Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Meet Okonomiyaki -- Haru Ulala

Haru Ulala

368 E. 2nd Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 620--1120

Google Local Info, including map, directions, and more reviews

My friend Kent spent a lot of time in Japan a few years ago. When I launched LA Food Crazy, he immediately e-mailed to ask if I had come across anyplace that serves okonomiyaki. I'd never heard of okonomiyaki. It was, he said, his favorite meal in Japan.

For Kent's birthday, he demanded okonomiyaki. He sent me the results of a Google search which had turned up four places that serve it in the LA area, and asked if I'd finish up the research and pick a place.

I said sure. After a full morning's research I had discovered... that there are only four places in LA county that serve okonomiyaki. Two are in Torrance (sorry, not driving there on a Saturday), one is in Westwood (Korean-operated... not necessarily bad, but not likely to be very authentic either).

And then there was a place I'd never heard of, Haru Ulala, near the south end of Little Tokyo. We were going downtown to visit the display of Oscar-consideration costumes at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise (an extraordinary yearly event, btw. Anyone into movies, costumes, or both should check it out), so Little Tokyo it was.

Turns out Okonomiyaki is worth the search, and Haru Ulala is my new fave J-town destination.

The place is just a half dozen banquettes, configurable into different sizes by clever sliding room dividers. Perfect for large-sized groups. Interestingly, though okonomiyaki is listed on their website, it doesn't appear on any of their confusing array of three different menus.

This is Izakaya-style Japanese food... which is to say, bar food. The Japanese equivalent of chicken wings, potato skins, nachos, and fried calamari, or perhaps more accurately, of Spanish tapas. All the items on the three menus are inexpensive, small plates of snack food.

We were totally stabbing in the dark with our order, but did pretty well once we got past the slimy "shredded yams," which dripped with a snotty goo; a decidedly un-Western aesthetic that the mild, jicama-like flavor failed to overcome.

Everything after that was fantastic. The grilled calamari with shiitake mushroom, thin strips of squid browned in butter with small, delicate shiitakes, was still being discussed days later. A small stewed pork rib was fall-off-the-bone tender. Fried soft shell crab served with ponzu dipping sauce was as light and tender as I've ever had. Fried cheese was as far from the mozzarella fingers at TGIFriday's as you can imagine.

But we were here for the okonomiyaki. In a couple of the other local places it's a make-it-yourself-at-the-table operation at, like shabu shabu or Korean BBQ. Going DIY would terrify me with this recipe. You can get an idea of how the operation should go here. To see how it can go horribly wrong, scroll about 2/3 down the page at this delicious-looking archive of Daily Gluttony -- a terrific food blog, btw. At Haru Ulala, okonomiyaki is mercifully prepared in the kitchen. We ordered two, one for the vegetarians at the table, and one seafood version.

How to describe okonomiyaki? It's somewhere between a pizza, a pupusa, an omelette and a latke. Shredded yam, cabbage, egg, flour, and your choice of ingredients get mixed up, grilled, flipped like an omelette, then slathered with a sweet brown sauce and drizzled with mayonnaise. One came with writhing bonito flakes on top -- a subtle flavor but a freaky image. Don't try eating this on acid. (Or... do. ) The fluffy eggs, crisp cabbage, and julienned Chinese yam (slimy goo thankfully cooked away in this version) provide a variety of textures that still doesn't overwhelm the ingredients you choose for your "pizza." The brown sauce and mayo help pull all the different textures and flavors together into a savory, creamy goodness.

Sound like hangover food? It is. It's rich, sweet, comfort cuisine perfect for a rainy night (if we ever have one of those again in L.A.), yet leaves you feeling surprisingly light and healthy. Wash it back with beverages from their extensive list of beer ($8.00 pitchers of Kirin) and soju (including an array of Japanese sojus, which are much more intense than their light, slightly sweet Korean counterparts), and it's hard to imagine a more satisfying and fun group meal.

I have read one or two mentions in other reviews of uneven service. Not for us! Our server Sayuko, aside from being take-her-home-and-keep-her adorable, gave us some of the best service I've had in recent memory.

And seriously, somebody out there needs to capitalize on the untapped okonomiyaki market. A stand specializing in this stuff next to a popular dive bar in Koreatown would make a fortune.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

El Coyote (Pt. II) -- Judyism

In my last post I tried to break down any resistance you might have to dining at El Coyote, that L.A. bastion of 1930's style California Mexican cuisine, by positing that there are redeeming culinary qualities to be found among the julienned beets and Thousand Island dressing. Judging by the number of hits on the site and some e-mail, I'm not alone in my love for the place.

In part two of the El Coyote post, I'm here to tell you, for real, why El Coyote may just be the The World's Greatest Restaurant.

To me, a great restaurant is defined by so much more than the quality of its food. It's an experience. I can appreciate a $35 piece of seared ahi with wasabi butter on an architectural mound of rice and daikon, served under recessed lights on a cold marble table in a room so spacious and echoey that your "Mmm! Delicious!" bounces off five walls before reaching your date as much as the next foodie. In these places, it's "all about the food." But an evening meal with friends has the potential to encompass so much more of life: sound, smell, ritual, history, people-watching, conversation, true confessions, sex (yes, sex), joy and horror. El Coyote delivers all those things for me. Our weekly meals there are like church. In fact, since my wife and I don't go to church, it's exactly like church. We call it "Judyism." Why?

Here's the dish.

Though our schedules have changed recently, we used to go to The Dog every Thursday night. It went like this:

I wake up on Thursday morning, and generally the first thought in my head is "Mmm. What shall I have tonight? Beef rolled tacos? Or a tostada no veg-all with guac? Or am I feeling celebratory... No. 1 combo?" I think about it all day. I make a point not to eat a big lunch: maybe a little bit of sushi, the anti-El Coyote. We get calls from friends during the course of the afternoon -- they also woke up craving Dog food. "You guys Dogging tonight? Is there room at the table?" When our table gets full, we start screening calls. It's strictly first come, first served.

I leave work early; when I took the job, I told my employer: "One condition: Thursdays, I leave at 5:30. Non-negotiable." I drive home, narrowing down my menu selection in my head. Rolled tacos and a garden salad. But will the tacos be beef, chicken, or one of each? At home, there is already a small crowd of friends waiting for me. They're loitering anxiously around the front door, jackets on, keys in hand. "He's here! Let's GO, I'm starving!" We pile into the car. Somone rides in the back of the SUV. It takes too long to get there. Minutes seem like hours. Finally we pull onto Beverly Blvd., and there's the sign, exactly like a church steeple, beckoning us to worship. Its warm red neon is welcoming. It promises "cocktails." Happy hour revelers are already spilling out the restaurant, glowing, laughing, yelling, staggering obliviously in front of the cars lined up to get into the parking lot... They have already taken communion. Elvis, the chief valet, knows us; he won't allow us to have a ticket. He's been the valet for 10 years... he still doesn't look old enough to drive. We head towards the door -- oops, we forgot to let someone out of the back of the SUV. We fix that. We enter and Billy, the host, says hi. He expects us to call if we're NOT coming on Thursday. Our table is waiting. Large 8 (yes, we know most of the tables in the place by numeric designation), in the gold room, in the corner. We take our assigned seats automatically.

Our waitress Judy sees us from across the room, and seconds later she's brought our drinks. She knows what we all want: house margaritas, straight up, ice on the side, one with no salt. Judy is adorable. She calls the margaritas "vitaminas." Vitamins. From vita, "life." She's Guatemalan, and looks twenty years younger than she is. We comment on whatever pretty ruffly Mexican dress she's wearing that day. She's wearing costume jewelry that was a present from my wife last Christmas, and an apron she made for her the year before. We see Judy more often than most of our best friends. We ask about her dogs; she asks about anyone who's missing from the group. "Where is your friend with the funny hair?" We tell her the strange tales of our our life the past week. She responds, wide-eyed: "Ohhh!?... Really? No! Really?... Ohhh." I think she doesn't understand most of it.

Judy has been serving us for 13 years. She's our high priestess.

The tortillas and guac arrive. We usually skip the chips, a passing attempt at health made useless when we slather butter on the tortillas. Is there anything better than a steaming hot corn tortilla with butter? Who says the food at El Coyote isn't good?

Judy knows not to take our order til we've received our second drink. By now everyone has changed their minds about what they're getting. The room is getting louder. There's always a hen party across from us, a different set of secretaries just off work, bitching about their bosses. Maybe there's a celebrity. We've seen Drew Barrymore and Edward Norton, Dom DeLouise and Ruth Buzzi, Tim Burton and Lisa Marie (on Halloween; we were dressed as Jack Skellington and Sally -- somewhere, we have a Polaroid commemorating the event), Ricardo Montalban, among countless others. There's the table of regulars in "the bower," a table in the hallway. The same six, also there every Thursday, twenty years older than us. We think of them as a vision of ourselves at age 65. Finally they stopped coming. Someone must have died.

Halfway into our second drink, just when we are well and truly ravenous and a little tipsy, the food arrives. Kent shreds fresh cilantro and squeezes lemon into his Albondigas soup. Sa digs into a chicken Caesar salad. I went for the tostada after all, which requires dousing it in the hot salsa (did I mention the salsas here are all made daily, from scratch, even down to crushing the dried chiles for the salsa picante?), squeezing a half a lemon's juice on it, adding some Cholula. Finally we eat. Everybody cleans their plate. We talk with increasing vehemence about politics, gossip about friends. Maybe there's some friendly fondling under the table.

The margaritas at El Coyote have a truth-serum effect... you start telling people childhood secrets. Maybe you tell someone what you really think of them. Maybe you make a pass at someone. Once, Judy tells us, two customers actually "made the sex" on the patio just before closing one night, she bent over the table with one leg on a chair, he behind. I'm guessing there was a margarita close at hand.

We order one more straight up margarita... to share, like communion. We portion it out carefully. No one wants to get shorted. As we eat and drink, hosts and waiters and waitresses drop by and say or just smile and wave. Margie, of the owning family, pours us water and asks if everything is all right. We eat there twice a week so we know them all, not just Judy. Elegant Miguel, competent Siggy, cute Kevin of the ever changing hair, sexy Isabel, mi amor, fabulous-in drag Roberto, (his Carmen Miranda Halloween outfit not to be missed), Fran the token Republican who tells funny jokes, Casanova, Gabby. They're all family. Even the busboys -- did you know that Jose, the one who looks like a hispanic Jason Robards, personally made ALL the house margaritas here for decades? He'd come in every morning at 5 am to fill the big vat in a corner of the kitchen with the secret mix. He finally passed on the secret a few years ago, but you might want to say "thanks" next time you're in.

The margaritas have their unique, slightly psychotropic effect. The restaurant's year-round christmas lights are beautiful. It's someone's birthday, and the worst rendition of "Happy Birthday, Panchito" imaginable -- the wait staff must rehearse daily to keep everyone that far off-key -- never sounded sweeter. Ten minutes later, we're best friends with the birthday boy.

Finally the bill comes -- reasonable, though with steady price increases the past few years (including one just last week -- margaritas now $5.50), it's not quite the steal it was when margaritas were under two bucks and combos were $4.40. As we leave, we say hi to the table of gay men that are always just sitting as we're leaving. We shop for curios in the window: maybe we really do need that see no evil hear no evil speak no evil monkey figurine set. We finally exit... with one quick glance out onto the patio to make sure we're not missing anyone making the sex.

Elvis whips our car around before we even know we're there, and we make it home. The car knows the way. Maybe we party more at our house. We laugh and sing, maybe we dance.

The next morning, maybe we're a little hung over. But it was worth it, and we'll survive somehow. Maybe we'll have a big, late breakfast.

Some huevos rancheros would be nice.

Hmm... the Church of the Dog opens at 11:00 AM...