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Like the Yakitori-ya, another facet of Japanese cuisine that still hasn't gained the popularity of Sushi in the U.S. would have to be the concept of Japanese Small Plates and the Izakaya, approximated as "Japanese Tapas" from time-to-time. Essentially the idea of the Izakaya is like a Japanese Pub, a place to relax and drink from a good selection of nice Sakes, Shochus, Beer and Wine (depending on the location). Unlike what we normally think of as "Pub Food" here in the States, the Japanese Izakaya's Small Dishes are usually some of THE best food to be had for Japanese cuisine: Down-to-earth, comfort food, and if made correctly, soul-warming and so tasty! While I love Sushi, my favorite type of Japanese cuisine would probably be the Small Dishes found at an Izakaya in Japan.
So it was with great interest and hope that I set out to try Otafuku (pronounced "Oh-Tah-Foo-Koo"), an oft-talked about restaurant on CH, but relatively unknown to many. Thanks to Pleasurepalate and Perceptor's great reviews, I finally got around to organizing an outing with my hardcore J Hounds to try out this Izakaya last Saturday evening.
True to the reports, Otafuku is truly hidden away on a non-descript portion of Western Avenue in Gardena. The front of the restaurant looks like it's totally boarded-up and closed(!), but thanks to CH, we headed around the building to the back for their true entrance, which has no signage!
Once inside, however, all was right: Otafuku's decor was down-to-earth, simple, and reflective of the simpler neighborhood Izakayas in Tokyo, versus the higher end places like Toki no Ma. We asked for some hot tea (complimentary) while perusing the menu, and the waitress brought out some Sobacha (Buckwheat Green Tea), which had a wonderful, light aroma pervading each sip! Definitely a nice start to the evening already. :)
Their menu was impressively extensive, with a nice selection and variety of Sashimi, Appetizers, Salads, Grilled Dishes, Yakitori, Tempura, etc., as well as a good selection of Japanese Sakes (a must for this type of restaurant. :) I'd recommend Karatamba (from Hyogo Prefecture), clean, dry and crisp; and of course, Kubota Manjyu.
We began with their Kurobuta Kushikatsu (Japanese Berkshire Black Hogs Cutlet (on skewers)), from their Deep Fried Dishes portion of the menu. Excellent, unctuous pieces of Berkshire Pork marinated and deep-fried on skewers, especially wonderful when dabbed in the Karashi (Japanese Mustard) on the side.
Next up was a classic dish in most Izakayas, the Surume Ika no Aburiyaki (Charbroiled Whole Squid). The Ika (Squid) was perfectly cooked, tender, and perfect with a tiny bit of the freshly-grated Ginger provided (or if you prefer a little more salt, Ginger and Soy Sauce).
The next item was their Gindara Misozuke Yaki (Broiled Black Cod with Sweet Soy Bean Paste). Consistent with their dishes so far, the Black Cod was beautifully cooked, perfect in execution with the fish remaining moist and tender, a chunk of buttery goodness. For flavor variation, pour a little Soy Sauce on the mound of freshly-grated Daikon provided with the dish, then try each bite of the Gindara (Black Cod) with some of that mixture.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the night was our next dish: Jyako Salada (Mixed Green Salad with Whitebait). Like the surprise at Palate earlier this week, Otafuku's Jyako Salada was another revelation to me in the world of Salads (which I normally stay away from). This Mixed Green Salad was probably *the* best Salad I've had in So Cal in the last year or so! The Mixed Greens, Radish Sprouts, thin-cut Cucumbers, Japanese parsley and especially the crunchy Whitebait Fish, combined with their housemade Salad dressing (a light, slightly sweet, tart and savory vinaigrette) made this the equivalent of Salad Nirvana! OK, well maybe not that extreme, but it made for a refreshing, crunchy, exciting Salad that was so good, the J Hounds insisted that we order it again, a *2nd* time, toward the end of the evening. Wonderful!
After this came our Gyusuji Negi Ponzu (Beef Tendon with Ponzu Sauce), a wonderfully light dish of Beef Tendon, stewed with Kelp, topped with Green Onions and served with Ponzu Sauce. It's a simple dish, but perfectly executed here, with the Beef Tendon being soft and tender, and paired nicely with a bit of the Negi and Ponzu. Excellent with some rice, or between shots of good Sake. :)
Continuing on was another item we wanted to test the kitchen on: Otafuku Tokusei Jidori Kara-age (Otafuku Homemade Fried Chicken). Otafuku uses an All-Natural, Hormone-Free Chicken with this dish, and they used just the right amount of spices, wisely leaving most of the sodium control on the side, with the sea-salt dish. It had a nice tenderness to the chicken, and it's well executed, but didn't exceed the best I've had. Still very recommended, though.
Continuing on, we ordered a variety of classic items from their Yakitori Menu, which are roasted meats (usually chicken) and vegetables on skewers (like a Kebab), over charcoals. This portion of the meal was very good, but after being spoiled by the greatness of Tomo-san at Yakitori Bincho, it's tough to enjoy other places. (^_~) Regardless, it was still enjoyable, and our first skewer set were Asupara Maki (mislabeled as only "Asparagus" on the menu). These are spears of Asparagus wrapped in Pork Belly and roasted to goodness. :) Cooked just right, and the combination of Pork Belly and Asparagus was excellent.
The Uzura (Quail Eggs) came next. I was sad that they didn't have the more extravagant Quail Eggs wrapped in Bacon, but oh well. :) They were cooked just fine and matched nicely with the classic Shichimi Togarashi (Japanese Red Chili Pepper Powder) or Sansho seasoning, depending on your preference.
Their Okura Maki (Okra wrapped in Pork Belly) was good as well, matching up nicely with Shin Sen Gumi's version.
Their Hatsu (Chicken Hearts) were competently roasted, but nothing outstanding.
Their Sasami Umejiso (Chicken Breast with Japanese Plum and Perilla) was excellent. The nice combination of Ume (Japanese Plum) and Shiso leaf was great, but it was a tad overcooked (it is Chicken Breast, but it was dried out compared to Chicken Breast preparations at Yakitori Bincho, and what I've had at Shin Sen Gumi Fountain Valley).
After the wave of Yakitori skewers, a house specialty arrived: Kurobuta Ro~su Yuzukosho Yaki (Charbroiled Berkshire Pork with Yuzu Pepper). The Berkshire Pork was nicely grilled just right, still maintaining a moist, tender interior, while achieving a nice light charring and flavorful exterior. It was topped with Yuzukosho, a Yuzu Citrus-infused Pepper Sauce. It was a bit too salty for my tastes, but when paired with some steaming Rice and/or Sake (or Beer), and it was just fine.
One item that Otafuku prides itself on is their homemade (by hand) Soba Noodles. I'd heard much about their process, and the J Hound group I enlisted tonight were all big Soba Otaku, so we were excited to try theirs out. First up was their Kikouchi (Soba Noodle made with 100% Buckwheat Flour). Each bite of the Soba was filled with a nice subtle, slightly nutty, grainy aroma and taste. It was definitely nice. However, being 100% Buckwheat Flour has its drawbacks, and it was the texture: It was just too chalky and chunky. Each bite tasted as if you were eating slightly uncooked pasta, and we all agreed that it was a nice idea and the aroma was standout, but the texture took away too much.
Next up was the classic Zaru Soba, a thinner Soba Noodle made up of a partial mixture of Buckwheat Flour. The color of their Zaru Soba was a lot more pale than what one would find from the pre-made, instant variety, but one bite and it was clear that this was some good Soba. It was light, simple, slightly fragrant from the Buckwheat Flour, and just a good Soba noodle texture.
Next was their Uni no Okizuke (simply labeled as "Sea Urchin"). This was probably the only major misstep of the night: We had thought it was fresh Uni, topped with some Wasabi, as the menu states. However, when it arrived it was strangely dark (not a good sign). We took a bite and it was *marinated* Uni, infused with possibly Mirin and something else, maybe Rice Vinegar, and the resultant taste and aroma were just too pungent for any of us to finish. Raw Uni has a very limited shelf-life, and letting it sit around and marinate really brings out the badness in Uni.
Luckily the next dish rebounded nicely: Ni Anago no Shiroyaki (White Grilled Sea Eel). Nicely cooked, grilled perfectly, with the Sea Eel still very tender and buttery good!
We ended with a Jikaseiji Tamago Purin (Homemade Custard Pudding). This was a home-made Custard Pudding that was as delicate as the finest Flan I've ever had. Wonderfully fluffy, light and airy, and not overly sweet (if you don't eat the Ice Cream on the side (^_~)). Amazingly delicious!
As a simple neighborhood Japanese Pub, Otafuku's service was to be expected: Decent, with you flagging down a waitress as needed. All-in-all, it was $60 per person (including Tax and Tip), but it can vary depending on how much you drink and if you eat more or less (we were stuffed and over-ordered but wanted to try out so many of the dishes :).
One note: Otafuku opens for Lunch, but they only serve Box Lunches, Bowls and their Soba Noodles. This has led to some confusion by people who visit Otafuku for lunch and think that that is all there is to the restaurant. The wonderful Small Dishes / Tapas-style Menu is only available for Dinner.
Otafuku is an excellent, high-quality Japanese Izakaya: A humble, neighborhood Japanese Pub serving amazing Small Plates ("Tapas"-like), with a great Sake and Shochu selection. The only "non-authentic" / disappointing aspect is that it closes early, especially on the weekends(!), which is really surprising. The concept of the local Izakaya in Japan is a place you can go to, like a Pub, sit down, grab drinks and very good eats, and stay out *late*. (^_~) While this isn't Japan it's still rather disappointing that so much goodness is limited to a mere 4.5 or 3.5 hour block, depending on the day. In that respect it falls short of the fun and convenience of other top So Cal Japanese Izakayas like Musha and Kappo Honda. Regardless, Otafuku is a wonderful Japanese Small Plates restaurant that's worth returning to again and again.
*** Rating: 8.7 (out of 10.0) ***
16525 S. Western Ave.
Gardena, CA 90247
Tel: (310) 532-9348
M-Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 2:00 p.m.
M-F, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sat, 5:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.(!) :(
16525 S Western Ave, Gardena, CA
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