A Day in Japantown

Much like the previous week, this week’s field trip was a new experience for me; a chance to really stretch my culinary palette and head out on a new adventure. And where would that adventure take place? Well, San Francisco’s Japantown, that’s where!

This was yet another part of the city that I had never ventured into. I was not sure what to expect, maybe some form of sushi or Udon noodles perhaps? I was definitely not expecting to try a dish that moved when it was served to me, a traditional Japanese dessert, or even a common Japanese street snack when I walked into the Peace Plaza that morning. Altogether, it made for a once in a lifetime experience and much like my Mission experience, I’m going to write about my top five favorite choices.

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First on the list just happened to be the first spot on the tour that day, the sweet potato latte at the Yakini Q Cafe. Although it sounded like it would be heavier than a normal latte, the earthy flavor surprised me, light and fluffy reminding me of a delicate cream. The frothy drink was easily consumed in just under a minute, and I was proud to say that it was definitely on my favorite list from the day in Japantown. Also hearing from the manager about the origin of the drink representing the cafe owner’s childhood favorite drink made it that much easier to connect to the overall experience at Yakini Q. It was like I had a little piece of the cafe and it’s history in the cup I sipped from, and I’ll definitely be visiting again in the future for more.

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Second on my list is something that I had eaten before, but never in the traditional way: Mochi. Ever since I was little, I had eaten mochi in its popular ice cream form, sold commonly at the grocery store but the mochi I ate in Japantown was far from what those ice cream treats tasted like. A sweet bean curd wrapped in a cocoon of pounded rice, the Benkyodo mochi store was one of the original establishments of 1906, specializing in the selling of this popular Japanese dessert. Choosing the pink mochi  (mainly based on how pretty in pink they looked in the case) it lay in my hand like a soft pillow of rolled dough, powdery from the flour and begging to be sampled. My first bite was not a disappointment, the sweetness of the curd the perfect accompaniment to the previous sweet potato latte. My face may have been full of flour afterward, but it was all worth it, the previous mochi experiences I had had seemed to pale in comparison to trying the real thing.

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It was a stark contrast to the Mission tour, already I had consumed two sweet treats and they had easily made the top five on my list of must see Japantown experiences. And my sweet tooth had still not been satisfied, until I got to experience the Tai Yaki dessert from May’s Coffee Shop in the Japantown mall. Similar to a pancake, the name Tai Yaki literally means “grilled fish” and describes the literal appearance of the dish itself. Not only was I excited about the sweet bean curd stuffing inside (which I expected to be about the same as the mochi filling) but the fish appearance reminded me of the nights eating dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets as a kid with my younger brother. The saltiness of the cake was the perfect contrast to the sweetness of the bean curd packed inside. It was yet another sweet treat that I enjoyed experiencing for the first time in Japantown.

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The sweet treats were only the first part of the experience, and by now I was craving fish and seafood more and more. I finally got my wish when we headed over to Kissako Tea in the mall to try Onagiri.

Being a popular street food in Japan, I was excited to give it a try, especially liking the fact that the packaging of this rice ball filled with salmon was so intricately wrapped in plastic. It was an experience almost like sushi but ten times amplified: the seaweed wrap tasting dry and crunchy over the warm contents of rice and surprise salmon inside. I wolfed mine down and would have gladly taken about twenty more if offered the chance. The best part was seeing how the chef prepared each onagiri roll, delicately containing each ball of rice in the plastic wrapper he fashioned himself for each roll. The onagiri was like a larger version of a sushi roll and something that easily made it on my top five list of places we visited in Japantown.

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And the last item on my list was from a small restaurant called Mitune Don and the dish was something that I could not even fathom eating in my experiences through this tour. It was called Okonomiyaki and yes, it was moving.

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No no, this was not a live dish, it was the bonito fish flakes reacting to the heat of the cooked quiche-like dish at the bottom of the skillet. It was coated in different sauces, all coming together to create a taste that was equally delicious and tangy in flavor, unlike anything I had tasted before. I ended up being one of two people who finished my entire slice at the table and loved it so much I only regret not taking seconds. The creaminess of the egg at the bottom with the tougher, crusty top of the cooked crust on top made this dish not only in my top five of the day in Japantown but also in my list of favorite foods I’ve ever tried in my lifetime.

So Japantown is over now in terms of our field trip. While the mission was nice and I was able to connect strongly with my Spanish roots, I think that, overall, I enjoyed the Japantown experience a little more because the foods chosen for us to sample were so out of the ordinary that I truly felt as though I was experiencing a culinary adventure. Can’t wait to see what the next trip has in store for my palette to sample.

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