In Los Angeles, your next great meal could be anywhere, from a pop-up installed in an art gallery to the truck parked outside the place where you get coffee in the morning. If you've been here awhile, you almost expect your bliss to come from that place in the mini-mall next to the dry cleaners.
But in the rush to quantify banh mi specialists and loncheros, the Japanese supermarket food court — that bastion of quick-service sushi and reliable fried pork, omelet rice with ketchup and octopus fritters squirted with Kewpie mayonnaise and sprinkled with dried bonito shavings — is often overlooked.
The food courts are short on amenities but are frequented by customers who know how Japanese food is supposed to taste. Unless you venture into the belly of the supermarket for supplies, what you are likely to be drinking is cool water in a foam cup. You stand in line to order and pick up your lunch when your number is bellowed into a microphone. Most of the time, your decisions will be influenced by a display case of plastic food.
Marukai, one of the supermarket chains here, flies in celebrity noodle shop chefs every now and then, and if you pay attention to the schedules, you can experience regional bowls from all over Japan. Tampopo, the first high-quality ramen shop in the area, operated for years in Mitsuwa food courts, and Santouka, perhaps the first Japanese ramen chain to open widely here, still does. (Santouka's porky shio ramen — salt-broth ramen — is still considered among the best of its kind, and grief washed over me this month when I discovered that the shop had discontinued its cold ramen. Surely its owners realize that California summers are longer than those in Kyushu!)
So it was not surprising that when the well-liked Tokyo ramen chain Ramen Iroha and the revered tempura bowl restaurant Hannosuke decided to open in the United States, they gravitated toward supermarkets.
I don't want to overstate things here. What we're talking about are basically the Japanese equivalents of hot dog stands and burger shacks, places to gather a quick lunch rather than citadels of Japanese civilization. There is a tradition of high-end tempura, meted out piece by piece like sushi and served so hot that the fried batter sizzles on your tongue, but what Hannosuke — located in the Mitsuwa market on Centinela Avenue in Mar Vista — does is a different thing, closer to big bowls of delicious chirashi sushi than to the exquisite succession of fish at a sushi bar. You will wait in line a half-hour, then devour your meal in 90 seconds. The tempura bowl, tendon, is about immediate satiation, not exquisitely calibrated levels of desire.
And, in fact, the tendon at Hannosuke is a less than overwhelming sight, a mass of tawny fried food heaped on a bowl of rice. If you have been lucky enough to have tasted tempura at a specialist, you may be nonplused at first by the stuff, which is moistened with a sticky sauce as it is snatched from the fryer. It tends to lack the crispness, the featherweight crunch that it might have if it were served piece by piece at a tempura bar.
But Hannosuke's aesthetic takes hold in an instant. It's still really crunchy, and when you bite into a slice of sweet potato or a mass of baby shrimp, the roasty, nutty flavors of the sesame oil used for frying and the inner sweetness of the food really come through, whether it is the big Japanese prawn or the steamy slab of whitefish. (For an extra couple of bucks, they'll swap out the whitefish for Tokyo eel, which may take to this treatment better than any other fish.)
There will be a crunchy sheet of nori, pure umami fried, and a bit of spicy pickled ginger to refresh your palate. Even more impressive, a gooey poached egg is given a quick bath through the oil, which renders its surface crisp without affecting its oozing, orangy yolk. The tendon is perfect in its way.
So too is the black ramen at Ramen Iroha, a stand that won the ramen equivalent of the People's Choice Awards in Tokyo three years running. It just settled into a massive Marukai complex in Gardena, more or less the Price Club of Japanese supermarkets, that vaguely resembles an oversize fortress from a big-budget samurai movie.
The black ramen, dense, chewy noodles, come in a chicken broth that gets its tar-like hue from soy sauce, fermented black beans and a slug of black pepper. You might expect the black broth to be intensely salty, like shoyu, or as sludgy as a bowl of Chinese cha chiang mian, but it is much subtler than it looks, edged with a slight bitterness that you realize is probably one of the dominant flavors in soy sauce. It shifts flavors as you eat, one moment picking up richness from the roast pork bobbing in the broth, the next a kind of marine flavor from the bits of seaweed.
You can get white ramen at Iroha, herb-fragrant, the chicken broth nearly as heavy as pure tonkotsu-style pork ramen. You can get red ramen, which is, I think, the white ramen flavor bombed with pork, chile and a numbing wallop of what tastes like Sichuan peppercorns. But the black ramen may be too compelling: You keep trying to fix the flavor in your mind, sipping spoonful after spoonful. Before you know it, the ramen is done; the bottom of the bowl shining white through the dregs.
In Mitsuwa Market, 3760 S. Centinela Ave., Los Angeles
Tempura bowls, $9-$11
Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Cash only. (ATM on premises.) Lot parking.
In Marukai Market, 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena