(Formatted with All Pictures here:
While far from perfect, the various Food Festivals that Mitsuwa Market sponsors in Southern California each year provide a chance to try some rarer and sometimes interesting delicacies from across Japan. The highlight of these various festivals would have to be the guest Ramen Shops that are invited, depending on the theme of that event. After trying the famous Sumire's Miso Butter Corn Ramen Noodles at least year's 2008 Hokkaido Fair, I was curious who Mitsuwa would sponsor this time around.
Similar to all the major Japanese Food Festivals by Mitsuwa, they usually invite 2 different Ramen-yas to serve at their Costa Mesa and Torrance locations, and this year is no different.
Torrance Hokkaido Fair
On opening day of the event, just as they are opening, there's already a good line forming for a new Hokkaido merchant at this year's 2009 Festival: MJ Shokudo and their famous Shiroi Taiyaki (White Fish-Shaped Bread with Red Bean Filling). Sadly, I wasn't able to try it with the line being as long as it was, but it looked intriguing. There are few things as lovely as freshly made, good quality Taiyaki. :)
Besides the Shiroi Taiyaki, the highlight of the 2009 Torrance Hokkaido Fair would have to be their guest Ramen restaurant: Ramen Shingen from Ishikari, Hokkaido, Japan.
Ramen Shingen is featuring their Shio Ramen (Salt-based Ramen Noodle Soup) at this year's festival.
This Soup's claim to fame is the fact that it takes 4 days(!) to complete with a base of Tonkotsu (Pork Bones), Niboshi (Dried Baby Sardines), Vegetables and Konbu (Kelp). The result is a light Broth that's a touch too salty for my tastes, but reflects a depth of flavor. Getting beyond the salt, you can taste a delicious blend of Tonkotsu and Niboshi, with the Vegetables and Konbu really balancing things out, lending a delicate vegetal facet.
The Noodles are a thicker, yellow curly type with a decent chew. It's a bit overcooked and too soft, but it works.
Finally, their Chashu (Roasted Pork Slices) are simply wonderful: Very fresh (tasting like it was just finished cooking minutes before (which makes sense given that this is opening day for the Festival)), with a light savory marinade, it's tender and buttery and the highlight of the dish.
When taking a bite of the lightly seasoned Chashu, the intense, sweet Menma (Bamboo), a bit of the Green Onions and the thicker Noodles, it almost balances out the saltiness in the soup. Overall, I'm glad to have tried Ramen Shingen's style of Ramen and hope that we get to try more offerings at future Festivals.
Price is $8.90 (+ tax) per bowl. Limited quantities sold per day; once they sell out, they stop serving for the day.
*** Rating: 7.2 (out of 10.0) ***
Continuing on, it's nice to see that Pullman Bakery and their Award-winning Kare- Pan (Curry Buns) have returned this year.
This year's offerings are even more crispy and fragrant than last year, with a smile-inducing crispy crunch as you bite into the Fried Buns stuffed with their Curry. (^_^)
While their Bread quality and fry technique have improved since last year, the Curry itself is a bit too sweet: If you prefer your Curry on the sweet side, then this will be just fine. It exhibits a good Masala spice aroma, with a light amount of burn (but nothing too spicy). The Potatoes are nice and soft, but again, it's just a touch too sweet for my tastes but otherwise tasty.
*** Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0) ***
The rest of the vendors here are the same as the Costa Mesa Festival, so off we go to the Costa Mesa. :)
Costa Mesa Hokkaido Fair
Arriving at the Costa Mesa Hokkaido Fair, a mere 1.5 hours after opening on its first day, Maruhiro Ohta (from Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan) has already sold out of about ~60% of its Korokke (Croquettes)! (They serve limited quantities per day.)
We quickly place an order for a few flavors and head off to a table to try them out. The first item is their Takomaru Korokke (Octopus Croquette). These are smaller, dense round fried balls of Octopus and Potato filling. Unfortunately, it's cold. The festival has only been open for an hour or so, and the Takomaru Korokke are already cold (their heat lamps must not be working very well).
There's still a good crunch on the exterior with nice, meaty chunks of Octopus inside. Overall, if this was warm or hot, they would be much better.
Their humorously named Danshaku Bata- Korokke (literally "Baron Butter Croquette") is much better: These just finished frying up (they were late putting them out), and as a result, we got piping hot, crispy, crunchy Korokke, filled with a seductive Hokkaido Butter and Potato Puree filling. Delicious! :)
We finish with their Kani Korokke (Crab Croquette), which is warm (not hot), probably finished sometime after their Octopus. The Kani Korokke at warm temperature remained enjoyable, with light flecks of Crab meat with a predominant Potato Puree filling. There's a light oceanic quality, but not enough Crab to balance out the Potato.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of the Korokke (Croquettes) at this Hokkaido Fair will hinge greatly on how long they've been out of the fryer and sitting under the heat lamps. In an ideal world, they would fry up your order of Korokke when you order and you wait for them, but that's unfeasible given the crowds and limited staff on hand. If you can get the Korokke while they just finished frying, definitely give some of the flavors at try. Prices range from $1 - $2 for each piece.
*** Rating: 6.5 (out of 10.0) ***
(Fresh Korokke right out of the fryer (Danshaku Bata- Korokke) Rating: 8.3 (out of 10.0))
In a bit of a switch, Mitsuwa invited back Ramen Ezo Fukurou (pronounced "Eh-Zoh Foo-Koo-Roh") from Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, who were featured at the 2009 Umaimono Gourmet Fair earlier this year, but this time, they're at the Costa Mesa Fair instead of the Torrance location.
At the event earlier this year, Chef Sato Kimitoshi served up Miso Butter Corn Ramen. This time, however, they're featuring 2 new Ramen flavors. We place an order for both and notice an unfortunate hiccup in pacing: The first batch of Ramen (before us) are served and then there's a long wait of about ~20+ minutes before the next batch of Ramen orders are ready to be served. After their experience working at the Umaimono Fair earlier this year, you would think they would be used to the foreign kitchen, but no matter, as we had good company as we awaited our Noodles. :)
Their Ebi Shio Bata- Ramen (Shrimp Salt Butter Ramen Noodle Soup) sounds the most enticing of the 2 new flavors, and we eagerly take a sip.
A solid Soup of Torigara (Chicken Bones) and Tonkotsu (Pork Bones) and Salt mixed with Butter give this Ramen a light profile but with some depth. It's thankfully not as salty as the Torrance Fair's offering with Shingen, but the Butter feels a little too heavy for the soup (as seen in the next offering), and there's a strong pungent aspect from the Shrimp.
Finally, their Ebi (Shrimp) is a bit disappointing: They probably had to source some of their ingredients from less than ideal circumstances and the Shrimp tastes like the result of that. It tastes like frozen, old Shrimp, really briny and pungent. While two of the Shrimp were butterflied and cleaned, the third Shrimp wasn't cleaned at all.
Their 2nd style of Ramen fared much better: Tappuri Yasai no Shio Tanmen (literally "Lots of Vegetable" Salt Stir Fried Vegetable Noodle Soup).
While this Shio Tanmen uses the same Soup as their Butter Shrimp Ramen, without the added Butter and the brininess from the old Shrimp, a wonderful clarity is gained: The Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) and Torigara (Chicken Bone) base really shine here, unfettered by any distractions.
There's a natural sweetness that's gained with the addition of the Tanmen ingredients, which basically has Kimitoshi-san stir-frying Kyabetsu (Cabbage), Hakusai (Napa Cabbage), Tamanegi (Onions), Moyashi (Bean Sprouts) and Ninjin (Carrots) along with some Marinated Ground Pork, and then mixing it into the Ramen Noodle Soup. It's a nice substantial vegetable addition that makes it taste healthy, green and accentuates the tastiness of the Ground Pork and the Soup itself. The Kikurage (Wood Ear Mushroom) and Negi (Green Onions) serve as a great final touch.
Like the Butter Shrimp Ramen, this Shio Tanmen uses the same, very thick, yellow curly Noodles. They're chewy and slightly doughy and feel a little too thick.
With this second visit to Ezo Fukurou, and trying out 2 more styles of their Ramen, I still haven't found a Ramen dish from them that truly excites the senses. But out of the 3 types I've tried from them so far, their Shio Tanmen shows the most promise.
*** Rating: 6.9 (out of 10.0) ***
The 2009 Hokkaido Fair also features stands that sell cooking ingredients direct from Hokkaido, such as some rarer types of Konbu (Kelp) like Hidaka and even Tororo Konbu.
They're also offering up Ika Bento (Squid Lunch Boxes) from Abe Shoten, which feature 2 Squid stuffed with marinated Rice.
And one of the most popular items from last year's Hokkaido Fair makes a return: Kanikosen's Tarabagani Bento (King Crab Leg Bento Boxes), from Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan. At $29.90 per Bento, it's certainly not a casual lunch box, but what's surprising this year is that they were sold out of their entire first batch within the first 1.5 hours of opening(!).
It had been so long since I had a wonderful Melon Pan (Melon Bun) that I was hoping beyond hope that this year's creations from Paocari Bakery (Kobe, Japan) would be better than last year's version. Like last year, Paocari is offering their Yubari Melon Pan (Cantaloupe Melon Bun); it smelled wonderful so we quickly ordered one to sample. :)
And while the Cantaloupe aroma permeated the outer crust, the Melon Pan itself was a bit on the dry side (not completely), with a rather flat-tasting interior. It wasn't bad, but a far cry from the fresh-baked Melon Pan I had (that had just come out of the oven) in Nakano.
At $2.50 for each Bun it's decent, but not something I'm looking forward to at next year's festival.
*** Rating: 6.5 (out of 10.0) ***
We finished up with some kawaii (cute) Nama Dorayaki, which is a Japanese Sweet with 2 layers of Sponge Cake stuffed with a type of filling, in this case, Pumpkin Jam.
In this case, I would say the packaging was the highlight of the dish, as the Nama Dorayaki itself tasted decent, like a typical Sponge Cake Sweet you might find at a local bakery in So Cal. The Pumpkin Jam filling also tasted more artificial than I had hoped, lacking any real essence from the famous autumnal squash.
Price is $1.75 for each Sweet.
*** Rating: 6.0 (out of 10.0) ***
Overall, the Mitsuwa 2009 Hokkaido Fair offers up another chance to try some regional dishes and ingredients, all from the far north of Japan on the island of Hokkaido. While the 3 types of Ramen offered this year didn't really wow me, at least 2 of them offered a nice respite and change of pace from the limited options we have in So Cal.
It's also unfortunate that this year, Mitsuwa wasn't able to fly in the Seafood from Hokkaido like last year (e.g., the Live Kegani (Japanese Hairy Crab) from Hokkaido), but in this economy it's understandable if they felt that the product might not sell. While there may not be many highlights, these small Mitsuwa Food Fairs are something worth applauding in that they offer a chance to experience a bit more of Japanese cuisine throughout the year.
The 2009 Hokkaido Fair runs from September 10 (Thurs), 2009 - September 13 (Sun), 2009 at:
Mitsuwa Market (Torrance)
21515 Western Avenue
Torrance, CA 90501
Tel: (310) 782-0335
Mitsuwa Market (Costa Mesa)
665 Paularino Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Hours: 10:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
(Ramen starts serving at 11:00 a.m. every day, and is served until they run out (sometimes by mid-afternoon)).
21515 Western Av, Torrance, CA 90501
665 Paularino Ave, Costa Mesa, CA