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Southern California is blessed with so many interesting and diverse restaurants that sometimes you have to take a step back and marvel at what's available. My list of restaurants to try is monstrous and I'm sure that it represents only 0.1% of all the eateries in L.A. and O.C., if that. :) One such place that I've been recommended to try time and again over the years (from my good friend from Tokyo (who knew of this place before I did) and JAB and many others) is a little Yakiniku (Japanese Barbecue) restaurant called Tsuruhashi.
Located in a quiet corner of a very quiet strip mall, Tsuruhashi has gained a massive following over the years, with the wait for a table on weekends averaging 1.5 - 2 hours! People usually call ahead and leave their name and cell phone # on the waiting list to be called when their table is almost ready. My first visit to Tsuruhashi put me face-to-face with the madhouse popularity, with us waiting about 45 minutes for a table to open up.
Yakiniku is essentially the Japanese interpretation of Korean BBQ and Tsuruhashi is named after the famous district named Tsuruhashi in Osaka, Japan, which is their little "Korea Town." The recipes found at Tsuruhashi were inspired by the original members of the back of the house and the recipes they learned while working at various Yakiniku restaurants in that district of Osaka.
Like the recently visited Sansui-Tei (another Japanese BBQ specialist), every table at Tsuruhashi has a center grill using a combination of Sumi (Japanese Charcoal) and Gas to cook the meat. In addition, every guest is provided with two types of dipping sauces: A house-made Shoyu Tare (Soy Sauce-based Marinade) and a Misodare (Miso-based Marinade). The Shoyu Tare turns out to be lightly sweet while still maintaining a good salty base, while the Misodare leans much more on the sweet side with a pungent edge. Most of the meats are able to stand on their own without either of the sauces.
Like Sansui-Tei, one of the things that catches my attention from the start is the different grades of meat per category (e.g., different types of Kalbi, different types of Rib Eye, etc.). We begin with their Jotan Shio (Salted Prime Fresh Beef Tongue), which is the best type of Beef Tongue offered on the menu.
To help with the cooking process and prevent burning, a nice chunk of Beef Fat is provided to rub over the grill while cooking the Jotan Shio. It's also served with the usual Lemon Shio (Lemon Salt Sauce).
Our order of Ninniku Oiru Yaki (Roasted Garlic in Sesame Oil) arrives at the same time, which is a great pairing for any of the meats on the menu (and we promptly throw it onto a low heat corner of the grill to slowly cook).
Within what seems like mere seconds, the Jotan Shio is ready since it's thinly sliced and nicely marbled. The first bite of this Prime Beef Tongue is pure joy: Extremely tender, with a very clean and pure beefiness, it turns out to be even better than Sansui-Tei's Tokujo Tan Shio (Washugyu Tongue), but only marginally. Still, this is the best version of Gyu Tan (Beef Tongue) I've had in So Cal so far. Excellent. :)
It should be noted that all results from Yakiniku are dependent on how well you and your party cook the meat: Leave a piece of meat on the grill for too long and it can quickly turn from medium-rare to medium-well or well-done (sometimes in a matter of seconds), and the taste and results will change dramatically; just something to watch out for. (^_~)
Tsuruhashi's Namuru (Namul (Assorted Seasoned Vegetables)) arrive, nicely arranged in a long tray. They are solidly executed examples of the classic Korean side dishes; no complaints.
Their Kurobuta Bara (Berkshire Natural Pork Belly) arrives, thinly sliced and with a wonderful color to them. It's served with Sanchu (Green Leaf Lettuce), and a Jikasei Miso (Home-made Miso), and a Black-Pepper Sesame Oil Sauce.
The Berkshire Pork Belly cooks quickly and we eagery try it with all the options. By itself, the Berkshire Pork Belly is like the purest, cleanest of grilled Pork Belly we've ever had. The meat is fresh and you can never go wrong with piping hot Pork Belly, fresh off the grill. :) When wrapped with some of the Lettuce and Home-made Miso, it adds a nice coolness and helps to cut through the fattiness of the Pork Belly.
Their Kinoko Moriawase (Organic Mushroom Mix from Japan (Eringi (King Trumpet Mushroom), Buna-Shimeji (Brown Clamshell Mushroom), Maitake (Hen of the Woods Mushroom)) arrive soon after. All three types turn out to be outstanding, fragrant, woodsy and delicious.
The Kurobuta Tsura (Berkshire Natural Pork Cheek) seems to be the perfect counterpoint to the previous exploration of glorious rich Pork Fat of the Berkshire Pork Belly earlier, with a meatier, leaner cut of meat (while still retaining some nice marbling).
After a slightly longer cooking time, the Tsura (Pork Cheek) is ready and has a thicker, layered texture that's pleasing without being chewy or chunky. While Sansui-Tei's Buta Toro (Pork Toro) is more enjoyable, this is a good dish to order if you enjoy Pork but don't want something too fatty.
While Tsuruhashi offers a good selection of Pork dishes, it's their Beef dishes that are their main specialty. All their Beef is sourced from either a U.S. Kobe Beef (from Washington), or USDA Prime (from Nebraska). By far, their most prized beef is the Kobe Ro-su (U.S. Kobe Rib Eye Cap) which is consistently sold out because of limited quantities by their suppliers. On the night of our first visit, it was sold out, so we ordered the next best thing:
Puraimu Ribu Joro-su (USDA Prime Rib Eye Cap). The Prime Rib Eye Cap is gorgeous in its vibrant red, looking very fresh and we quickly threw some pieces onto the grill. :)
The Prime Rib Eye Cap is soft and tender without being too marbled, and without needing a knife. There's a very pure meatiness that comes through with each bite of this Nebraska Beef and it's more enjoyable than most of the other cuts we had on the first visit.
The next dish to arrive is the only one available that night from the U.S. Kobe sub-section of the menu (all the other dishes were sold out): Kobe Bara (U.S. Kobe Boneless Short Rib). One look at the meat and it's immediately apparent that this is from a different breed of cattle, with excess marbling in a gorgeous pattern.
I was hoping that this U.S. Kobe Bara here would yield better results than the disappointing Washugyu Tokusen Karubi (Superior Kobe Kalbe (Best Quality Short Rib)) at Sansui-Tei. It is slightly better than Sansui-Tei's version, but not by much: The Kobe Bara here was the chewiest cut of meat we had all night, but it had a good creamy quality from the marbling. There was some gristle in each piece which was slightly disappointing, but overall it was a decent cut.
The final dish of our first visit turns out to be their Honetsuki Karubi (Prime BBQ Rib with Bone). It's a less marbled cut than the Kobe Bara dishes, so I was initially worried that it would be even chewier than the Kobe Bara. But thankfully it was the opposite: It was a bit less chewy than the Kobe Bara, soft but still being a bit chewier than what I would've liked. There was a good beefiness and freshness and it had the most distinct textural contrast with the rest of the dishes that night.
But to visit a traditional Yakiniku restaurant and not order their Offal is missing out on some of the most popular and best items on the menu; the same applies at Tsuruhashi. On our second visit, I had to try their most popular dish and one that is rare to find in So Cal:
Nama Reba- Sashimi (Very Fresh Beef Liver Sashimi).
I'm normally not a big Liver fan in general, really disliking the classic "liver" / metallic taste found in most cooked Liver dishes. At Tsuruhashi, fresh Raw Beef Liver is sliced and served simply with some Green Onions and Ginger and a slice of Lemon, topped with Sesame Seeds.
I delicately take a slice of the Beef Liver Sashimi and place it in my mouth... Wow. Silky smooth, supple, delicate and having *none* of the taste normally associated with "Liver." It tasted like the best Silken (Soft) Tofu, but with a slightly beefy quality. It was perfect as is, and a bit of the Green Onion and Ginger was the perfect complement. :)
On this visit, our second time ordering their regular Kobe Bara (Kobe Boneless Short Rib) turned out to have a slightly creamier, less chewy cut (with very little gristle in most of the pieces). (On a side note, their Kobe Ro-su was sold out yet again.)
But it's their Hatsu (Beef Heart) that elevates the dinner even more than before.
Marinated in a special blend of Gochujang (a fermented Chili and Soybean Paste) and their House-made Shoyu Tare (Soy Sauce Marinade), the end result is an enjoyable, tender yet firm, silken slivers of Beef Heart that's just outstanding. :)
Their Puraimu Ro-su Umeshiso Maki (Prime Rib Eye Rolled with Perilla and Pickled Japanese Plum) was something I was really looking forward to.
Sadly, it turns out to be the most disappointing dish of the evening: Very chewy with too much Ume paste overpowering the Beef itself. The problem lies in the cut of meat: The Beef is cut too thick and when rolled on itself makes each bite of this Beef Roll something too thick to cook evenly which results in some parts slightly overcooked and raw on the inside.
One of the guests this evening is a huge seafood lover, so we order their Kaisen Yaki (Seafood Mix of Salmon, Shrimp, Scallop, Squid, Green Mussel).
The Shrimp turn out to be pretty straightforward, tasting a little bit too briny, while the open-grilled Salmon is delicious.
The rest of the Seafood plate has mixed results with the grilled Mussels being the least favorite for everyone. The Ika (Squid) is just fine, but lacks the expert execution of a good Izakaya preparation (which is our own fault :). It's a break from all the Beef courses, but it's not something I'd order again.
Their Negi Tan Shio (Salted Prime Tongue with Green Onions) is normally made with their Jotan (USDA Prime Beef Tongue), but they were sold out and were making this dish with their regular Beef Tongue cut instead (at a cheaper price).
But it served as a good opportunity to see how their Regular Tongue compares with the Prime version. If you're ever curious about what the difference is between certain grades of meat, the USDA Prime Beef Tongue vs. regular Tongue is a good example: While the marinade and massive over-topping of Green Onion are enticing (I love Negi :), the drop in quality was really noticeable. It was very tough and much chewier, but still retained the freshness that Tsuruhashi has exhibited in all its Beef and Pork dishes. We tried pieces at medium-rare, medium and medium-well to see if that helped, but it didn't. Overall it was disappointing.
Unfortunately continuing the downward trend is Tsuruhashi's Kashiwa (Tori) (Chicken Leg with a choice of Salt or Miso-based Marinade). It wasn't bad per se, but the Chicken was just a standard, straightforward preparation, and while the homemade Miso helped with the flavors, it actually overpowered the Chicken slightly. As a point of comparison, I enjoyed Sansui-Tei's Jidori (Free-Range Chicken) dish much more with its tenderness and natural, fresh poultry essence shining through.
But probably the highlight of Tsuruhashi's entire menu would be their Kobe Ro-su (U.S. Kobe Rib Eye Cap), something I was finally able to try on a third visit to Tsuruhashi (when it wasn't sold out again).
At first glance, the intense, deep blood-red color with little marbling (compared to other Kobe-style cuts) makes me pause and wonder if it's the right cut. But after a quick sear on the grill, all the doubts are dispelled.
Gloriously buttery and so supple, the Kobe Rib Eye Cap is so far above the rest of Tsuruhashi's menu that it's the reason to eat here. (^_^) Using a house-made Shoyu Tare (Soy Sauce Blended Marinade) that's different from the one served at each table, the result are pieces of tender, delicate slices of U.S. Kobe Beef that are lightly sweet and bring a smile to your face with each bite. Outstanding. :) (We try it rare, medium-rare, and medium and it still holds up well with each level of doneness.)
It was also fortuitous that they restocked their Kobe Jobara (U.S. Kobe Superior Boneless Short Rib), which is their highest grade of the Short Rib (they also have the regular Kobe Bara (which we tried before, and then the Prime version). Like the Kobe Ro-su, the Kobe Jobara is pretty popular and sells out quickly on busy nights (it was sold out on the previous two visits).
Just one look at the meat and it's clear to see that this is the most marbled piece of Beef on the menu; it's the type of marbling that one would expect from certain grades of Japanese Wagyu Beef, so it was exciting to see how this would turn out.
With the first bite, an amazing creaminess fills the mouth with a fresh Kobe Beef flavor coming through a split-second later. With this much marbling, it's almost expected and yet it's still welcome. :) But after chewing a bit, there's still a tiny bit of gristle in each piece, but it's minor. Trying it rare, medium-rare and medium, I found medium-rare to be the most enjoyable for this cut and just wished the little bit of gristle wasn't there. Overall it's the best Short Rib I've had at any of the Japanese or Korean BBQ restaurants around town.
Finally, their Tan Tare (Fresh Tongue Marinated with Home-made Miso Sauce) helps finish off the evening's meal. It's the last of the different types of Beef Tongue on the menu and I was curious how it would compare with the other offerings.
Using the regular cut of Beef Tongue (not the USDA Prime version), the Home-made Miso is intense and imparts a very bold, strong flavor that permeates every bite (no additional dipping sauce is necessary). There's a nice fragrance to the Home-made Miso, but unfortunately the cut of Beef Tongue used brings the whole dish down. Like the regular cut of Beef Tongue before (but worse), this regular Beef Tongue has less marbling and is just a tougher cut of meat. Each bite results in a slightly tough, hard-to-chew slice of Beef Tongue that's bursting with flavor. Trying it rare, medium-rare, medium and medium-well didn't help the results either.
For a restaurant of only ~14 different sized tables, Tsuruhashi usually has 3-4 waitresses and the Tenchou (Store Manager) roaming the aisles and trying to accommodate all the customers. Even with the seeming abundance of servers, it's not enough at times, but it's what you'd expect at a simple Japanese Yakiniku restaurant in So Cal. Prices range from $2 - $18.95 for their standalone dishes with a $23 Family Set (Rib Eye, Outside Skirt, Boneless Short Rib, Chicken) as well. We averaged about ~$43 per person (including tax and tip) for each of the 3 visits.
Tsuruhashi Japanese BBQ is an example of the quintessential Yakiniku restaurant in So Cal: A popular, very busy restaurant serving up a wide variety of meats to satisfy whatever your carnivore appetite desires. While I'll be going back to Sansui-Tei for their great Jidori (Free-Range Chicken), Buta Toro (Pork Toro) and Thin Cut Washugyu Tokusen Ro-su (Supreme Kobe Beef Rib Eye), Tsuruhashi is my favorite for all the other cuts, from their silky Beef Liver Sashimi, wonderful Beef Heart, their amazing Jotan Shio (Salted Prime Fresh Beef Tongue), and the #1 reason to try Tsuruhashi, Kobe Ro-su (U.S. Kobe Rib Eye Cap). It's a fun, communal dinner, with everyone at the table grilling meat and vegetables and having a good time, bumping into friends and strangers from the neighborhood and sharing in more drink and good eats. :) It's what Yakiniku is all about.
*** Rating: 8.3 (out of 10.0) ***
Tsuruhashi Japanese B.B.Q.
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
Tel: (714) 593-8393
Hours: 7 Days A Week, 5:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.
18798 Brookhurst St, Fountain Valley, CA 92708
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