Monday, January 10, 2005

Growing up J-Town #JT-050


onfections were not the only thing Dad got for his meetings. On special occasions, he would get box lunches, usually sushi at a small place called Matsuno Sushi. It was nothing like today's sushi shops--raw fish was not easily had back them. There was a short counter, which I suppose might resemble today's sushi bar, but there was no refrigerated case on top. The sushi was standard fare, at least by JA standards: inari-zushi, futomaki, shime saba. Of course, we had our own names.

Inari-zushi is fried tofu skin stuff with sushi rice, but we called them "footballs" because of their shape and the fox-brown color. An ex-girlfriend once referred to them as "pillows" because of the way they were stuffed. Futomaki was sushi rice and fillings of kanpyo (re-hydrated gourd), egg, spinach, and this sweet pink stuff that I still haven't figured out, spread out onto a large sheet of nori (dried seaweed) and rolled up into a long roll. This was then cut into three-quarter inch pieces. We referred to these as "tires". But Mom could make these two types of sushi at home so they were no big deal to me. What I really enjoyed was the shime saba. This is a pickled mackerel very similar to the pickled herring eaten by northern Europeans. A filet of mackerel was pickled then placed on top of a long mound of sushi rice then pressed into a bar shape. Man, I could eat this everyday and never get tired of it. Dad had a name for it that sounded like "batter up" so that's what I used to call it. I later learned the word was battera, another name for the same thing. I guess this would be similar to a sandwich called a poor boy, hero, or grinder, depending on where you're from. Of course, despite my love for "batter up", I could not eat more than one at his senryu meetings as they were reserved for the adults. I swore that I would buy my own when I could afford it, but unfortunately Matsuno Sushi closed shop by the time I was old enough to earn my own bread.

One place that was open since my childhood and closed only after the last major earthquake in LA was Far East Cafe. After special occasions at church--like First Communion or someone's birthday--Dad would take us there for lunch after church. It was a Chinese restaurant right in the middle of J-Town. The front glass was painted a pale green so no one could look in. When you entered the front door, a juke box greeted you in the small waiting area. On the right were the cash register and a glass counter filled with sweet and salted dried plums--something I always begged Dad to buy, but never got. Behind the juke box was a wooden partition, with seating down two aisles on either side. Indeed, the entire restaurant was separated by partitions about six feet high making small enclosed eating spaces. Some had two tables for two small parties, but if you had five or more in your party you usually got your own space.

Now, Far East Cafe was not a fancy place by any means. They did not serve some of the food that I have come to expect from the newer Chinese restaurants. Hong Kong Flower Lounge in Milpitas and NBC in Monterey Park serve some of the best sea food I have ever had. I love the sun-dried abalone--it's so much better than fresh abalone to me--sauteed with Chinese greens like chingensai. Steamed any-kind-of fish is as good as it gets. But Far East Cafe was a modest place that offered old-school fare like pi-chayu (sauteed snow peas with chicken, water chestnuts and bean sprouts), pakkai (subuta or sweet and sour pork), char shu (barbeque pork), fried wonton and the best pan fried chow mein.

While we waited for our food, I often went to the back of the restaurant. I'd tell the folks that I needed to go to the bathroom, which was an adventure in itself. The place was not necessarily dirty, but it was dingy, dark and dank. You walked in and had to turn the light on by pulling a string hanging from the ceiling. After taking care of business and washing my hands, I got to wipe my hands on the cloth towels that dangled from a dispenser that you had to pull for a fresh swatch of linen. I used to think that it was a short strip of cloth that was used over and over but somehow ironed straight inside the dispenser. After leaving the bathroom which was right next to the kitchen, I would stop to breathe in the smell of the kitchen. they would usually tell me to go back to my table, that I was in the way. Or at least I think that's what they said because I didn't understand a word they were saying--I always assumed that they were speaking Cantonese--but it always seemed to me that they were angry. Why were they always yelling? I thought. But it didn't matter. They always made the best Chinese food I could imagine back then.

Far East Cafe was perhaps the most popular non-Japanese restaurant in J-Town, but for me, the best place was the Sugar Bowl Cafe...

No comments: