Tag Archives: takoyaki

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
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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!