Where the Japanese Go to Eat Japanese

Turtles live 10,000 years, reads an ancient Japanese proverb. Most Japanese would never be so immodest as to boast about it, but the fact is that, as a group, they lead the world in life expectancy. Some gerontologists think this is due to their diet, which is high in fiber, low in fat. It makes sense to me. If not for the stress factors in their society, they'd probably all live to be a hundred. Then the turtles might have proverbs about them.

So what exactly do they eat every day? Sushi? Nah, too expensive. Chicken teriyaki? Nope, they don't even serve it. Let's follow our Japanese friend, a visiting businessman we'll call Tawa-san, as he eats his way through a typical week in some of Los Angeles' more authentic Japanese restaurants. Maybe we'll pick up some of his secrets along the way. But don't follow him home. Like many Japanese men, he's helpless in the kitchen. He's never even learned to boil an egg.

Monday

Soba , hand-made buckwheat noodles, are purely Japanese and a great lunch favorite. Here in Los Angeles, the tastiest ones are found at Mifune, a seven-stool counter located in the Aji-no-mei-tengai, a second-floor restaurant emporium in Little Tokyo. Tawa-san chose it today because he's pressed for time.

He can choose from specials like ikura oroshi soba , topped with salmon egg and grated radish, or nabeyaki combination, a giant, heated ceramic bowl overflowing with vegetable tempura, seafood, chicken and a choice of soba or udon , fat wheat noodles more familiar to Western palates. Whatever the preference, expect them splattered with a raw egg and piping hot. Toppings, which can be ordered a la carte, include such goodies as marinated herring, grated yam, baby fern or exotic mountain vegetables from Japan. Just remember, they charge separately for each topping, like a pizza parlor.

Try the inexpensive tanuki soba , just like millions do daily in savings-mad Tokyo. It's a hot, soup-laden bowlful, with a few chunks of deep-fried batter floating on top, and perfect in winter. Mifune gives a giant portion, bigger than ever found in Tokyo (surprisingly, the dish is slightly cheaper in Tokyo, even with the inflated yen), and well suited to a hearty appetite. Mifune respects the appetite; as a special bonus for the true trencherman, if you can consume four boxes of soba in under six minutes, the meal is on the house. If you can't, don't worry; it only costs $3 a bowl.

Mifune, 356 East 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-0697. Open weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Weekends, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Full bar. Validated parking after 4 p.m. All major credit cards. Noodles for two, $5 - $10. Other dishes for two, $10 - $15.

Tuesday

Hiroshima is the cheapest show around, a poor man's Benihana with simpler props. Tawa finds it convenient for informal socializing. He seats himself between two strangers at one of the two counters in the middle of the restaurant and peers through the glass at young chefs flipping, scraping and juggling orders like acrobats, taking time to crack jokes with the waitresses.

The specialty here is okonomiyaki , griddled batter stuffed with meats and chopped vegetables, done in the unique style of Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki originated in Korea, and most Japanese know them as heavy, filling snacks. In the city of Hiroshima, however, they are fashioned with grace: a delicate and crepe-like base, an impromptu middle and a wispy egg batter on top. The basic version at the restaurant, Etashima , is faithful to form, containing a simple filling of pork and vegetables. Go up in price and things like squid, shrimp, noodles and scallops will be added dollar by dollar. The Japanese love to smother these pancakes with a thick, barbecue-like sauce with the texture of Pepsodent but, thankfully, here they serve it on the side. Bottles of this elixir are sold at the cash register.

Hiroshima (Otafuku), 424 East 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 620-1223. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Validated parking. No credit cards. Food for two, $7-$14.

Wednesday

It's another busy Wednesday at the company, and Tawa is stuck in the office. Good thing he stopped by Hokka-Hokka on his trip to the bank. This sunny little take-out and eat-in specializes in bento , attractively boxed Japanese lunches that combine color, value and variety. It's just like being on a picnic--without the flies. Bento have the added advantage of being easy to carry, since they are compact and eaten cold.

Tawa has chosen Combination A (the menu changes every day), a feast with broiled yellowtail, a curried meatball, Chinese dumplings and a mini-croquette, all hunched into special compartments on the disposable plastic tray, and complemented by eight balls of sesame-studded cooked rice, and a savory collection of pickles. Combination B has a chicken leg, sweet bean, burdock root and spring rolls, and other boxes contain anything from specials like jellyfish and sesame beef to broiled eel or teriyaki chicken. Nothing is more than $5 and here in California, bento are especially nice because we can eat them outside virtually all year.

Hokka Hokka, 318-A East 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 617-2280. Open Mon-Sat, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking only. No credit cards. Dinner for two, $8 - $10.

Thursday

After hours, many Japanese businessmen head for Yoro-no-Taki, a Japan-based chain that doubles as both pub and restaurant. It's as close as Tawa can get to being home. The waiters and waitresses here are hard-core professionals and it shows: They juggle dishes, beer glasses and orders with consummate skill, and they shout playfully in Japanese across to the kitchen. It's an immensely popular place, and it rarely fails to draw a crowd.

Besides the copious amounts of Japanese beer and sake they consume, Tawa and his colleagues regularly pick over a huge menu of individual dishes featuring things like oden , a fish-cake stew; nikujaga , hearty potatoes, carrots, and sliced beef in a natural gravy; a variety of grilled fish served whole, such as mackerel or carp, and barrels of assorted pickled vegetables. The walls are dark and paneled in wood, Japanese-inn style, and there is nothing or no one inside to give you the vaguest hint that you are in the United States. The image of the strait-laced, tightly controlled Japanese businessman vanishes the minute you cross Yoro-no-Taki's magic threshold.

Yoro-no-Taki, 432 East 2nd St., Los Angeles, (213) 626-6055, and 15462 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (213) 323-3742. Open daily, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. Visa, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, $13-$16.

Friday

The work week is almost finished now and Tawa-san can take a longer lunch, so he's heading for Takaya, one of Little Tokyo's older establishments, and the only place I know of in Los Angeles for kamameshi , a traditional farmhouse dish of rice, meats and vegetables baked together in an iron pot and dished up with a large wooden spoon.

There's nothing exotic about this preparation, which often has bamboo, shiitake , leek and finely chopped chicken or fish, but it's comfort and fulfillment rolled into one. Takaya serves it in the old-fashioned way, bringing the enormous wood-covered pot to the table, offering you a choice of salmon, oyster, chicken or beef kamameshi , the last a dish unimagined in Japan even today. As the dish is cooked to order, expect 20 to 30 minutes for preparation. Time permitting, go with the oyster, which permeates and perfumes the rice better than any of the other choices, or the chicken, which comes out appealingly juicy. Save the best for last: That's when you get to dig at the browned crisps of rice that stick to the sides of the pot.

Takaya, 305 East 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 689-4837. Open weekdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m. Sat., noon to 10 p.m. Sun, noon to 8 p.m. Full bar. Street parking. Visa, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, $8 - $10.

Saturday

We all know about ramen , those snack noodles in the plastic packages with the chemical flavors. Actually, in Japanese restaurant parlance, they are actually good. Ramen are merely Chinese noodles, and the standard preparation is in a soup stock with heaps of garlic. Japanese businessmen like Tawa love them, but they are often embarrassed to go back to the office after indulging. That's why ramen make a perfect Saturday lunch.

There's no doubt in my mind that Hana-Ichimonme serves the city's best ramen , and Tawa-san would agree, but he's too busy slurping. The noodles are al dente , yielding and unflinchingly fresh, and the broth is rich and subtle. Bowls and bowls are slurped daily here, along with all the stir-fried and pickled pan-Asian additives like spicy meat sauce, preserved radish, rubbery fish cakes, dried mushrooms and quail eggs--sunnyside up. One can pretty well see all the ingredients used in the gaudy display window, where a Madame Tussaud-caliber mock-up has been done. All you need to do is point.

Hana-Ichimonme, 333 Alameda St., in Little Tokyo Square, Los Angeles, (213) 626-3514. Open Tue.-Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Beer and wine only. Validated parking. Visa, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, $8-$10.

Sunday

Tawa has a client in Buffalo, and he's anxious to try the famous chicken wings there. In the meantime, he's heading for Furaibo, a Nagoya-based chain, which has opened its first American outpost. Furaibo specializes in teba-saki , highly seasoned, bite-sized chicken wings, and they come eight to an order in graduated degrees of fierceness.

The restaurant is staffed by native Japanese, but franchisee Harold Sledge has a slightly different background: He is a black American from Oakland. Sledge-san speaks fluent Japanese and has made big plans for the chain in America. He is already planning another store. When you walk through the door, his " irasshaimasse, " the traditional Japanese restaurant welcome, is the loudest of anyone's, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The kitchen does a first-class job, including more than 30 Japanese snack dishes: asari sakamushi , clams steamed in a sake broth; agenasu , sublime sauteed eggplant in a light soy dashi ; even onigiri , the triangular seaweed-wrapped rice cakes with the savory seafood fillings. All of them would bring Tawa-san back, and he'd bring his friends, too. Buffalo is a long way to fly for a chicken wing.

Furaibo, 1741 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., in the Tozai Plaza, Gardena, (213) 329-9441. Open Tue. Sun., 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Beer and wine only. Parking in lot. Visa, MasterCard accepted. Dinner for two, $15-$20.

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