I wish I could say that I found Ichiza on my own, with my determination to find a restaurant so legitimately dedicated to the food rather than the decor or the amount of douche bag tourists in sparkly Ed Hardy that would cross its threshold. But that would be a lie. And though I don’t fancy myself a follower of all Judeo-Christian ethics, lying is one of those sins I try to avoid committing. I confess, I was bedazzled. The shiny, false idols of culinary heaven had taken me far from my righteous path of foodie devotion. I had strayed from my beliefs
But upon my last trip to the City of Sin, I found redemption, salvation and quite a bit of salivation.
Off the beaten path, in an unassuming strip mall that could be in any city, void of all the pretense and laden with all the edible riches of Japanese bar food, Ichiza is like a beacon of delicious purity hidden in a dingy den of smoke and mirrors. A lone virgin in a house filled with whores.
At first glance, the options were overwhelming. Menu choices strewn on the walls, written like ancient cave drawings, some scribbled in Japanese, some with amateur pictures to help explain. Upon being seated, I felt like I was in over my head. This was too much goodness, too much authentic-ness for me to handle after a weekend filled with glossy restaurants and bars. But with my fellow foodies by my side, a couple of them experienced tourists in this land of wonder, I decided to just let things happen.
What happened was amazing.
We started with the Beef Tongue. Sublime. Tender and perfectly seasoned, this hearty dish was the perfect start to our feast. It was simple, it was authentic, it kinda got me giddy.
Next up was the albacore and mackerel sashimi. How in the world a restaurant in the middle of the desert got their hands on such fresh, succulent fish is a mystery. Perhaps they made a deal with the devil? Regardless, it was fantastic.
By this time I was reeling in how amazing the first two selections were. Not only purely delectable, but purely traditional. So when the next course arrived, the albacore tartare, I was surprised that something that looked so fusion inspired was presented. This dish seemed like a combination between a tostada and a sandwich, with a Japanese twist of ingredients. Though a bit messy to eat, I enjoyed the combination of textures with the fried wonton wrapper providing the crunch, the rice the firmness and the fish and avocado the tender splash of flavor. However, I was not as impressed with this plate as I had been the other two, seemed like it was trying too hard.
I started to worry. Perhaps this place was like all the others, a charlatan, a sinner pretending to be a saint. But all my doubts were quickly dismissed when I was presented with the next course. In a hollowed out lemon, I saw a pile of uni, garnished with thinly sliced cucumber bathing in ponzu. It looked too good to be true. Too perfect, too much what my little heart has always longed for. Perhaps this was a mirage, an optical illusion, but after I took my first bite I knew it was real. Real damn good. It took all the self-control I could muster to keep myself from pushing the eager chopsticks of my counterparts away and claiming the entire course for myself. Luckily, I am a pillar of strength. But I can’t lie, I was tempted to have another order all to myself.
Still drunk with the food lust fog that had taken me over, I was snapped back to reality when the next dish arrived. The red snapper sashimi, which was garnished with paper thin lemon wheels and salmon roe, was every bit as tasty as it was beautiful. The ponzu was a perfect citrus conter point to the firm fish and the roe supplying an extra pop of salty goodness.
The carpaccio of kobe beef was next on in line. I can’t even count how many times my friends of Japanese descent have spoken the praises of kobe beef. So succulent, so tender, so worth any price. However, I found the flavor of this supposedly amazing meat completely masked by the strong flavor of onions and black pepper. Was it good? Sure. Was it the transcendent experience I was expecting? Not so much.
I grew a bit disheartened. Sure there were only two dishes that didn’t wow me, but, again, being in the city of sin, I was starting to doubt if the meal could get any better. Perhaps there was a limit on how much authenticity a restaurant within these city limits could muster. Enter the chicken and egg bowl. Hearty, warm, comforting. This is the kind of Japanese food that one outside Japan doesn’t even know exists. I imagine that this is what mothers have made for their children for many years. The rice, which was seasoned with all the glorious flavors of the chicken, egg, ginger and other seasoning was addictive. And regardless of the fact that I was totally hogging the bowl (I mean, I am a self-proclaimed glutton, after all) I could Not. Stop. Eating.
Crisis of faith averted.
Before we went for dessert, the four of us resolved to try something totally out of normal line up. We scoured the walls to find the thing that sounded the most exotic, the most odd. We decided on two exotic eats. First up, the uni and squid roll. Sure I like squid sometimes, and uni was one of my favorite acquired tastes. I can’t say the roll was bad, but with the strongly flavored nato beans, which I think may be even more of an acquired taste than anything I’ve ever eaten, combined with the squid and the too-delicate-for-the-application uni, the roll was a fun experiment in Japanese flavor combinations, but not what I would call a success for those of us at the table.
Number two arrived next, bacon wrapped mochi. That’s right, mochi. Now I must say that I’m no fan of the dessert variety of mochi. I find the texture off putting and the flavor very bland. I was not expecting to enjoy the little skewer of meat wrapped jelly. Boy, was I wrong. It was fantastic! The bacon flavor completely permeated the mochi and the combination of the texture of the soft mochi with the assertiveness of the bacon was so good, I ate more than my share.
Then – Honey Toast.
Sure it sounds odd. Plain even. However, let me assure those with any doubts that this dessert was the most amazing part of the meal. This dish is made up of a combination I have never even seen before – half a loaf of Japanese white bread, toasted, topped with ice cream and drizzled with honey. When my friend ordered this, I thought she was crazy, it didn’t sound like it was going to be that great. She promised me that on her last visit she thought the same, but was converted. I took her word on faith, then I took my first bite. Carbs and cream and gooey sweetness – oh my. Bite after bite, the “ummm”s and “ooooh”s eminating from the four of us was enough to dispel any doubts that this little restaurant in this little strip mall was the real deal.
And as if to truly seal the proverbial deal, just to make sure I didn’t ever lose my faith in the food gods again, the check arrived. Four women with hearty appetites ordered ten plates of food to share, three beers, a hot tea and one of us ordered a bowl of ramen. I was expecting to pay for this great meal with a great big Vegas style price tag. The damage? Just under one hundred dollars. I’m serious. I was stuffed, contented and the other three were a bit tipsy, and we waddled out of there having only spent $30 each.
If that doesn’t prove there’s a higher power, nothing will. My faith has been restored.