Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
BOX SCORE: Chef Igarashi prepares kani-kosen bento boxes at Mitsuwa Market.
The Other Japantown
Exploring a lesser-known spot for Japanese culture in the South Bay
By Stett Holbrook
DON'T get me wrong. I think San Jose's Japantown is great. The neighborhood has a real sense of history and a strong community spirit. But as much as I enjoy walking down Jackson Street and checking out all the cool shops and restaurants, I've been spending more time in another Japanese enclave across town.
Located at the corner of Moorpark and Saratoga avenues, San Jose's other Japantown isn't a neighborhood like the original. It's a mall, but it's got plenty to offer, especially good food. The heart of the mall is the Mitsuwa Marketplace, Silicon Valley's premier Japanese supermarket. Each time I walk in here I find something new. I've got a thing for Japanese pickles (tsukemono) and the back corner of the store has a little shop dedicated to all things pickled—radishes, garlic, carrots, turnips, beets. The market also has a great produce section with lots of stuff you're not likely to find at Safeway or Whole Foods, such as shiso leaves, matsutake mushrooms and fresh wasabi root. There's also a cool housewares shop within the market stocked with beautiful (and relatively cheap) bowls, serving dishes, plates and various utensils.
The market is something of a Japanese cultural center, and last month the market hosted a Hokkaido Fair, a culinary celebration of the Japan's second largest northern island. The multiday food festival featured mainly seafood dishes like rice-stuffed squid, uni and fish cakes and fresh seafood seldom seen in these parts—hairy crab, pike mackerel and giant specimens of squid. The big draw was L.A.'s Santouka Ramen. The ramen specialists set up shop at the market and dished up big bowls of their celebrated ramen. Alas, I missed out on that.
Santouka Famen was only in town for a few days, but around the corner Kahoo Ramen serves up some of Silicon Valley's premier bowls of ramen. While some ramen fans were skeptical when it took over the venerable Do Henkotsu last year, Kahoo has become a ramen sensation.
Even before the doors open at 11:30am, there's usually a line of people at the door waiting to get in. You're best off going to Kahoo alone because you'll be seated more quickly at a solo spot at the counter, and that's where all the action is. From the counter you can watch chef So Nagano, the talent behind Kahoo. He's the guy in knee-high black rubber boots wearing a thin beard and longish, blond-tipped black hair pushed up into a faux hawk.
As orders come in, Nagano barks out commands in deep, guttural Japanese that his Latino assistants seem to understand perfectly. A steam-beaded stopwatch hangs over a big pot of boiling water and a battery of perforated noodle cookers. As Nagano drops a handful of noodles into the water, he punches the watch to ensure precise cooking. Nearby, he deftly stir-fries vegetables in a big wok atop roaring gas flames
Everything I've tried here is great, particularly the shoyo and shio ramen ($6.95). The spicy sesame ramen ($8.50) is delicious, too.
A few storefronts down is Hana, a bright and clean Japanese dumpling and noodle restaurant that also has a few Chinese items on the menu.The specialty here is the house-made gyoza, a wok-fried dumpling. The lunch special ($6.50) gets you steamed rice, a sweet-and-sour tofu and vegetable soup and sides of steamed broccoli and stir-fried celery and onions. With their plump center, tapering ends and frilly, finlike tops, the dumplings look like a legless stegosaurus. Outside, the dumplings are pleasantly blistered and conceal a steamy, ginger-seasoned pork and Napa cabbage filling. In spite of being fried in oil, the dumplings tasted clean and light.
Across the way is Tomi Sushi. Owned by the same folks who run Mountain View's excellent Sushi Tomi, Tomi Sushi is small place with a cozy sushi bar and about a dozen booths. There are lots of interesting and elaborate rolls if that's your thing but it was Tomi's nigiri and sashimi offerings that really impressed me, several of which are flown in from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji fish market. Sanma (pike mackerel), isaki (grunt), two grades of toro (fatty tuna), and aji (horse mackerel) were all sparkling fresh and delicious.
Tomi offers an omakase (chef's choice) selection for sushi ($39) and ($38) for sashimi. Most good sushi restaurants will do this anyway, but I like the fact that they post it on their menu. Hopefully more people take advantage of this option. After all, no one knows better than the itame (sushi chef) what's freshest and best.
There are two other good Japanese restaurants near the Mitsuwa mall. Or at least there were two until last week.Sadly, Sumiya burned down last week. The tiny restaurant specialized in yakitori, charcoal grilled skewered meats. Word is they plan to reopen. I hope so.
The other restaurant is Ringer Hut, and when I stopped by last week it was still standing. With its plush booths, open kitchen and counter seating, the restaurant looks like it once was a Hungry Hunter or a Carrows. Ringer Hut is part of a Japanese-based restaurant chain that specializes in Nagasaki-style champon, a noodle soup in a porky broth. The basic champon ($7.50) is more than a meal. The soup arrives in a milky broth loaded with sliced pork, shrimp, bits of fish and vegetables like cabbage, carrots and corn. The yellow, springy wheat flour noodles are cooked in the soup (whereas ramen is cooked separately in boiling water) and they retain their chewy consistency. The broth is pleasantly salty and rich, a perfect meal for a fall day.
I'll always have a fondness for Japantown, but Silicon Valley is a better place with a second oasis of Japanese food and culture. Two Japantowns are better than one.
Address: 675 Saratoga Ave., San Jose
Hours: Open 9am–8pm daily