Being a strappin' burly male who's proud of his gender (yeahright), I was a bit reluctant to ask about the, "Lady's Special," that was printed on Sanuki no Sato's daily specials list. We were wanting to head over to Torihei in Torrance after salivating over poster exilekiss's review. However, with my mom offering to treat our family to dinner, and her having many self-defined constraints relative to eating, we decided to play it safe and go to somewhere familiar to her.
For those not familiar with Sanuki no Sato, it's located in a small shopping center on the corner of Western and 182nd in Gardena right next to Asa Ramen - one of the upper-tier ramen joints in LA. Sanuki no Sato is no slouch either. Some have described this place as, "the Denny's of Japanese food," but I beg to differ. Denny's is one of those places that you detour off the highway for because, well because there's nothing else around or open. Sanuki no Sato does just about all foods Japanese that one could think of off the top of one's head, and they do most pretty well. In general, the portions at Sanuki no Sato are generous. If you order a set meal, like the Ten-Don (Tonkatsu pork cutlet set on a rice bowl), it's $22, but the amount and array of food one gets borders on gluttony. I don't think many things here are truly stellar, but for a solid Japanese meal, Sanuki no Sato is very consistant. Throw in one of the tatami rooms and a bottle of Kubota Manju sake, and life is pretty grand for at least one night.
Izakaya food is basically Japanese pub food - small dishes of this and that, usually comforting, tasty, and goes well with a nice bowl of rice. Izakayas are found throughout the towns and cities of Japan. They often serve as kinda like way-stations for folks going to or from somewhere. Folks often stop by one to grab a drink and some small bites before hitting the subway, heading home, or to a show. They're nice just to hang out at as well and just gas off. We're lucky here in the LA area to have some great izakaya places like Izakaya Bincho and Musha.
So I set aside my mega-male ego, knuckled under, and had my wife ask about the, "Lady's Special." I showed them - huh! The menu describes this as a "small" 10-course of small dishes, Izakaya-style for $30. The waitress confirmed this, but wasn't sure (and probably didn't have the time to describe) about each of the dishes. But she did mention that it was quite a bit of food and that if my wife ordered it (hee-hee), that we should probably pull back on the rest of our order. We decided to nix my wife's udon with buta no kakuni (which was really mine) and go ahead with the "Lady's special.
With the term,"Lady's," and the word, "small," coming up so often had me thinking that a petite Tokyo beppinsan would put this away without a problem. But 10 small plates is still a fair amount of food. Throw in a bowl of steaming rice and a couple of beers and I think most eaters would be more than happy. In fact, I think this could easily be split between two along with rice and maybe a another side order. Here's what I had to the best of my recollection - I had the majority of a pitcher so I'm trying to think through the slight haze:
Potato salad with crab topped with tare sauce. Nice combination of potato, crab, and just enough mayo to bind it. The tare gave a nice umami kick. Nice and simple way to start the meal.
Maguro topped with yamaimo and shiso leaf. I added just a touch of shoyu, mixed the yamaimo and maguro, and this formed a nice gooey accompaniment with my rice. Again, very simple in its execution and presentation.
Wakame (sea vegetable) in vinegar. For those familiar with wakame, it can be quite slimy but most who like it prefer it that way. This was perfectly slimy but to balance it and serve as a nice counter to the previous dish, they added rice vinegar with a touch of sugar, and garnished with a pickled ginger blossom. The vinegar wasn't over-powering. In fact, I enjoyed sipping the remaining slightly tart liquid.
Chawanmushi. This is basically a savory steamed egg custard with bits of seafood, vegetables, etc. that is served in a small cup. This is a pretty standard dish at Sanuki no Sato, and to be honest, it's pretty basic with a small yawn factor. :)
Sashimi plate. Three nice slices of tako (squid), maguro (tuna), and kurodai (snapper) were presented with shiso and shredded daikon and some other nice garnishes. One would think that a place that serves so many different kinds of Japanese cuisine would be a bit shabby in the sashimi department, but these were all nice generous cuts that tasted as fresh and sweet as one would expect at a sushi joint. According to the waitress, the maguro is standard, but the other sashimi will vary with what is available.
Buta no kakuni. Pork belly seems to have permeated the local restaurant scene and with good reason. It's pretty hard to mess up, and anything that is the precursor to bacon has to be wonderful. The culinary roots of Buta no kakuni is believed to have begun in China and made its way across to Southern Japan, from where it has spread across the islands to become a mainstay in Japanese comfort food. There's nothing else that is widespread in Japanese cuisine like buta no kakuni. Slowly braised in an elixir of sake, mirin, shoyu, a little sugar, ginger, and scallions (my favorite is to add star anise as well), one 11/2" square cube is a flavor bomb of umami, sweetness, and savory unctuous fat. This is usually served in a small bowl with the elixir and a dab of hot mustard. And this is how Sanuki no Sato serves it, and they do it well. This one dish can cause me to power through a full bowl of rice.
Tsukemono (pickled vegetables). A nice assortment of pickled vegetables were presented on a small plate. This was a nice complement to the rich dishes that I enjoyed with rice.
Gindara (Black cod) and tamago (egg omlette). Gindara is the pork belly of seafood. It's rich, buttery, and picks up umami like no other fish. Usually marinated in kasuzuke (rice wine lees) mixture or miso, or both then grilled or roasted, gindara takes but a small slice to satisfy one's tastebuds. Sanuki no Sato again does a very good rendition of this. I didn't sample the tamago as my son grabbed it but he gave it a thumbs-up.
Kake udon. A small bowl of basic udon with lots of scallions and some pickled vegetables was a nice way to approach the end of the ten courses. I don't know why, but many Japanese seem to enjoy having a bowl of soup with noodles toward or at the end of a meal. For me, I'd rather start that way - maybe it's my Western upbringing that signals soup at the front end of a meal. Anyway,
Aji furai (fried horse mackerel). Over the years, I've come to appreciate the fishiness of the various mackerels. When grilled, roasted, marinated, or fried properly, it is one of my favorite fishes on the menu. It also happens to be my mom's favorite as well. Sanuki no Sato's version is scaled, cross-cut along the lateral lines, lightly floured, and deep-fried to a nice crispness. With my mom staring at the aji platter in front of me, I could almost feel the tears flowing from her soul, wishing she had ordered one. This type of dish would probably scare a lot of people away but is truly something that Japanese folks have a very strong affinity for and memorable ties to. I placed it in front of her and told her to go ahead and eat it. Being the ever self-flagellating Japanese mother (think of that one sub-story in Tampopo of the dutiful mother getting up from near-death to prepare her family one more meal then falling dead from exhaustion - that's the stereotypical Japanese mom - my mom), she declined several times, but her eyes betrayed here. Then after my continued insistence, she finally said, "OK, but just the head."
"Mom - it's OK - eat the whole thing - I know this kind of fish reminds you of home. Besides, you can pick it apart from the bones better than I can. Please, eat it."
So she starts in, and like a seasoned surgeon performing with great dexterity, she starts to pick it apart. At first, she removes and sets aside s few of the bigger bones, but then she started eating everything - flesh, bones, all. The thing with young aji is, if it's fried to perfection, you can eat just about all of the fish except a few of the bigger main bones and the skull. This was definitely one of those that was young and fried to perfection. I got a small taste - it was tasty - and the bones were not an issue. As my mom (who claimed she was full after not even finishing a quarter of her meal) finished the crispy tail, I could tell she was finally content. So if you're into deep-fried horse mackerel, the pro gives her stamp of approval.
For thirty bucks, given the array of foods, I'd say it's a good way to sample a wide variety of Japanese cuisine. The quality of the ingredients was much better than I expected and the service was typically good. "Japanese Denny's"? Sanuki no Sato deserves a lot more respect than that...
Sanuki No Sato
18206 S Western Ave, Gardena, CA 90248
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