Category Archives: Japanese

Tensuke Express

Cuisine: Japanese

1167 Old Henderson Rd.
Open: Mon-Fri – 11am-2:30pm, Sat – 11am-7:30pm, Sun – 12pm-7:30pm

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Tensuke Express is a cheap and cheerful lunch stop, and a great little example of Japanese fast food done well. The space, which can be entered either from the outside (seen above) or through the adjacent Tensuke Market, is done up in a vaguely aquatic theme, and features a circular bar seating area with a large, cylindrical fish tank in the middle. Feel free to take a seat there and observe the drama of a 4-foot long leopard-patterned eel slithering out tight laps while smaller fish dart out of its way.

But only after putting in your order, at which point you’ll pay and be given one of those light-up buzzer bricks to signal when you’ll need to return to pick up your meal. Children (myself among them) seem to get a kick out of the obscenely evocative racket the buzzers make against the Corian tabletops.

Meals are a bargain at $5 – $7.50, and the combinations in particular are a steal, all at less than $7.00. Sides run from $.50 – $4.00, with most under $3.00. Beverages are all under $1.00, with Japanese tea at only $.50.

So, like I said, cheap – as in, within a buck or so of your average fast food drive-thru order. But so much better. For example, take a look at this ‘udon + BBQ eel bowl’ combo ($6.75):

It’s a solid rendition of your standard udon bowl – thick, white flour noodles, light, savory broth, seaweed, scallions, a slice of fish cake, and bits of tempura – served with a generous side of BBQ eel. Once you get past the foreign-ness of some of the ingredients, it’s easy to think of this as pure comfort food. The eel, served atop rice, seemed surprisingly generous – it was probably the equivalent of 6 pieces of eel nigiri sushi, and every bit as satisfying.

Yaki udon ($5.75) was similarly enjoyed. Pan fried noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, onions and scallions in what Tensuke calls a ‘special sauce’ that was slightly sweet with sesame oil notes. Delicious!

The steamed gyoza ($2.95)  – meaty steamed dumplings with a side of salty soy/sesame oil sauce – were also appreciated and disappeared quickly.

The takoyaki (spherical pancake dumplings with octopus in the middle, $2.95) were good, but we can’t help but feel spoiled by the exceptional quality of Fresh Street’s version. They’re a fine side if you’re already at Tensuke, but if you’re specifically looking for them, I’d recommend that you check here first.

Beyond the dishes shown here, Tensuke also carries a variety of cold noodle dishes, rice curries, ramen bowls, tempura bowls, and Japanese chicken and pork plates. If our experiences (and discussions with others) are any indication, any of these will likely be more than satisfying and an make for an exceptional bargain.

Note: Tensuke Market also carries pre-made sushi, and has a sushi order counter in the small room between the restaurant and the main market area.


Fresh Street

Cuisine: Japanese

1030 N. High St. (in the parking lot just south of Bodega)
Open: weekdays, 11:30am – 5:30pm (closed Tues), weekends, 12:00pm – 6:00pm
Facebook Page

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Imagine you opened a Japanese crepe cart last summer. People came, ate, enjoyed your endlessly creative dishes, respected your commitment to quality ingredients, and raved to others. In no time you had amassed a cult following, and were regularly flattered by glowing mentions in both the social media sphere and traditional media. By the end of summer, you’ve got a spot on an NPR show about street food under your belt. You pulled big crowds almost everywhere you went, and kept ’em coming even through the cold of November. Eventually, though, the permafreeze became just too much, and you closed up for the season.

Next spring, my street food rock star, as the city defrosts… what do you do?

If you’re Kenny Kim and Misako Ohba, owners and operators of the much lauded Foodie Cart, the answer is: octopus balls!

A bit of back story – in seeking out a sheltered location, they connected with Mikey of Mikey’s Late Night Slice. His pizza ‘shack’ (an outbuilding in a parking lot in the Short North with an adjacent dining room) operates in the evening, and lies dormant during the day. A perfect spot for Kenny & Misako to do their thing during Mikey’s off-hours. Win-win, right?

Except that, for a variety of different reasons, the crepe apparatus wouldn’t fit into the location. Having had their eye on a much smaller takoyaki griddle, the plan came together. Foodie Cart became Fresh Street, and crepes shifted over to takoyaki – a spherical pancake-meets-dumpling style Japanese snack food, traditionally made with a chunk of octopus flesh in the middle.

That word – tradition – was not exactly a central tenet of Foodie Cart’s repertoire, and same goes for this endeavor though perhaps to a lesser extent. While you can get straightforwardly traditional takoyaki here (and if my limited experience is any indication, they’re as good as anything on the streets of Japan…), part of the fun is (and always has been) seeing what these guys come up with next and enjoying how they cajole disparate influences into harmonious flavor pairings.

On our first visit, during their soft opening, they had 3 takoyaki options on the menu – octopus (true takoyaki), Japanese pork sausage, and okonomiyaki. Each allowed for a variety of different sauce & topping options – some gratis, others with a small upcharge.

I loved all 3 types. Each had a nice crispy exterior that tastes of toasted sesame oil and yields to a bread-like layer that transitions to a delicious gooey center. The octopus, unsurprisingly, has chunks of naturally chewy octopus in the middle, and the pork sausage version had pieces of pork sausage that taste surprisingly similar to a breakfast link (and none the worse for it). The okonomiyaki has shredded cabbage in it, which makes for a creative take on the traditional Japanese okonomiyaki pancake. In spite of being the vegetarian option it struck me as every bit the equal of the others. All orders are finished off with a takoyaki sauce, your choice of kewpie mayo or hot mustard, and bonito flakes.

Eight balls come with an order, is surprisingly filling, and is very reasonably priced at $5 per octet. The skill involved in making these is considerable, open for all to see, and makes for entertaining food theater.

The grand opening is today (4/14/11), check ’em out!

Kihachi (on the cheap!)

Cuisine: Japanese

2667 Federated Blvd

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We’re well documented when it comes to our abiding affection for Kihachi, and indeed find it to be one of the crown jewels of our local immigrant kitchen restaurant scene. That said, given the cost of entry, we’ve been a bit apprehensive about including such a high-end restaurant among the roster of the usual bang-for-the-buck dynamos here at alt.eats.

That’s not to say that Kihachi is a bad value. Given the uncompromising quality of the ingredients and the exceptional technical skills put to use in preparing them, it could even be considered a bargain. But, still, a conspicuously costly bargain.

Or at least that’s the perception. In previous visits, we’ve been repeatedly seduced by the siren song of Chef Kimura’s more exotic offerings, and though we’ve felt entirely rewarded for doing so, the down side of that approach (aside from the overdraft fees) is that we’ve ignored some of the menu’s Japanese staple dishes, whose prices are often far less dear.

So with that in mind, we set out to see both a) if it was possible for a couple to eat a full and satisfying meal for $25/person (tax & tip excluded), and b) if the food in that range was similar, in quality of execution, to the higher priced items.

There are essentially three menus to choose from – dinner, small plates, and daily small plate specials (which are written in Japanese, affixed to the regular small plates menu, and translated by the server).  Our usual approach has been to order a variety of small dishes from both of the small plates menus. This can get expensive if you intend to eat till full, so on this visit we ordered a dinner menu item each (most of which are less expensive than some of the small plates and larger in portions) and then augmented as our budget allowed.

First up, apps, starting with agedashi tofu ($6.00):

Simply put, this is the most compelling case I’ve seen made for why tofu can be delicious: four lightly battered cubes of fried tofu sit in a mix of dashi, soy, and mirin, and topped with seaweed, green onion, grated daikon and bonito flakes. The textures, flavors, and appearance all delight.

Next, fried burdock root (also called gobo, $5.00):

This is the root of the plant that leaves burrs on your clothes as you walk through the woods (burdock), sliced into thin sticks, lightly floured and fried, and presented with a side of seasoned salt. It’s as comforting as a french fry, but far more interesting with its potato-meets-artichoke flavor and slight snap to the bite.

Grilled capelin ($6.00):

That’s right, four little whole fish (capelin are members of the smelt family), mouths agape in expressions of abject terror. They shouldn’t act so surprised – they had to realize that they’re richly flavorful bites of ocean-tinged goodness.

Finally, for the apps, steamed clams in broth ($6.95):

Beautiful in its simplicity, this dish consists of a trio of beautifully plump and surprisingly chewy clams in a lovely broth, and a great garnish of unidentified but flavorful greens.

Now for the mains… first up, udon with duck ($13.00):

We’ve often remarked on how many of our favorite Japanese dishes can have a somewhat comfort food-y component to them. This dish epitomizes the sentiment with plenty of fat udon noodles bathed in a rich, meaty broth, topped off with a generous portion of exceptionally flavorful duck meat and scallions. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen proteins so carefully considered in the context of a soup – perfectly cooked (read – tender) poultry is truly the exception, and is indicative of masterful temperature control in the kitchen.

Next, nabeyaki udon ($12.00):

This contained the same udon noodles as in the last dish, but was topped with raw egg yolk, shrimp tempura, fish cakes slices, scallions, and more… and came in a bowl that retained enough heat to keep the broth boiling for at least a couple of minutes after serving. With the egg yolk mixed in, this broth was perhaps even richer than the previous, and among our extended group of 5 it was preferred by all except for one (your humbled author).As meals in a bowl go, you’d be hard pressed to find one more complete (or more satisfying).

With that, our meal for two is complete. Total cost: $48.95, green tea included. With one less app, we could’ve done it for $20/person, and we still would’ve left full and, really, just about as happy as if we’d spent 2 or 3 times as much. Needless to say, we highly recommend you to check Kihachi out, and if you go we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

Foodie Cart

Cuisine: Japanese with myriad other influences

Location varies, see their Facebook page or Twitter stream for the latest

Driving around downtown on any weekday at lunchtime, you’ll inevitably see plenty of lunch carts.  Recognizable by their red & white umbrellas, they usually serve gyros, brats, hot dogs and the like… just as they did 5, 10, hell, even 15 years ago.

Almost lost amongst them today, though, was something completely outside of the norm.

Instead of waterlogged brats, this renegade cart was hawking ‘steamed curry pork’.  In lieu of dry, shaved gyro loaf in stale pita bread, their menu teased with the promise of ‘jerk kalbi short rib’.  They’re called Foodie Cart, and they make extravagantly creative Japanese-style crepes.

Prior to visiting Foodie Cart, I had tried to talk several people into joining me in trying them out. Almost inevitably, the response was, “What is a Japanese crepe?!”, which seemed to indicate vague sense of distrust based upon the conflation of ‘Japanese’ with what is commonly considered to be a French preparation.

Odd though it might sound, crepes have long been a (delicious) part of the culinary landscape in Japan.  They’re distinguished from their continental cousins by a couple of traits – a thinner, somewhat crispy crepe shell that uses little to no butter, and a ‘the only rule is to break the rules’ approach to filling combinations. Well, that and the fact that they’re mostly found in Japan.

That’s where Misako Ohba comes in.  Trained as a pastry chef in Tokyo, she was recruited to ply her trade here in Columbus, where she met her husband and partner-in-crepes, Kenny.  Having paid their dues in the food service industry, they decided it was time to strike out on their own.

I’m emphatically glad they did, as this allowed us to try four of their crepes – the stewed curry pork, jerk kalbi short rib, Boursin veggie egg, and the green tea tiramisu.

All of the savory crepes were folded into a package not unlike that of a burrito.  The light and flaky exterior of the pork curry crepe (above) yielded to reveal nicely seasoned and tender pig flesh, shredded cabbage, and a few dabs of tabasco.  A beautiful combination, both in flavor and texture.

The jerk kalbi – strips of marinated short rib meat, spinach, and an unusual sauce that, if I recall correctly, included kiwifruit – was similarly successful. I’ve long loved the big beef taste of the traditional Korean kalbi preparation, and it’s been a dish that has translated well into myriad ‘fusion’ interpretations (it’s a mainstay of the famous Kogi ‘taco’ truck in LA).  So… hey, why not in a crepe?

The last of our savory crepes was the Boursin, veggie, and egg (above), which included spinach, avocado and tomatoes.  Though the ingredients couldn’t be more different, this struck me as having qualities similar to that of a good banh mi sandwich in that it hits the palate as both rich and light/vegetal simultaneously.  Quite a trick to pull off, and an exceptional savory treat.

Did we mention that Misako is a pastry chef? She makes a complete green tea tiramisu, and then puts dollops of it into a crepe along with fresh strawberries and chocolate sauce. If that sounds good, know that it tasted better.

At this point, Foodie Cart’s menu changes quite frequently. Other items in the rotation include ahi tuna, salmon & avocado, and lemon pork belly… all of which will ensure our speedy return.  They’re also keen to include at least one vegetarian item on the menu at any given time.  Beverage options include iced jasmine tea and a soy iced tea latte, and both were great.

One last thought. Operations like Foodie Cart and Fusion Cafe represent the growth of something that is both important and special to our food scene – namely the emergence of seriously high-quality, innovative food that budding restauranteurs can only share with us thanks to this low investment approach. Mobile food also allows the small guy with big ideas the opportunity to take risks with their menu that most restaurants would shy away from, as well as serving as something of an incubator for the leap into restaurant ownership.

In short, guys like this are a big good thing, and I’d like to encourage our readership to frequent them.  Did I mention that Foodie Cart’s crepes cost all of $4.50?  Yeah, low overhead also means low prices.