not that I didn't like it - love the ambiance (it feels the most like back home Yakiniku :) - but just the cuts of meat weren't wowing us as much as, say, Tsuruhashi. I might've also had bad luck on these visits. I'll be glad to try them again when I'm in the area. Thanks! :)

lynn said...

wow. my vegetarian husband might die if he ever laid eyes on this post.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi The Actors Diet,

Hehehe, yah Yakiniku restaurants aren't really for vegetarians. :)

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