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The Al Dente System

A friend of mine runs a Hollywood nightclub, Third Eye, devoted to the odd and wonderful carom shots that result when Punjabis take a stab at Bee Gees-style disco or a band of 17-year-old Colombian kids poke at the Rolling Stones catalog. It’s dancefloor-ready music that sounds at the same time both familiar and unspeakably exotic. When an artist takes on an unfamiliar culture something vital is invariably lost in the translation--I heard a Japanese Led Zeppelin tribute band at the Whisky once that reproduced “Dazed and Confused” right down to Bonzo’s misplaced drum fills and Jimmy Page’s occasional wrong notes--but something important is gained, too.

There is historical precedence for this: Opera came into being 400 years ago because of a misunderstanding about the nature of classical Greek drama; traditional Japanese music sounds the way it does because somebody mistranslated Chinese texts sometime in the last millenium. Look at what Picasso did when he tackled African sculpture. Look at what the Japanese came up with when they reinterpreted Italian cooking: spaghetti sandwiches. I think Japanese have made spaghetti doughnuts, too.

A spaghetti sandwich, supageti sando , comes with meat sauce, and is served either on white bread or with the noodles stuffed inside a split French roll. A Tokyo novelty, the spaghetti sandwich is an Italianate spin on the rather more common yakisoba sandwich. You can find both of them in the underground arcades near subway stations, where the food stands specialize in handy commuter snacks.

You can find meat sauce sandwiches, though neither spaghetti sandwiches nor yakisoba sandwiches, near the big Japanese shopping center in Gardena, the one with the fully stocked Japanese newsstand and the supermarket where women press on you sample bites of sticky rice and pickled octopus. The Spoon House, a tidy Japanese-Italian spaghetti joint, is the place on the corner across the street, the cheerful blue one with the California bear painted on the window and the line spilling out the door.

The Spoon House is packed with first-generation Japanese; packs of teen-age girls, middle-aged couples taking a break from shopping, young families with very young, smeary-mouthed children who point and giggle and wave. The chef, behind a sort of sushi-bar-like glass counter, manipulates the octopus-like controls of what is labeled the Al Dente System, a complicated water-boiling carousel that cooks pasta to order; other cooks fry ingredients for sauces at the stove and toss noodles in big wooden bowls. A sparkling room decorated in late-'70s high-tech, Spoon House looks as if it were designed to resemble the background in a Patrick Nagel poster.

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The food--a Japanese take on an American take on Southern Italian cooking--resembles nothing you’ve ever encountered. Picture a plate of noodles layered with Chef Boy-ar-Dee-like meat sauce, topped with hotdogs that have been sliced thin and fried, topped in turn with a fried egg and crowned with two neatly crossed rashers of bacon. This is one Spoon House version of spaghetti Bolognese. Or imagine spaghetti tossed with fried cabbage and thick, Spam-like slices of canned corned beef. (Or don’t: the dish is kind of stomach-wrenching.) Or a thin, runny spaghetti carbonara sauce that tastes overwhelmingly of pepper. This seems like the kind of ration-maximizing fare somebody came up with during the postwar occupation.

But once you get past expecting anything here to taste like Italian food, some of the Spoon House specialties are actually delicious. Spaghetti is tossed with butter and cod roe until the mixture coats every strand, then tossed with sea urchin roe, cool slices of squid and seaweed: the subtle oceanic flavor, cut with the sharp bite of shredded shiso , is remarkable. You can get the noodles sauced with basil and shiso , or with shiso and tart bits of pickled plums, or with squid and a thinnish, hottish tincture of the sushi horseradish called wasabi . Spaghetti with Japanese clam sauce comes with shiso , meaty sauteed shiitake, plenty of garlic and a big heap of clams; it’s the kind of thing you’d be happy to eat at three times the price at Chaya Brasserie.

Spoon House Bakery and Restaurant, 1601 Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, (213) 538-0376. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beer and wine. Parking in rear. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $9-$15.


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