Nomo Slurped Here
A decade ago, a Los Angeles burrito stand was nothing without a Fernando Valenzuela visit or two, and autographed photographs of Tommy Lasorda are still more or less a guarantee of quality at Italian restaurants of a certain stripe. Magic Johnson pictures seem to pop up at most of the really fine soul-food restaurants, though what you really want to see is a signed glossy of Barry White.
But those guys are yesterday’s news here on the Pacific Rim. The question these days about Japanese restaurants boils down to this: Does Hideo Nomo come here? He has been seen at Matsuhisa. A friend reports a sighting at Ginza Sushi-Ko. And Sanuki No Sato, a posh Japanese noodle shop in Gardena, is practically a shrine to the pitcher, with a poster in the vestibule and another back by the bathroom, a photo-embossed baseball behind the cash register and what looks to be an autograph on the wall.
In the great tradition of Tokyo secret addresses, Sanuki No Sato isn’t the easiest place to find. It’s stuck in a sort of industrial strip, for one thing, equidistant from the Japanese shopping centers of Gardena and the gleaming low-rise Japanese corporate campuses.
Even if you knew where it was, tucked away next to the video store in a mini-mall, you’d still probably sail right by. The signs that identify it are untranslated, and the flags that hang down over the doorway can seem more like a barrier than a welcoming touch. And once you’re inside, you may be momentarily shocked when you leaf through a take-out menu and discover that it’s all in elaborate Japanese script as well. (The regular menu transliterates the names into our alphabet and even explains some.)
As complicated as the menu may at first seem, with pages of simmered dishes, of little snacks, of elaborate kaiseki feasts, ordering is easy here. Like most serious Japanese noodle houses, Sanuki No Sato specializes in delicate buckwheat soba and pencil-thick wheat-flour udon , cold or hot, plain or in soup. The noodles here won’t change your life or anything, like the soba at Honmura-An in New York, or maybe even the stretchy hand-pulled udon at Kotohira down the street, but they’re elegant, light, better than OK.
Plus, the actual tableware is just spectacular: pickle dishes striped with the organic subtlety of jellyfish markings; rough noodle bowls whose murky glaze glimmers with deep-forest green; lacquered wooden bento boxes with interior geometry as intricate as a microchip.
Kyo nishin , a dense, sugar-cured herring, seems sort of small for a $7.50 side order--you’ve probably won bigger fish at a church-carnival Ping-Pong ball toss--but has the intensity of Shanghainese smoked fish. The fresh inari sushi, vinegared rice stuffed into fried-tofu pockets, is leagues better than the packaged stuff you pick up in the supermarket.
Udon come in all the standard flavors, topped with crisp buttons of tempura batter ( tanuki ) in a plain soy-enriched broth, with slices of cooked beef, with chewy bits of rice cake, with exquisitely slimy Japanese mountain yams; exemplary, if unexciting, udon noodles with a mild wheat flavor and a pronounced firmness on the tooth.
Udon dishes served in hot, rustic-looking iron kettles, identified on the menu by names containing the root word nabe , are different somehow from the udon served in bowls: softer, stretchier, more luxuriant, more like key ingredients in a stew than objects in their own right. Yukinabe udon , buried in its broth beneath half an inch of grated daikon, a sprinkling of grated wasabi and a ferociously spiced cod egg-sac the size and shape of a thumb, is almost refreshing in spite of its bulk--an exotic bowl of noodles you could eat every day.
Where a perfect soba noodle is soft enough practically to fall apart under the pressure of a harsh glance (buckwheat, the principal ingredient, has almost no gluten), the soba at Sanuki No Sato are on the hard side, almost stiff. Though they’re fine in soups, they haven’t quite the delicate nutty flavor you’d want for zaru soba , which is plain cold noodles served with a mild soy-based dip. ( Zaru soba is the traditional test of a Japanese noodle shop.)
At lunch, there is the tojuki bento , a multi-course banquet served in a lacquered Japanese box: two, maybe three kinds of vinegared seaweed; a small slab of salt-broiled salmon; a foil candy cup filled with vinegared daikon and a teaspoonful of salmon eggs; rice tossed with bits of toasted seaweed and sharply salty fish, garnished with julienne strips of a paper-thin omelet; sashimi of tuna and octopus; pretty good tempura (shrimp, eggplant, fish cake and Japanese pepper) and a bowl of dipping sauce; a prawn simmered in sweet wine and a little beef stew with mushrooms and vegetables; a bowl of udon and another one of egg custard; and a wedge of the Japanese omelet tanago . That all this fits into a bento box is a testament to Japanese engineering. I have seen buffet tables with less food on them.
But if you’re slightly less hungry, you can’t go wrong with the nabeyaki udon . With three or four different kinds of fish cake, simmered bamboo shoot, spinach, two broth-softened tempura-fried shrimp and a handful of tempura-batter cracklings, chunks of boiled chicken and an elegant vegetable that looks a little like Chinese broccoli but probably isn’t, it’s something like a one-dish rendition of the USDA food pyramid.
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Where to Go
Sanuki No Sato, 18206 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 324-9184. Open daily for lunch and dinner. All major credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Lunch or dinner for two, $13-$36.
What to Get: kyo nishin ; ten zaru ; yukinabe udon.