On special occasions, my family went to Miyako, a sukiyaki house in the basement of an elegant older brick residential hotel right across from where the Pasadena Hilton now sits. Of course, when I started eating at Miyako around 40 years ago, there was no Hilton, just beautiful old buildings that I never appreciated until they were torn down and replaced with that nondescript high-rise honeycomb.
Miyako, meanwhile, has remained all these years, and is still my favorite place to eat sukiyaki in the Southland — but then I’m a sentimentalist. One goes down a flight of stairs and opens the door into a different world, where, as far back as I remember, the waitresses have worn kimonos and walked with small demure steps in wood-soled thongs with white thong-socks. Customers may sit in the main dining room at tables with chairs, or in the Japanese room where legless rattan chairs swivel at very low tables. To eat in the Japanese room, you have to take off your shoes and put them in a cupboard (the waitresses expertly kick off their thongs to one side each time they enter). Once seated, you are only inches off the floor. The room, screened off, is hushed. The length of one wall is a rock garden and stream behind glass. As a child, I might as well have been in Japan. And I would’ve given my mother’s purse to climb around on those rocks.
Sukiyaki is prepared at the tables in both dining rooms; in the Japanese room (where I’ve always eaten), the waitresses kneel when cooking for you. Each table has a small one-burner stove where thin slices of beef or chicken are set to bubble before you in a pan with clear noodles, scallions, onions and mushrooms, and a tasty soy-based sauce.
When I went to Miyako a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find that my memory held a mirror image of its layout. I would’ve sworn that I’d always entered on the north side of the restaurant and walked south into the dining room, but the exact opposite is true. Enter south, dine north. Even the shoe cupboard was on the opposite side of where I remembered it. Reality can be so disorienting! I hadn’t been to Miyako for at least 20 years, but the waitress assured me that no major renovation had changed the floor plan.
Throughout my childhood, I desired the glamorous showpiece dinner: an assortment of foods served in a long wooden boat. In high school, a friend and I were allowed to order it. The boat held fruit, tempura, teriyaki chicken, bits of this and that, and was, overall, disappointing — nowhere near as satisfying as hot, meaty sukiyaki.
As a child, I considered Miyako a very fancy special-occasion restaurant. Today, I’d classify it as a workaday, reasonably priced family restaurant with decent, but not great, food. For appetizers, tofu with scallions and ginger is cool and lovely; a cob of corn cooked teriyaki style is starchy, mushy and inexplicably delicious. If you want the works, order the Imperial Dinner — miso soup, green salad, sukiyaki, tempura, a couple of spears of deep-fried yakitori. Other dinners are diminutive versions and variations — there’s some teriyaki salmon and chicken; and shabu shabu, where the burner holds a pan of broth in which thinly sliced meats, cabbage and assorted vegetables and noodles are swished until cooked.
Miyako shows its wear and tear — it’s a well-used restaurant. During its tenure, many other, more beautiful Japanese restaurants — not to mention sushi itself — have come along. But Miyako survives and continues to project its exotic allure, especially to children.
The little boy at the table next to us is with his parents, his sister and some other adults. He can’t stop swiveling. There’s too much to take in. He’s so near the floor! Look at those rocks! And he’s already in love with the young waitress, who smiled very prettily at him. He hears — or rather mishears — his mother mention shabu shabu and he keeps asking, “Shamu Shamu? Is there Shamu Shamu?” When the young waitress returns to their table, his parents are talking to their friends. “She’s back!” he hisses urgently. “She’s back!” 139 S. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena; (626) 795-7005.