Tomoko Morishita is the matronly sushi chef and owner of a little late-night spot in Little Tokyo, Haru Ulala, a tavern-style izakaya joint where the menus are written in crayon and ballpoint pen. She doesn’t quite know it, but Tomoko, an older lady with a gentle air, has become my Japanese abuelita.
The izakaya is all about relaxing after a hard day’s work. So, a little after Haru Ulala opened about a year and a half ago, I began going to Tomoko’s for the small portions of Japanese comfort food and generally good vibes. After a while, I got to know Tomoko. She listens, ponders her thoughts and, at the end of my meal, always offers me an oyster shooter. It’s our little ritual.
Tomoko arrived in Los Angeles on January 15, 1973, she said, from an island off mainland Japan. She comes from a long line of sushi chefs, she explained. And watching her at work, you get the sense that making sushi is more than a job. She cuts carefully, elegantly, slowly. She concentrates. She holds tiny conversations with herself. When the old Japanese gentlemen stroll in around 11 or midnight on the weekends, she leans in over the bar and has animated, flirty — or very, very serious — conversations with them, sometimes sharing with them a bottle of what she described to me once as Japanese tequila. If the mood of the night is just right, Tomoko will treat herself to swigs of sake in between making dragon rolls and slicing tuna sashimi. Or, if most customers that night are drinking Kirin on draft, she’ll have that instead.
Then comes the oyster shooter. After filling me up with fried asparagus, garlic and shiitake mushrooms, Tomoko gives me a sly grin, a sort of challenge, and a question: “Oysta shoota?!” Ponderously, almost religiously, she begins preparing the shots, one for her, one for me, one for my guest. Three martini glasses. Sake halfway up — “expensive sake,” she notes. Ponzu sauce. An oyster. A quail egg. A sprinkling of bright-orange smelt eggs. Pickled burdock root. A slice of lemon.
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Others in the room turn to watch. Tomoko approaches my spot on the bar with the three shots and such a severe look on her face, I can’t help but hoot and holler, gleeful, delirious. (Too much Kirin?) Oyster shooters! We down them. Gape and exhale. Wipe our faces. Shake our heads. Done.