Day 24 – 29th Ave. Cafe…
Although I’m quite fond of Japanese food and make a point to have it a least once a week, I have never had a particularly soulful meal at a Japanese restaurant. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very tasty meals at restaurants such as Kingyo; I just haven’t necessarily had an out-of-body experience like I’ve had at certain meals at Ma Dang Coul or Le Regalade.
I guess the closest I’ve come to a soulful Japanese restaurant experience is at Sushi Shibucho in Costa Mesa, California. The piece-by-piece progression of the nigiri, the intricate knifework, the pace and portion control, and the 110% focused itamae all contributed to an almost soulful experience. The only thing that prevented me from going to a happy place was the serious and uptight atmosphere. Sitting at the sushi bar, I was always aware of how dedicated the chef was at his craft. I couldn’t take my eyes off of how precise he was at cutting the fish and making each individual piece of nigiri sushi. This alone prevented me from going to a happy place when I savored the heavenly pieces of raw fish on rice.
A relaxed, less serious, and non-pressured atmosphere is essential for a soulful meal experience. The food itself had to take you to that special, happy place. You should not be distracted by the chef, the servers, or the surroundings. The decor of the restaurant should not draw your attention by being too fancy or too engagingly interesting. It should ideally be spartan and forgettable. It should allow you to focus on the food that is placed in front of you.
29th Ave. Cafe certainly fit the bill as a spartan, not-fancily decorated establishment that would allow one to focus on the food. And the food is as close to comfort food as Japanese food gets. Deep fried pork katsu and ground beef hamburg patties with gravy are the main focus of the menu. Add a bowl of rice and you have the possible makings of a soulful meal.
My family and I arrived at the restaurant late one evening hoping for that soulful meal. At around 8:30 P.M. the restaurant was packed. Fortunately, we grabbed the last available table. Once we sat down at our table, it took about 15 minutes to get our menus and about another 15 for the server to finally come and take our orders. The slow service was understandable since the lady that was serving us was also serving every other table in the restaurant. And this was not a small restaurant with only 3 or 4 tables. This was a medium-sized diner with around 12 tables. She was not only the server, but also the hostess, cashier and the buslady. She had to lead patrons to their seats, clear tables, take orders, serve tables, and take care of customers paying their bills. I got tired just from watching her running around taking care of the entire front-of-the-house!
Judging from the three people working at this restaurant (two guys in the kitchen and the lady in front), this looks like your typical mom-and-pop operation. Mom takes care of service and pop cooks. My guess is that the other man in the kitchen is the son of mom and pop. I’ve seen this setup in a Japanese restaurant before, though the scale of the restaurant was much smaller. Sushi Shibucho, which I mentioned up on my second paragraph, also had a similar setup. Mom was in charge of the front of the house that consisted of a 7-seat sushi bar and two 4-seat tables. Pop and sonny were the sushi chefs. I guess in order to make the finances work, to support all three people in the family, they could not afford to hire someone else to help them.
Since 29th ave. cafe serves food at a much lower price point, they probably needed to have 12 tables in order to make enough money. I think not only me, but every other patron who has visited the restaurant probably hoped that mom could get some help for the sake of her health and sanity.
I was amazed at how composed she was when she was taking our order. She patiently answered our questions and didn’t seem rushed when we made our selections from the menu. My daughter ordered the pork katsu:
My son had the pork tenderloin katsu:
My wife had the curry katsu:
I had the hamburg steak:
My hamburg steak was excellent. It was thick and juicy and full or flavour. The meaty flavour was further accentuated by the demi-glaze/gravy which amped up the meat aroma and added the required saltiness. The accompanying carrots were sweet, tender, and paired perfectly with the hamburg steak. The sugar snap peas added a crisp texture that was a nice counterpoint to the texture of both the tender carrots and the slightly firmer hamburg steak. I’m not a fan of having potatoes with hamburg steak so I ordered a side of white rice. The rice was expertly cooked to match the hamburg steak and sauce. It was chewy and not mushy. I was able to discern the firmness of each individual grain of rice in my mouth. I could taste the thoughtfulness and care they put into cooking the rice to a texture that matched the hamburg steak.
This thoughtfulness and care that they took with making the dishes was present throughout all the other dishes that we ordered. Each of the pork katsus ordered were thoroughly breaded to the right thickness. Never once did the perfectly crisp breading separate from the meat. Every piece of pork was tender and juicy like the way a katsu is supposed to be. The regular katsu was already so tender that cutting into it required only the slightest effort with a knife; the tenderloin katsu was ridiculously tender to the point that it could be cut by a fork by applying hardly any pressure to it. The refreshing vegetables and potato salad included also provided the right amount of coolness to temper the smoking hot pieces of katsu pork. These weren’t your expensive-kurobuta-pork, panko-from-high-end-bread, and specially-formulated-oil-fried pork katsu. These were family style tonkatsu that reminded you of all the goodness of home cooking.
With such thoughtfully-prepared, comforting, and satisfying food, you’d think I would have already been to my happy place. But I never got there. There were two elements of the dining experience that prevented the meal from becoming soulful. The first element was the curry sauce that came with my wife’s dish. It was a good curry sauce, but I just couldn’t feel the soulfulness when I tried it with the pork katsu and rice. I felt that it lacked a certain hearty feel to it that could be remedied by making the sauce go either the sweeter or the spicier route.
The second and more distracting element was ‘mom’. I just felt so tired for her because she had to do everything by herself. She didn’t even have a nanosecond to rest. It was just task after task after task for her. One minute she was bringing a dish to our table and the next second she was at the other side of the room clearing off a table and the next she was trying to bring a highchair to newly arrived guests. I just couldn’t help but pay attention to what she was doing and where she was.
She was of course a very good multi-tasker. While she was scanning the tables around us for what type of service she was to provide to each of them and making eye contact with the patrons who required immediate service, she cleared our table of our main dishes, asked if we wanted dessert, gave us a brief description of their flan, and took our order for it. And within 2 minutes, we had our flan:
This was another simple dish prepared extremely well. It felt rich and decadent while being light and smooth. It had just the right sweetness and the perfect texture to be eaten with either a spoon or a fork. If the corner of my right eye hadn’t caught ‘mom’ busily taking payment and talking to the people waiting, I would have been taken to my soulful, happy place by this flan.
You know what would make me happy? I would be happy if on my next visit to 29th ave. cafe, I found out that there were really two people working the dining room instead of one. Maybe the other person was having a day off when I last visited or maybe they decided to hire someone to help ‘mom’. Really, I’m begging you – mom and pop and sonny. For the sake of mom and for the sake of the sanity of everyone who has every been in the restaurant, please hire someone to help ‘mom’. I would gladly pay a little extra for it.