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[whitespace] A Tale of Two Takaras

In which our intrepid food writer compares and contrasts two restaurants in the same local small chain

By Selene Latigo

I've always wondered about the subtle differences in our local small chain restaurants. There are so many variables that can alter the final outcome of a particular meal. How fresh is the produce, who cooked it, how was your server's day going, was the background music annoying or too loud? The standard for consistency that restaurants strive for is difficult to achieve. It's the little differences that make one place unique or more enjoyable than its twin. With all of this in mind, we set off to conduct a little study comparing the two Takaras.

Takara Tikki Bar, 1800 Soquel Ave.

Nestled among sprawling car dealerships and auto parts stores, the Takara on Soquel Ave. is unassuming. But once inside and past the plastic Japanese delicacies by the door, you enter an intimate beach bungalow complete with fishing nets, starfish, bamboo mats and reggae music. Each private booth has its own Japanese lantern and dark lacquered wood tables. All of the friendly staff wear Hawaiian shirts and give you the option of a table or a spot at the tikki bar.

We arrived just in time to partake in Happy Hour, (4-6PM, Mon-Sat) which features specials on pints of Kirin or Fat Tire, house cocktails, and some food items. Dave had a pint of Kirin ($3), and I had the Kona Breeze($5), a smooth, balanced, and not too sweet martini-style cocktail with Momokawa Ruby sake, cranberry juice, and pineapple juice. They also have an extensive sake list featuring a wide range of styles and prices along with some local wines. With our drinks came very hot towels for each of us to begin our meal. We started with a bowl of miso soup ($2.45) and a seaweed salad ($3.25). The miso was good, if a bit standard, with springy bits of tofu and strips of almost too salty seaweed. The large seaweed salad came in a pretty ceramic bowl, and was generously sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. There was a good balance of ocean flavor to hot pepper flake spiciness. Although the sesame seeds added a visually alluring touch, their strong flavor predominated a bit too much.

Passing up the large variety of combo dinners, cutlets, and tempura, we chose one order of the Maguro Nigiri ($3.50 until 6pm), a Hama roll ($5.45), a Yummy Yam ($3.50 until 6pm), one of Takara's unique veggie rolls with tempura yam and avocado, and one specialty roll called the Una Mango ($5.45), a tropical combination of unagi (BBQ eel), mango, avocado, and macadamia nuts. All of these arrived very quickly on a large platter and were identified for us by our server. The two huge pieces of Maguro, although a bit pale in color and not very flavorful, had an amazing buttery texture and were draped over mounds of very sticky rice. The Hama roll had a fishy flavor that was almost hidden by the overpowering green onion. The Yummy Yam, always one of my favorites, was surrounded thickly with the same sticky rice and had large chunks of slightly undercooked tempura yam. This was evened out by the creamy avocado and spicy wasabi. Finally, the Una Mango, one of many new and exotic Hawaiian influenced rolls on the menu, had a decadent blend of flavors and textures. The juicy mango, crunchy macadamia nut, and smooth avocado paired well with the sweet and savory eel. We passed up dessert, although the few selections of ice creams and tempura banana were tempting, we had work to do and headed south to our second dinner destination in Capitola.

Takara Restaurant, 3775 Capitola Rd.

We entered the Takara near the Capitola Mall, passing similar fake food displays and a full bar set off to the side. This Takara is larger, more spread out, with a very open feel and a sushi bar in the center. There was classical piano music playing and dim lighting, creating an elegant and upscale ambiance. The Happy Hour here, (3:30-5:30 PM, Mon-Fri, was over and the restaurant was bustling. A very friendly server, wearing a bright red Kimono-style top, seated us right away. Perhaps it was due to the later hour, but this Takara seemed a bit understaffed for how large it is, with servers hurrying past to attend to other customers, some who seemed bored or impatient with waiting. In spite of the somewhat slower pace, we immediately received the same hot towels, though not as scalding this time, and our drink order of the organic chilled sake ($10 for a 300ML bottle) from the Takara Sake factory (no relation) in Berkeley. This was one of the cheaper options on the sake list and unfortunately tasted it.

We placed our order, keeping consistent with our previous dinner of miso soup, seaweed salad, Maguro Nigiri, the Hama roll, the Yummy Yam, and one specialty roll. This time it was the Charlie Special ($6.50), a large roll of smoked salmon, cream cheese, green onion, and garlic, dipped in tempura batter and deep-fried. All of the prices are the same on both of Takara's menus, yet the second one seemed to have a few different dinner options, including more vegetarian combos. First came the miso and seaweed salad in the same style bowls and portions. The miso had more seaweed and a smoother textured tofu, but was lacking in flavor and seemed a bit watery.

The seaweed salad was moister and had a better mouth-feel, without the overpowering sesame seeds and a bit more spice.

Next came the sushi. The Maguro Nigiri was a darker pink, more flavorful, but not as smooth and buttery. The rice was much less sticky, which I preferred, but not as evenly seasoned as the rice at the first Takara. The Hama roll had the same abundance of green onion, but the yellowtail was much cleaner in flavor. The Yummy Yam contained thinner slices of softer yam, improving the balance of ingredients quite a bit. Our untraditional choice of the Charlie roll was pure decadence: Warm, creamy, smoky, and garlicky blended perfectly, all surrounded by thicker than typical tempura.

Although the desserts were much more extensive and elaborate here, we finished with toasted green tea, complimentary upon request, and a couple of Takara's classic dinner mints, something I look forward to every time.

The Outcome

The first Takara on Soquel seemed more casual and fitting for a fun celebration or Happy Hour drinks and a quick bite. Although some of the dishes were more flavorful there, the food at the Takara in Capitola seemed fresher and better crafted. This would be a good place to go on a special occasion. Overall, both restaurants offer an enjoyable dining experience, with good food and unique touches that create a satisfying meal.

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From the May 11-18, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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