“They may have tasted good sushi in the United States of America, but chances are they have never encountered authentic superb tempura.” — A sign promoting the opening of the first Hannosuke America
When I was in Tokyo, one of the things that impressed me was the profusion of restaurants, counters and stands devoted to a single particular type of food. There were of course sushi bars. But there were also tempura bars. And there were joints serving only chicken on skewers, and others serving only chicken hearts, gizzards and tendons on skewers. There were shabu shabu places, sukiyaki places, places that served horse, places that, sadly, served whale.
One of my favorite meals in Tokyo was the dinner I had for my birthday with friend Joe at the tempura bar in the New Otani Hotel. I didn’t know tempura could be served at a bar, nor that it could be so good.
I try to mostly stay out of the restaurant review business — I’m a cook, I like to help people cook better. But once in a while I’m tempted off my straight and narrow into the role of critic. Sometimes it’s because something is so awful I can’t help but vent. But usually it’s the opposite — something is so good, I’ve got to sing out loud, dance in little circles and share the gospel.
It’s like that with Hannosuke, the “tendon” restaurant that just opened in the Japanese food court at the Mitsuwa Market in Mar Vista, California. Tendon, for those unfamiliar, is tempura served on top of a bowl of rice. When it’s bad, it can be a limp, greasy mess. But when it’s good, well… as the promotional material for Hannosuke promised, you may have never tasted “authentic superb tempura” of its like outside Japan. And I feel fortunate to live in the second-best place for Japanese food on earth.
The “legend,” such as it is, revolves around a certain Mr. Hannosuke Kaneko — in another era, the former chairman of the Japan Chef Association and “person of influence” for the Japanese Tempura Association, and keeper of a “secret” tendon recipe for whom his grandson would name his wildly popular tempura stand, Kaneko Hannosuke (why the name flip I do not know), in Tokyo’s Chūō district.
The first American outpost of the “legend,” as fortune would have it, began serving recently on my shopping route. So I took my place in line to get my bowl. And waited. (My number was 92, they were on 65). Fortunately while I waited, I could shop in the market and then when I’d exhausted that, watch through the glass as the steadfast, expressionless chefs labored over two deep woks, producing bowl after bowl of identical tendon.
There are only two options at Hannosuke. The “basic” tendon with whitefish, shrimp, scallop kakiage, sweet potato, shishito pepper, seaweed and an egg; and the “deluxe”, which replaces the whitefish with anago sea eel. I figured I should start with the basic and work my way up. They finally called #92, I grabbed my tendon and found a seat at the lunch counter next to some young Asian Americans involved in a riveting conversation:
Young man #1: “So are you from here originally?”
Young woman: “No, I’m from Indiana. I moved here with my brother and sister.”
Young man #2: ”So, isn’t Indiana mostly a big city or what?”
Young woman: “It’s actually pretty rural, most of it.”
Young man #1: ”Did you move here with any of your family?”
Young woman: “I moved here with my brother and sister.”
How was the tendon? Sometimes in dining, there are only degrees of difference between good and “superb.” I’ve had reasonably good tempura at any number of places in Los Angeles, and have only had great tempura a few times. I’ll give Hannosuke those extra degrees. Was it as good as the tempura bar at the New Otani in Tokyo? Probably not, but that experience benefited from the saké as well as the unfair advantage of the fact that it was actually in Japan.
Besides the light, über crisp and über un-oily batter, the interesting selection of ingredients and the wonderful epiphany of discovering a sweet briny sauce lurking at the bottom of the bowl of rice, the thing that most set the Hannosuke tendon apart was the surprising inclusion of the egg. When you broke into it with your chopsticks, it released a silky stream of golden yolk spilling out onto the rice, asserting itself luxuriously into cracks and crevices between pieces of tempura, bonding with the sauce to create something infinitely more. When the difference between good and great can come down to degrees, it is a revelation indeed that it all can come down to something as innocuous as an egg.
My second visit I brought along daughter Willa, a budding tempura aficionado and critic herself. There may be no review as trustworthy as that of a six-year old. I ordered the “deluxe” this time — worth the extra few bucks for an entire half anago — while Willa got the basic. What did she think? See for yourself:
She didn’t love the egg part, and dipped everything in her miso soup. To each his own.
Next time — and there will be a next time, and probably many after that — I will watch through that little window to see how exactly it is that one tempuras an egg!