I love the atmosphere of Fat Spoon in Little Tokyo downtown--I feel I've been transported to a neighborhood diner in Japan where businesspeople converge after work for their fix of familiar favorite dishes. Or at least a neighborhood diner in a Haruki Murakami novel. I won't pretend to be an expert on actual Tokyo dining establishments. You know how I treasure an opportunity to get big chefs' food for cheap, and that's just what you'll find at Fat Spoon. Michael Cardenas (sounds hispanic, cooks Asian,) is also the chef/co-owner of Lazy Ox Canteen, and a definite rising star in the LA food scene. Not that he's new to fine dining--he spent 5 years managing Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills before opening Sushi Roku, and then finally going out on his own. But now, executing his vision at his three downtown restaurants, Cardenas has seized the opportunity to shine in his own right.
Lazy Ox, Los Angeles Magazine’s “Best New Restaurant 2010,” is an inventive small plates establishment serving the usual alternative cuts of meat like pig ear and beef tongue in interesting and delicious ways, as well as quite a few really nice vegetable offerings. It's moderately priced, but you're not going to get out of there for under $30 per person. So you can imagine how delighted I was to hear that Cardenas' newest venture would be a casual Japanese curry spot. I've been on a real Japanese kick lately, craving either sushi, katsu, udon or ramen more or less every night. (Look forward to a post on the only restaurant I know in town serving Japanese breakfast.) I'm not sure if it's all the Murakami I've been reading or the fact that Japanese cuisine is so varied and comforting without being heavy (or maybe it's because Sawtelle is so much closer to me than San Gabriel Valley) but I've been sampling a wide variety of both Japanese and Korean katsu lately, and Fat Spoon's pork katsu curry is a real winner. Crispy and with minimal grease, served over a mountain of rice, the cutlet is divine when combined with the special curry sauce that comes with it, served in a gravy boat to facilitate either dipping or pouring. I must say that Japanese curries have never excited me particularly--you usually really have to be in the mood for the thick, tangy stuff. It's not sweet or spicy like Thai or Indian curry, and it's generally rather pungent. But Fat Spoon's curry is subtly spiced, perfectly balanced and truly delicious. There's an undertone of slow heat, but it's definitely not going to make you sweat; there is a savoriness that's quite pleasant. The beef curry is no exception, the meat so tender it requires nary a chew. If the beef tongue curry is on the blackboard it's not a bad idea--it's the same dish as the beef curry, only with fattier, meltier, thicker slices of meat. All of the curries run around $10, and since they're served with rice and you can add veggies for only $1, they make a very satisfying one-plate meal.
Fat Spoon may not be the pioneer of a new downtown dining movement that Lazy Ox was, but it's comfortable, delicious, and just weird enough not to be boring. There are a few bizarre offerings on the menu--the pasta section isn't what I would typically expect in a Japanese restaurant--so if you're looking for adventure you won't be disappointed. Wash down your meal with a crisp, cold Echigo beer, and listen for the call of the wind-up bird. It won’t come, but you get the picture.