When my husband and I traveled to Tokyo for the first time in November, we feasted on a vast array of Japanese delights, from soba to sushi, yakitori to Yamazaki (read all about the trip in great detail here). One delight perhaps unrivaled on the trip was to be found at breakfast time, in the lovely dining room of our hotel. We stayed at the Park Hyatt, where the film “Lost in Translation” was shot, a luxury we certainly couldn’t have afforded but for the fact that we have a lot of flexible travel points. The hotel was the epitome of refinement, and the staff, like everyone we met in Japan, was beyond polite. Once at breakfast someone on the wait staff noticed I had opened a packet of Vitamin C powder and was pouring it into my water glass. I opened my mouth to say to my husband, “I need a—" when the man appeared at my side with a small spoon on a napkin. It was unreal. Breakfast was included in our room rate at the Park Hyatt, and they had a lovely buffet as you may imagine, as well as a variety of menu items available, but the real treat was the Japanese Breakfast. A dazzling array of different delicacies—smoked salmon filets with a wedge of lemon and a tiny bite of sweet potato in a perfect cylinder; miso soup; steamed Japanese vegetables with sesame sauce; tamago; tiny fish (eels?) with salt and lemon; burdock and carrot salad; steamed rice, and my favorite part, two varieties of fresh tofu and boiled spinach, meant to be spooned out of their broth with a small grate provided to each diner and dipped in a ponzu/soy sauce soup. The tofu was heavenly, the consistency soft and delicate. Every item was preciously plated, light and delicious. This breakfast was a meal that made you feel…spoiled.

Japanese Breakfast at the Park Hyatt
Japanese Breakfast at the Park Hyatt

I have always thought that Japanese breakfast as we know it was perhaps a hotel invention, or at least something rarely found outside of hotel dining rooms. I know I have seen it offered at many hotels in Hawaii, and now in Japan, but had yet to find it on a restaurant menu in LA or elsewhere. You may imagine my delight at discovering Fukugawa in Gardena. Tucked into a back corner of a large strip mall, Fukugawa is a large but cozy feeling restaurant, the décor featuring paper lantern light fixtures and sliding wood paneled doors, a tatami room, and some sort of Japanese history diorama behind glass. For lunch and dinner Fukagawa is a very decent soba/udon/tempura/shabu shabu spot, but every morning from 7-11 it offers what I have so long sought out—a refined, light, and delicious Japanese breakfast. And for quite a bit less than the Park Hyatt.

I can’t resist a meal that consists of many different little dishes—variety excites me. The Japanese breakfast combinations at Fukagawa, with their endless options and variations (see dizzying chart below), provide that special experience of tasting and choosing bites. I love to opt for combination C for $10.95: grilled mackerel or salmon, marinated tofu with scallion and bonito flakes, Japanese pickles, steamed rice, seaweed, egg (4 choices for how you like your egg, I highly recommend Dashimaki, the sweet omelet I know as Tamago at sushi restaurants,) and miso soup. The miso soup is a variation on the norm, with that spongy, almost tripe-textured inari type tofu and a lot of onion cooked down in the broth. The mackerel is moist, salty, and flaky, the salmon is meaty and moist with crispy skin. There are meatless combinations for less $ on offer as well (though not vegetarian, dashi and bonito are fish products), or you can select Spanish mackerel or steak with your combo C. I’m not generally a one-meal-a-day type of person, but if you arrive at 10:50 and have this breakfast for brunch, it will really fill you up without feeling heavy.

Fukagawa breakfast menu
Fukagawa breakfast menu

I know I have perhaps favored Japanese cuisine in my selections for this blog; I could say that’s because we have an embarrassment of riches in LA when it comes to Japanese food, with Little Osaka on Sawtelle in West LA, Little Tokyo downtown and Torrance/Gardena in the South Bay all offering dozens of authentic, specialized restaurants. More truthfully, it is most likely because I find that Japanese food is probably the best cuisine on Earth. I think the sheer variety, the fact that you could probably eat 50 completely different bowls of ramen in LA alone, is incredible. In Tokyo we had dinner at a Michelin starred soba restaurant, and I had a kind of soba I’ve never seen before, the buckwheat noodles flat and wide like Tagliatelle. There is no doubt that I will be posting many more Japanese recommendations this year and in the years to come, but to start off 2014, I am happy to pay homage to my highlight of last year, the delightful five days we spent in Tokyo, by sharing Fukagawa. I hope you enjoy an opportunity to indulge in that elusive treat, the Japanese breakfast.

Mitsuwa Marketplace

Inside a Japanese supermarket in an unremarkable stretch of West LA there is a very special, wonderful place. I go there when I feel a cold coming on, have had a taxing day, or just need something wholesome and soothing and delicious, and it invites me into its world of delights. It is a food court, florescent lighting illuminating such décor elements as a community bulletin board, an early 90s-era TV bolted to a corner of the ceiling, and glossy faux wood tables. I generally find it has a cure for whatever ails me. A visit to Mitsuwa begins with a selection—will it be udon or soba from Sanuki? Tempura from Hannosuke? Or ramen from Santouka? You will order, pay in cash, receive a stub with a number, and search for an open table. You will wait, listening to a steady roll call of orders from the different restaurants being called over a loudspeaker. Your number is finally called—your time has come! You rush over to retrieve your cafeteria tray with steaming bowl of one or another Japanese comfort food.

Before my first visit to Santouka, I was under the impression that ramen broth was much like pho broth—clear and smooth, a thin but flavorful vehicle for the slurping of noodles. As it turns out, I was mistaken. This Hokkaido style ramen broth is murky and gritty, and unbelievably rich and fatty and flavorful. I could hardly believe my taste buds when I first sipped the salt ramen broth. This broth is no mere vehicle; it’s the epitome of comfort food, it warms your body and coats your mouth with its rich, deep pork flavor. After a long day of teaching, it’s the first thing I crave.

Santouka offers a variety of options—spicy miso broth, soy broth, and salt broth, small/medium/large bowls, and combination dinners that include pork on rice, fermented soybeans on rice, or salmon roe on rice and all come with a soy sauce tinted hard-boiled egg. I’ve had them all, and I am compelled to steer you towards the salt ramen. While the others are delicious, the salt ramen is unlike anything else I’ve ever tasted. It comes topped with two precious slices of the tenderest, meatiest pork you could hope for, a pink-swirled fish cake, some delightfully rubbery dark brown mushroom pieces, a few root vegetable slices and a pile of chopped scallion. The noodles are spindly and springy and chewy with a bit of a bite to them, the perfect noodle texture.

Salt Ramen and Roe combo

You also have the option to spring for the “special pork,” a few extra pieces of even fattier, meltier meat, if you can imagine that, but rather than spending extra for the pork, I would recommend spending an extra few bucks for a combo with the salmon roe on rice. Even if you can only manage a few bites of the salmon roe after downing a most perfect bowl of ramen, it’s worth it. The plump orange pearls of salmon egg are bursting with briny flavor. It’s a treat that’s worth at least trying. Even with the salmon roe rice and the egg, a small ramen combo is only $11.50. One word to the wise: if your palate is like mine, somewhat unaccustomed to what the Japanese may consider mundane, the fermented soybean on rice (natto) is one of the worst things you’ve ever tasted. Perhaps you’re not like me, and you enjoy the taste of slimy rotting soy sauce. Still, I feel obligated to give you fair warning on such things.

Next to Santouka you will find one of my favorite spots for udon and soba. Sanuki is probably the cheapest of the Mitsuwa restaurants—as in I always get change for $10 and leave stuffed—which is only a minor part of why I find myself there so frequently, eagerly dipping in to a huge, steaming bowl of delicious fish broth.

Soba with mushroom and egg

It is a matter of personal preference, but despite my unequivocal love of Japanese food in its many varieties, I often find Japanese broths to be too fishy tasting for me. I’ve never been a devotee of miso soup, for example. So even though I do certainly worship at the temple of udon and soba noodles, the one stick in my craw is that amongst the extremely complex layers of flavors in Asian broths, I sometimes encounter one that strikes a slightly unfavorable note. The point I am getting at here is that the flavors of the broth at Sanuki are beautifully harmonious, without a hint of dissonance—the broth is translucent and the flavor is deep and complex, a little bit sweet, and not very fishy. It is fish based, but it doesn’t taste quite so much of kombu as the more upscale udon broths I’ve tasted. Just saying. A big bowl of Sanuki’s broth with their chewy, squiggly udon noodles is heaven on earth if you feel a little under the weather. I usually go for the chicken or fried bean curd on my soup. Do yourself a favor and whatever you order, get a side of the fried bean curd, (warm please). Even if you’ve ordered the bean curd udon, you will want more. I always do. It’s so sweet and fluffy and has that uniquely spongy inari texture.

This brings me to the tempura portion of the evening. In general, I’ll be honest, I try to not to make my dinner entirely out of deep fried things. It doesn’t seem prudent, longevity-wise. But the tempura at Hannosuke is so unique as to be a must-try and will definitely have you hooked. The most intriguing feature of this Tokyo transplant’s fare is that the tempura sauce is fried into the batter, miraculously. No dipping required. It’s like those Eggo waffles with maple syrup crystals inside the waffles. Well, it’s nothing like that, because this doesn’t come out of your toaster somehow simultaneously dry and soggy. But it’s the same idea.

Ten-don bowl

The tempura battered shishito peppers, white fish, squid, shrimp, prawn, sweet potato, seaweed and poached egg (yes, a tempura-fried poached egg to crack over your rice bowl), come out crisp and crunchy and sweet. They’re all served over a large bowl of white rice, which contains a delicious surprise—thick, sweet sauce hiding below the surface.

These three gems comprise my happy place, my go-to when nothing else feels right for dinner. There is a fourth restaurant in the food court, and it’s perfectly fine. They serve bento boxes with standbys like katsu and teriyaki. It’s not bad at all, it’s just that the other three places are perfect. I ritualistically end my meals at Mitsuwa by browsing the endless wonders in the candy aisle of the supermarket. From gooey aloe flavored gummies to shrimp chips to green tea flavored Kit-Kats, I can’t even begin to list the vast array of unfamiliar sweets in that grocery store. There are probably thirty completely different things just shaped like pandas. Here’s to someday exhausting all the possibilities that aisle has to offer.

The candy aisle

I have never been to Japan—I plan to go this fall and I can’t wait—but for now, this place feels pretty close.

Ozumo Donburi Rice Bowl

Ozumo is a high-end Japanese transplant from San Francisco, with a beautiful dimly-lit, gilded dining room and a pricey menu of fresh fish and robata skewers, among other expensive traditional Japanese fare. But you don’t have to miss out on this lovely spot in the new Santa Monica Place just because you’re a frugal diner—they have some very good values for lunch and happy hour, including a $10 rice bowl. The rice bowl is huge, you could really split it with someone if you’re not starving, and there are four options: curry tofu with vegetables and brown rice, which is my bowl of choice, as well as prime angus beef with sweet soy sauce, Japanese fried chicken, and teriyaki glazed freshwater eel. If a big rice bowl isn’t appealing to you, there are a surprising number of other affordable lunch options, including sushi bento boxes for $14 and flavorful ramen and udon soups for $11. These prices might not be blowing your mind, but for the quality of the food and the really delightful atmosphere, the value is right. What I like about the tofu bowl is the flavor of the traditional Japanese curry, strong and thick and tangy. With plenty of perfectly cooked brown rice and carrots and potatoes, it’s a hearty lunch at a pretty reasonable price, and you can order it in the bar or sitting in the dining room. On a nice day though, you may want to opt for the little outdoor lounge area. If you hang around after you’re done with your rice bowl, you might just transition into the next mealtime, and order from the Happy Hour menu starting at 3pm. From 3-7 every day, including weekends, $3 draft Sapporos are enticing; $5 skewers of pork belly or grilled salmon or tender glazed chicken are also available. You could order a garlic edamame for $4 or a miso soup for $3. There are even some sushi rolls available for about what you would pay for prepackaged grocery store sushi. Relaxing in the bar or outside on the patio, drinking beers and eating tender sushi, you could pass an entire afternoon grazing with friends, and never dread seeing the bill.