Alas, I can't recommend any Japanese restaurants in Pasadena. Most, like the ever-popular but mediocre Kabuki, seem more Japanesque than Japanese. For the real thing, I like to head to the South Bay. This area has a large Japanese American population in Torrance and Gardena and a thriving Japanese national segment because several major Japanese corporations (Toyota, Honda, Epson) have American headquarters in Torrance.
My japanese American friend Carol introduced me to Sanuki No Sato in Gardena about 15 years ago. We went to the show/sale of a Japanese American silver jeweler twice a year in Torrance, but the show was just a thinly veiled excuse to head to Sanuki for a steaming bowl of chubby udon noodles.
Carol always drove to the corner restaurant in a Gardena mini mall. It wasn't until years later that I realized that most of the signage was in Japanese. You have to look hard to find the small, unobtrusive sign in English.
A trio of oversized "Sanuki No Sato" signs are in Japanese, but only one small, easy-to-miss sign is in English.
Yesterday I justified the long drive for lunch at Sanuki because I needed to purchase osembe (Japanese rice crackers) at the Mitsuwa Market in Torrance for my dad's Christmas package. They have the best, daddy-pleasing selection and, believe it or not, you still can't find a decent rice cracker in Ravenswood, West Virginia.
Giant Japanese paper lanterns, Christmas lights and . . . Spider Man decorate the restaurant.
Mitsuwa is a 45-minute drive from Altadena, but Sanuki is just another five minutes down the street. I ordered the Nabeyaki, a rustic iron pot filled with perfect udon noodles and topped with shrimp tempura, soft poached egg, chicken, fish cake, shiitake mushrooms, seaweed, and sansai vegetables (such as bamboo shoots).
I think my Japanese cooking class has taught me to appreciate this restaurant and this dish more than ever. The soup base was a rich dashi stock with a touch of soy sauce. And as soon as I bit into the vegetables, I recognized that they had been cooked in dashi, then soy sauce and sugar, like the onishime vegetables we prepared in class. After one bite, you're likely to yell out, "Oh, mama," or at least "umami," the rich, elusive "fifth taste" that's found in many Japanese foods.
With a glass of ice cold Sapporo draft beer, this lunch was the perfect antidote to holiday fatigue.
Vegetables, shrimp tempura, fish cakes and egg top the steaming pot of udon.
Jonathan Gold has consistently included Sanuki No Sato on his annual list of "Essential LA Restaurants." And Hideo Nomo, the popular pitcher for the Dodgers, was/is a regular when he's in town. But I don't think it shows that you're trendy or hip if you eat at Sanuki No Sato. It just shows good taste for traditional Japanese food. And once you've had it, you may never want to go back to Kabuki again.
Sanuki No Sato
18206 S. Western Ave.
Gardena, CA 90248