Late Night Delight [restaurant review]
The little restaurant by the corner of Crenshaw and PCH offers just about anything Japanese at just about any time
If you’re driving down Crenshaw Boulevard near midnight, you’ll pass row after row of bright but empty buildings flanked by vast, vacant parking lots. There are cars all around you, but no welcoming spaces promising life and human companionship at that moment. More importantly, at least for anybody who missed dinner, there’s a distinct shortage of places with food to tempt someone whose culinary horizons reach beyond burger and fries served in a cardboard box.
Just when you’re wondering if there’s anything actually edible at that place with the drive-thru and the clown, you spot a gaggle of cars next to a little restaurant. Civilization is at hand, and its name is Iccho. (“First Street” in Japanese, and the staff members I asked don’t know why. Naming the restaurant after the actual address would be helpful, but I suspect that “Crenshaw-cho” lacks a certain music.)
Walk inside and you’re in multilingual information overload. The walls are festooned with signs in English and Japanese advertising food, drink, and dessert specials. Things don’t get easier after you are shown to a table. The food menu has 240 items spanning the whole range of Japanese food – standard combinations of tempura and teriyaki, izakaya snacks, noodles in soup or otherwise, sushi, yakitori barbecue, and much more. The best way to commence is to start with the list of small plates and order the ones that look most alluring while deciding the rest. That’s how the Japanese dine at izakayas.
On a recent evening our party of five started with tofu topped with bonito flakes, a cucumber and sour plum salad, an okonomiyaki pancake, and a sampler plate of yakitori chicken skewers. As is often the case here, the tofu with bonito included some elements that were not described, such as the scrambled egg base beneath the tofu and the scattering of green onions. Both helped make the dish interesting, but it was a reminder that if you have food allergies, let your server know to avoid problems. The paper-thin bits of dried bonito added an agreeably funky flavor to the light-textured omelet and tofu, and it was a nice little start to the meal. The cucumber with sour plum happened to be a great complement since the fruity, slightly salty plum jam and the sweet cucumber were a perfect match for each other. The flavor of salted plum suits the modern American palate, and I expect to see it going mainstream.
Okonomiyaki also ought to be better known, but it’s rarely seen outside specialty restaurants. They have layers of flavor since they are literally layered. You start with stir-fry, pour pancake batter on top of it, and top that with sweet sauce, a dusting of herbs, a squeeze of Japanese mayonnaise, and bonito flakes. Some spicy pickled ginger is on the side, in case there isn’t enough already going on. These originated near Hiroshima and are served at street stalls all over Japan, and it’s high time that more places offer them here.
The yakitori sampler had five varieties of chicken plus shishito peppers, all grilled with minimal seasoning. The only item that is at all challenging is the gizzards, which have a chewy texture that some people find delightful and others find off-putting. This sampler turned out to be a nice set of simple flavors to accompany the more nuanced items, enjoyable but not essential.
Izakaya food evolved as a complement to sake. We shared a small bottle of Kurosawa and two beers, a Kirin and a Kawaba “Snow Weizen.” The Kirin was nothing special, the Kawaba surprisingly light with tropical fruit flavors. It’s more of a novelty than something I want to drink regularly, but it was fun to try.
We continued ordering food: a fried fish plate, the pressed sushi known as battera, mixed tempura, a house “Iccho” sushi roll, and a pork and kimchi stir-fry. The kimchi here is the relatively mild Japanese style that Koreans call “kimuchi” to emphasize the difference. There’s still a little spice, but it’s muted to suit Japanese palates. You may prefer one or the other, but taken on its own merits it’s a nice companion to stir-fried pork with scallions and sesame seeds.
The fried fish and tempura were standard items competently executed, the fish noteworthy mainly for the large portion at a price that led us to expect less. As for the Iccho roll, it was a generous amount of tuna, yellowtail, and avocado with a tiny dash of wasabi. The execution a bit on the careless side with the roll somewhat loose and fragile, but once you got it to your mouth that didn’t matter. The item that was both surprising to find at all and that was very well executed was the battera. This ancient form of sushi involves mackerel pressed into vinegared rice and slightly fermented, creating a flavor similar to Northern European pickled herring. It was very well made here, and if you feel like experiencing sushi the way it was made in the 1800s this is a rare opportunity.
We had barely enough room for dessert, but some offerings looked interesting enough that we just had to try them. We shared pieces of matcha cheesecake, mochi with ice cream and an odd item called a “black sesame mont blanc.” The mont blanc was easily the standout, a cream puff topped with a black sesame frosting that has a nice toasty sharpness. These are apparently a fad dessert of the moment in the Japanese community, and I see why. We also shared a cup of a sweet-tart plum and orange soju-based alcohol called umepon that impressed us enough that we started figuring out where we could buy it.
We hadn’t been keeping track of our bill, and I braced myself for a hefty total. I was shocked when dinner for five, with drinks, turned out to run only $133. For the quality and variety we experienced, that was a shockingly good deal. Now that Iccho is on my radar, it’s a destination whether the sun is high or the night owls fly.
Iccho is at 25310 Crenshaw (Rolling Hills Plaza) in Torrance, just north of PCH. Mon. – Sat.11:30 a.m – 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. – 2 a.m., Sun. close 1 a.m. Parking lot, wheelchair access okay. No website. Phone rarely answered but it’s (310) 325-7273. Pen
by Richard Foss