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Daruma: Slow Grazing at Most Authentic <i> Izakaya</i> Around

Daruma, 19915 S. Western Ave., Gardena (213) 323-0133. Open Monday-Saturday from 5:30 to midnight, closed Sunday. Parking in lot. Full bar. All major cards.

Legend has it that Daruma, a medieval Japanese monk, was so devout he actually assumed the zazen , or prayer position (sitting upright on folded legs with arms motionless) for 30 years. In the process he lost the use of his arms and legs.

It won’t cost you an arm and a leg to eat at Daruma, arguably the area’s most authentic izakaya, or sake bar, but you’d better come prepared to sit for a while. Japanese businessmen usually make an evening of the izakaya, slowly nibbling and drinking their way through the extensive menu, thinking up all kinds of excuses to stay out past midnight.

The restaurant is located on a quiet Gardena street, in a mini-mall called Daruma Plaza. As you walk in, you will notice that there are few Western faces in the tightly packed drinking rooms, or along the counter where the more introverted customers like to sit. That’s because most of the clientele are Japanese salarymen doing two- to five-year assignments in America; this is one of the few local places where they feel truly at home.

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Most nights you have to book early, because the restaurant fills up by 8 and there is almost no turnover. It’s a dark place, with light emanating from behind paper screens, latticed wooden wall forms and the usual Japanese objets d’art . Waitresses buzz about with trays of sake, beer and little dishes to make everybody thirsty. It is these dishes that make Daruma worth a visit.

The extensive menu at Daruma is completely bilingual, a daring admission from a true Japanese kitchen that we might enjoy their most authentic dishes. I wish I could say the same for the waitresses: Some of them seemed put off by my insistence on ordering the more Japanese dishes, and most seemed to have a hard time understanding my English. Be sure to point to what you want on the menu when you order, making sure you are understood. If you get something that you haven’t ordered, Japanese custom frowns on making an issue of it.

Once you understand the rules and order the usual sake, things happen quickly. First come baby asparagus tips in a miso-vinegar dressing, followed by the wonderful boiled green soy beans called eda - mame (the ones you pop out of the pods and directly into your mouth). Alongside are Chinese-style enoki , the pale tadpole-like mushrooms, julienned in a savory sesame dressing with ham, Napa cabbage and spring onion.

At this stage on a recent visit, we decided it’d be a good idea to order more drinks--to stay on the good side of the waitresses. You may come for the food, but most of the Japanese regard Daruma as an upscale watering hole. We didn’t wish to appear conspicuous by eating too much without drinking.

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Reassured by our drink orders, the waitresses soon arrived with more dishes to accompany them. Second-round fare included gyoza , pot stickers really, with a massive dose of chopped leek; fresh salmon roe in grated white radish; hot spicy cod roe, and crispy, bite-sized batter-covered oysters ( kaki no kushiyaki ). The oysters were especially wonderful, even when smeared with that thick, Worcestershire sauce-like clone that the Japanese put on every fried food.

Bolstering my appetite with an ice-cold beer, I moved on to the stew portion of the menu. This is where one finds the real peasant stuff--pork and tofu stewed in miso , dried hijiki seaweed simmered with seasonings, and things with potatoes. I saw the dish I wanted, Nagasaki -style beef, and promptly ordered some. Naturally, they had run out.

Because Japanese chefs work for pride as much as for money, it can be difficult to get a chef to give you what you want. If he is convinced you won’t like something, he may instruct the waitress to tell you there is none left. And if he is busy, he won’t want to make something labor intensive.

The other thing to remember here is that certain items are seasonal; other items are terminally popular. Things like samna (broiled mackerel pike often bursting with wonderful, spicy roe) and shishiamo (Japanese smelt) remain on the menu throughout the year, even when frozen. And things like asari no sakamushi, steamed baby clams in sake, run out nightly.

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Zosui is traditionally the last course in a sake bar, a rice soup flavored by various vegetables, seafoods and minced meats. Its function is to sober up the businessmen to insure a safe passage home. I suggest you finish the evening with one, savoring the tidbits on the bottom of the bowl for last. Of course, I had to wait almost a half hour for mine.

Recommended dishes: Chinese-style enoki, $3.25; asparagus with miso-vinegar dressing, $3.75; assorted sashimi, $9.75; assorted skewers, $9.75; baby clams steamed in sake, $4.75.


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