Erin, Jared and I ate at a Benihana restaurant recently, and then learned just a couple of days later that Rocky Aoki, the founder of the Benihana chain, had died.
I wrote about my experience growing up eating at Benihana for special family occasions, and how in recent years, the restaurant only has one connection to being a Japanese eatery: its food. The staff at the one we go to, for instance, used to have one Japanese woman chef, which was a rarity in the entire company, but she's been gone a couple of years now. The waitstaff and cooks are all non-Japanese, and as far as I can tell, the chefs are all Latino. They love to tell jokes about how they serve "Teri-juana" sauce (get it? Tijuana, teriyaki?).
They no longer are sent to Japan to train with master chefs like they used to decades ago. But they are all trained well as entertainers, and come up with some amazing tricks with their knives, throwing food around and catching the morsels. The food's still good, which is why we go from time to time... probably once a year, if that. (YouTube has a lot of videos of dinners at Benihana, including the one above, of a birthday celebration. Most evenings at the restaurants are interrupted by the clatter of multiple birthday celebrations.)
The diners likewise are no longer Japanase or JA families. The diners are almost all white; a couple of weeks ago, we were the only Asians in the room.
|Hot stuff: Orochon Ramen lets you choose your level of heat. I opted for #3 and it was pretty damned warm.
When Erin and I were in LA last month, we ate dinner with her cousin Lisa Sasaki and her brother Eric and his wife Leah, at a very popular ramen shop, Daikokuya. The restaurant is one of several that specialize in Ramen on a block of First Street in Little Tokyo, just down the street from the Japanese American National Museum. The joint is hopping at all hours, with eager clusters of (mostly non-Japanese) people patiently waiting to enter, thanks to a couple of rave reviews including one from the restaurant critic from the LA Times, whose article is posted in the window. Luckily, we didn't have to wait too long to be seated. Lisa loves the combination specials: choose a ramen, and get a half-order of another entree, from tonkatsu pork cutlets and gyoza dumplings to fried rice. The fried rice was good, all right. Erin and I both thought the ramen itself (we ordered the chasyu ramen, topped with slices barbecued pork loin) was good but not awe-inspiring. The place was so popular and raucous, though, that it was simply a fun experience.