Griddle Me This
Japan, of course, is home to the most refined food culture in the world, to fish fried so delicately that it appears less greasy than it did before it was immersed in oil, to sake that costs more per ounce than pure gold, to kaiseki meals so exquisitely calibrated to the seasons that an expert can set the calendar on her Rolex by an arrangement of root vegetables in broth. But Japan, the birthplace of sumo, one must remember, is also the home of the mayonnaise doughnut, the spaghetti sandwich, the hamburger cutlet, the octopus ball; a country where an order of pasta Bolognese is likely to come to the table garnished with fried eggs and Spam. Perhaps the most popular of Japanese street foods is okonomiyaki, a thick, circular pancake the size and shape of a small stack of 45s made from eggs, vegetables, meat and ghost-white batter: crisp on the outside, substantial on the inside, the local equivalent of an Italian frittata or a Spanish tortilla, but . . . earthier somehow, uncouth, and generally cooked on a tabletop griddle. Okonomiyaki, like so many of Japan’s other inexplicable culinary phenomena, arose in impoverished postwar Osaka, probably as a way to stretch scarce provisions into a filling meal, and became a way of life. Okonomiyaki — sometimes called "Japanese pizza" — was fairly well known in Hollywood 15 years ago, the specialty of an after-hours place called Pannic House that was perhaps more famous for the skill of the dub DJ who manned the sound system than for its food. Pannic House’s okonomiyaki, a bulky grease bomb fortified with nutritious vegetables, was capable of soaking up even more alcohol than a Tommyburger, and after Pannic House closed, it seemed as if half of Silver Lake was searching downtown for a replacement. Now comes Tombo, a small restaurant in a sleepy Torrance strip mall, with a health-department "A" in the window and a faint smell of stale oil in the air, big bottles of Sapporo beer on the tables and a library of smutty Japanese comic books — apparently all but required in okonomiyaki joints — in a bookcase near the door. Each low, wooden table has a big sheet of metal recessed into its top, fired to a shimmering heat by big gas burners below the table. Noodles, sushi, yakitori are solitary foods, designed to be gulped at lunch counters, served in highly customized individual portions. Okonomiyaki is a social dish, meant to be shared with friends, and for students, the local okonomiyaki parlor apparently occupies the same niche as the local pizza place does in U.S. college towns. If you stumble into Tombo at 7 on a school night, you might find the place all but deserted; an hour later, every table is filled, the room is loud, and chopped onions all but fly across the room. When you order okonomiyaki, a waitress lights the burner under your tabletop, films the griddle with oil, and plunks down a metal bowl containing pancake batter, along with bright-red splinters of pickled ginger, slivered onion, chopped cabbage, plus a raw egg. You grab a spoon, stir your batter like mad, and pour the goop out onto the hot griddle to cook. A lot of the fun in okonomiyaki comes in tending your pancake, patting it flat with a big metal spatula, sliding it to a cooler part of the griddle when you sense it is starting to scorch, glazing its surface with a sticky syrup flavored with Worcestershire sauce. When the mass is done, or at least brown and crisp on the bottom, you cut it into wedges, squirt it with mayonnaise and hot mustard from squeeze bottles, and season it with a thick dusting of powdered seaweed and bonito shavings from canisters on the table. If your pancake looks as if it has been tarred and feathered, it should be about right. The standard okonomiyaki comes with three added ingredients — say, oysters, kim chee and pork — but you can get more elaborate custom combinations, as well as Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, in which a mat of noodles is encased between two crisp layers of batter; and Tokyo- (or modern-) style okonomiyaki, which has eggs fried right into the top of the mass rather than mixed into the whole. Okonomiyaki may be the basic currency at Tombo, but at least half of the tables will also have an order of a dish whose name I didn’t catch, which basically consists of a pot of soup spilled into sort of a ring-shaped battlement of shredded cabbage on the hot griddle and scraped up with a small metal spatula when it has boiled down to a thick glaze. This dish, a classic postwar Japanese poverty food, may be fortified with things like cod roe, diced mountain yam and cubes of Cheddar cheese, but what you will remember will be the cabbage-studded broth itself, a sticky, salty, slimy ooze that has achieved the plastic consistency of Elmer’s Glue. 2106 Artesia Blvd., Torrance; (310) 324-5190. Open Tues.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5:30–10 p.m.; Sun. 5–9 p.m. Dinner for two, food only, $14–$20. Beer and wine. Lot parking. MC, V. Recommended dish: okonomiyaki.
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