A Little Tokyo Tour

I spent pretty much an entire day in Little Tokyo along Chino Roces (formerly Pasong Tamo) in Makati a few weeks ago. I met up with some law school blockmates for a long lunch mini-reunion to get away from the insanity of bar review. To make the most of the trip to Makati, I ended up coming back for dinner after a couple of hours spent studying in Legaspi Park between meals.

I arrived early – right as the restaurants were opening for lunch – to the news that several of my companions would be running late. I still had a couple of free Nama (draft beer) stubs from Izakaya Kikufuji from a previous visit, so I figured I’d start without them.

I’d been craving good sushi, particularly toro, for quite a while, having been previously disappointed by Kuretake’s busy Sunday dinner service and their haphazardly-prepared, simultaneously soggy and Godzilla-like nigiri. I assume it was one of the local assistants who prepared my orders back then, but that’s no excuse. I’m considering coming back on a weekday though, as a friend attests that when prepared by their Japanese sushi chef on a not-too-hectic day, their food is actually quite decent.

At Kikufuji, they didn’t have any toro, or even chutoro, so along with a couple mugs of free draft beer, I had some amaebi (sweet shrimp), hamachi (amberjack), anago (sea eel), and seared wagyu nigiri. Now this was nigiri done right. They were just the right size and consistency to pick up, flip over, dip into the soy sauce and pop into the mouth, as sushi ought to be eaten. Simple, yet full of flavor, Kikufuji’s food is relatively inexpensive yet still adeptly prepared. What I would have given for a bottle of Hitachino Nest White Ale or Rogue Morimoto Imperial Pilsner to pair with these.

We had lunch proper in Seryna, which has a more laid back ambience as opposed to the more busy Kikufuji (which has its own appeal, of course). While my companions had the always excellent lunch sets of Seryna’s famous kaisen gozen, I chose to forego the usual chirashi bowl and try something new – basashi.

More sensitive, PETA-involved, animal activist readers are advised to skip this paragraph (don’t say I didn’t warn you!), as basashi is actually horse sashimi, served with a special dipping sauce. This was interesting, to say the least. I was surprised at the profound marbling present, as I expected horse to be quite lean. It tasted uniquely meaty, not as familiar as beef, of course, but not as gamey as other more exotic fare as venison, or even lamb. This is definitely something I’d order again – not quite as fatty as real wagyu sashimi, of course, but it has its own appeal. Needless to say, I respect the animal that gave its life to give me such pleasure, and I won’t get into a debate on ethics at this point.

This was helped down the gullet by the house tea and sake, both served chilled for an intensely and uncharacteristically sunny day.

I also ordered their Special Salmon Roll, which came out as a bit of a disappointment. The first couple times I tried this over a year ago, there was much more ikura (salmon roe) and crisp salmon skin included, and the shake used was vibrant, and not pallid. At the time, this was the best way, in my opinion, to showcase the different flavors of salmon in one roll. Now, it just left me nostalgic, and somewhat regretful that I abandoned my personal decision to no longer order any “crazy rolls.”

Overall though, that was a good lunch, behind the nigiri from Kikufuji and Seryna’s basashi. We had Japanese ice cream from Choto Stop for dessert.

For dinner, I returned to Little Tokyo, this time, for some Enma Ramen (heat level 20 please!) at Urameshiya. This was intensely hot, but all that chili powder turned the soup to something of a paste. It was just the right level of heat for me, as my capsaicin tolerance has grown quite a lot that most spicy food disappoints me now. Still, the pork bone broth shone through despite seeing all that red. I’m sure their more tame ramen would be good as well. I had a mug of of nama again, but this time I don’t regret it. All that heat really needed a light-bodied, light-flavored, light-colored, ice-cold pilsner, for once. A more substantive drink would likely have been wasted.

Of course, I had to try the jyo-karubi, yakiniku-grilled fatty beef that I’d been reading and hearing so much about. This was well worth the hype, and I’d come back to Urameshiya time and time again for this glorious meat. Any fatter, and it just gets wasted – melted and cooked away – in the grilling, so this second-tier menu item is best, as I’ve learned from others.

Also, the ubiquitous takoyaki from Hana should never be missed. It’s only available in the afternoons onwards, but it’s always worth waiting all day for. Most of your run of the mill takoyaki joints scrimp on the bonito and replace the tako with ika, but not Hana. The big Japanese guy who used to wield the thin metal sticks used to flip the takoyaki around seemed to do it better than the Filipino apprentices who are in charge of the cooking nowadays, though.

Still, I’ve never been let down by a visit to Little Tokyo, and this whole-day affair was well worth the break from studying. I ended up at Kipling’s at the Mandarin Oriental, afterwards, but that’s another story.

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