(Formatted with All Pictures here:
Last year's special Japanese Gourmet Food Fair, dubbed the "Umaimono Gourmet Fair," was a fun way to experience some specialty foods of Japan, all courtesy of Mitsuwa Marketplace. So when I heard about the return of this food festival, I quickly enlisted a willing Japanese Hound to try out the foods at both festivals for their Opening Day. (Note: The Mitsuwa Umaimono Festival is being held at both their Costa Mesa and Torrance locations, similar to last year.)
*** Torrance Umaimono Gourmet Fair ***
We arrived at the Torrance Mitsuwa Festival early, and were happy to see the return of Takoya Kukuru, despite last year's average execution. It had been a while since we had good Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Balls), so I was happy just to have something decent, and I was hoping this year's execution would be better.
We could smell the wonderful fragrance of the freshly-made Takoyaki with a line of about 10 people already (the Festival had just started a few minutes earlier).
I remembered to ask for Mayo on the side, to try and combat the sogginess we got last year, but sadly forgot to ask for the Sauce on the side as well (more on this later). We got our order and immediately sat down at an open table to minimize the "steaming" that might happen if you let the package sit too long.
Takoya Kukuru has some beautiful packaging as usual, and I quickly opened up the package...
... to reveal partially steamed Takoyaki. :( Even after only ~1.5 minutes from the cash register to the table, the Takoyaki were already steaming inside the package resulting in soggy Octopus Pastry Balls (again).
Besides the soggy exterior (bummer), the inside was very soft and slightly fluffy, with a nice meaty chunk of Tako (Octopus), nicely cooked through without being rubbery, and a good touch of White Wine, Aonori (Green Seaweed), Bonito Flakes and the Takoyaki Sauce. There was a bit too much of the Worcestershire flavor, but if not for the soggy exterior, this Takoyaki was better than last year's execution.
Recommendation: Ask for the Takoyaki Sauce and Mayo on the side, and keep the top of the package open to prevent steaming.
*** Rating: 6.5 (out of 10.0) ***
Shirohato Corporation was back with their La Poppo line of fresh-baked items, focusing on Yaki Imo (Roasted Sweet Potato) sweets and desserts, such as their La Poppo Sweet Potato Apple Pie, which was a hit with many of my friends last year.
They were also featuring a new Sweet Potato Chips this year, talking about the health benefits of Sweet Potatoes in general. :)
New to this year's festival was Terasuko Kani Inari Sushi. Featuring Kani (Crab) from Shimane Prefecture in both Inari Sushi, as well as cute Bento Lunch Box Sets.
This year's fair seemed to focus a lot more on sweets than savories, with last year's really popular Korokke (Croquette) stations removed in favor of regional Japanese Sweets from all over Japan, such as the famous Osaka sweet, Mitarashi Dango, brought over by Mukashin.
Anchindo was back bringing their very popular Deka Kintsuba (Large Cube of Azuki Bean Sweet) from Yamagata Prefecture.
We decided to get one and try out the sweet again, since we were craving Azuki. :) The Deka Kintsuba tasted better than last year, with the addition of the Kuri (Chestnut), which gave each bite a good earthy, rustic taste. It wasn't too sweet, either, which was a good thing. :)
At $3.50 per Cube, it's a bit pricey, but a nice treat if you enjoy Azuki Bean and Chestnuts.
*** Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0) ***
Another surprise was the Nama Kyarameru Ichigo (Fresh Caramel with Strawberry) Sweet from Hokkaido, Japan. We were about to order one, when we suddenly remembered the most important reason to come to the Torrance Festival...
The Torrance Festival is the only one in So Cal featuring Ezo Fukuro and their Tappuri Ko-n no Miso Bata- Ramen ("Lots o' Corn" with Miso and Butter in Ramen Noodle Soup), a specialty of their Honten (Main Branch) in Sapporo, Hokkaido.
We quickly placed our order and eagerly awaited the wok-fired goodness from Chef Sato Kimitoshi. (^_^)
The first thing that caught my ears and eyes was seeing the furious wok cooking going on, watching Kimitoshi-san stir-frying the main ingredients and a portion of the Soup for each bowl of Ramen was a great sight to see. It wasn't an assembly line pre-made broth, but rather their Ramen was cooked up for each order, which was a nice touch.
Using 2 types of Miso, a Vegetable blend, Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) and Torigara (Chicken Bone), the soup showed an intriguing depth of flavor. It was intense and pungent, with a slight bitterness (nothing offputting), that mellowed out when we mixed in the Butter.
Ezo Fukuro used a firm, yellow curly Noodle, which held up to the intense Soup really well. The Moyashi (Bean Sprouts), Tamanegi (Onions), and Ground Pork were stir fried with some of the Soup and the wok-fired flavor really added a nice facet normally not found in Ramen in So Cal. The Corn in this Miso Ramen is a famous aspect of Sapporo Ramen and it blended nicely without overpowering.
The Pork Belly Chashu was *great*! :) Fatty, but still meaty, with a very tender, melt-in-your-mouth, fresh quality, this was a great complement! :)
They were also serving a side dish: Nori Tamago Gohan (Seaweed, Egg Rice Bowl), which was a simple bowl of Steamed Rice topped with their proprietary Furikake blend (mix of Sesame Seeds, Seaweed, Scrambled Eggs and more). It was lightly sweet, but still salty enough to satisfy. For only $1, it wasn't bad, but nothing outstanding.
Overall, it was great seeing Ezo Fukuro bring over a different Ramen to this year's festival. At $9.99 + tax per bowl (and $8.45 + tax for the regular Miso Ramen), it's nothing too pricey to try. While I appreciate the flavors, it's not something I'd crave on a regular basis.
*** Rating: 7.0 (out of 10.0) ***
*** Costa Mesa "Umaimono Gourmet Fair" ***
We decided to move on to the Costa Mesa branch's Umaimono Festival, which featured 2 other specialists that *aren't* at the Torrance Festival this year. Last year, the Torrance Festival got the (in)famous Shark Fin Ramen from Chibaki-Ya, but this year, Costa Mesa's Festival got two food specialists that are well worth a visit.
Costa Mesa's Umaimono Gourmet Fair also features Takoya Kukuru's Octopus Pastry Balls, and most of the same Sweets selection, but the two highlights would have to be in their food court section.
I was happy to see the return of one of the great highlights of last year's Festival: Gyu-tan Senmon Ten Tsukasa (Beef Tongue Specialist, Tsukasa) from Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.
Their Gyu-tan Teishoku (Seared Tender Beef Tongue Combination Plate) came out a few minutes later, freshly grilled to order, and I was happy to see it served with their Oxtail Soup (same as last year's combination set).
The Gyu-tan (Beef Tongue) was *so* tender, but still retained a nice firm, beefy quality, which considering the thickness of each cut (very generous), was a nice accomplishment. Eating it with a bit of their Pickled Vegetables and some Steamed Rice was the perfect combination!
The Oxtail Soup that comes with each order was very light and fragrant, with a pure clean scent, just a hint of beef with the refreshing qualities of Green Onion.
The price is $13.99 (+ tax) for each Combination Plate. Definitely one of the highlights of the 2009 Festival. I can't wait to get another one soon. :)
*** Rating: 8.0 (out of 10.0) ***
Making another return to Southern California, Chibaki-Ya returns with their Shinasoba style Ramen. I'm glad they brought a different flavor from their Shark Fin Ramen last year, and the basic Shoyu Ramen at the Japanese Food & Sake Festival earlier this year.
Taking a peek inside the kitchen, it was surprising (and very cool) to see Mr. Chibaki-Ya himself - Chef Kenji Chiba - back in the kitchen! The fact that Chiba-san comes to represent his Ramen every year at these various festivals shows the passion and care he has toward his dishes. I couldn't wait! :)
The Chibakiya Shinasoba arrived soon after. It was unfortunate that it was served in a styrofoam container, but with this Festival lasting only 4 days, it's understandable that a makeshift, temporary kitchen has to use disposable ware (but note that Ezo Fukuro in Torrance used real, earthenware bowls).
This is essentially a "Sappari" lighter blend of Soup, with Tori (Chicken), Tonkotsu (Pork Bone), and a particular Fish (that Chiba-san didn't want to give away :), with Ramen Noodles.
You could see a layer of Oil trapping in the heat, and taking a sip... piping hot, outstanding goodness! (^_^) The Soup was *so* good! Chibaki-Ya's Shinasoba was the best Sappari-style Ramen Broth I've had in So Cal so far. Extremely light with a focused clarity with notes of Fish, Chicken and only the slightest hint of Pork. I wanted to order another bowl on the spot (and we were just getting started :).
The almost Hanjyuku Tamago (Flash-Boiled Egg) was a great treat, with the egg white portion firm and cooked through, but the yolk was creamy and golden, with just a touch of the edges of the yolk cooked through already. Still, it was a good Tamago for this Ramen! :)
The Noodles were a thin, curly, pale variety, different from what's normally found, and a great match with the Shinasoba. The suppleness of the Noodle matched the light Broth perfectly.
Finally, their Chashu (Pork Slices) were very lean, but tender. It tasted fresh (which sadly, most Ramen-ya here can't achieve), and was a good match as well.
At $8.99 per bowl of this amazing goodness, here's to hoping Chiba-san gets enough positive feedback and interest to open up a Chibaki-Ya in So Cal! (Pretty please! :)
*** Rating: 8.5 (out of 10.0) ***
As we were leaving, we saw a Fresh Roasted Chestnuts stand, but that will have to wait until our next visit. :)
Overall, this year's Umaimono Gourmet Fair was another fun excursion, and a great chance to try more regional cuisine that we don't get enough of in So Cal. While last year was a toss-up between Torrance and Costa Mesa's Festival, this year, Costa Mesa's Umaimono Fair was the clear winner with the same Takoya Kukuru Takoyaki (Octopus Pastry Ball) vendor, but with the excellent, fresh, tender Beef Tongue Specialist from Sendai (Tsukasa), *and* the amazing Shinasoba Ramen from Chibaki-Ya! I can't wait to go back!
The 2009 Mitsuwa Umaimono Gourmet Fair runs from Thursday, June 04, 2009 - Sunday, June 07, 2009, at both the Torrance and Costa Mesa locations.
* Cash Only *
Mitsuwa Market (Costa Mesa)
665 Paularino Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
Mitsuwa Market (Torrance)
21515 Western Ave.
TEL: (310) 782-0335
21515 Western Av, Torrance, CA 90501
665 Paularino Ave, Costa Mesa, CA