I love variety. It's so much more fun having lotsa kindsa things to choose from...shoes, earrings, fobby stationery, colored pens, FOOD! On the food tip, I think I got the must-have-different-kinds-of-foods-to-eat syndrome from growing up in a Chinese family where every meal consisted of not just one, but several different dishes. Don't get me wrong, I do think alot of one-pot meals are mmm-mmm-good, but I'll take a bunch of different, smaller plates over that any day. That's why small plates restaurants and I get along so well. Tapas, dim sum, izakaya...anything where I can afford to try a little of this and a little of that usually floats my boat. My latest small plates find is of the izakaya, or Japanese bar food, type--one that I've patronized twice, yes twice, in the last week. Read on.
Izakaya Haru Ulala, named after a famous Japanese race horse, sits in the former space of the Little Tokyo branch of Furaibo, which is coincidentally, a chain of izakaya joints that introduced me to the concept of Japanese pub food in the first place. Now it's not that I'm not a fun and spontaneous gal (although I am definitely less fun and spontaneous than when I was still in my 20's!), but I do like to do a little planning ahead before I go to any restaurant for the first time. I do my web-tective work, searching Chowhound for any applicable posts, and looking for any websites or blogs that may be able to tell me what to order, what's good, what's not so good, what it'll set me back, etc. If there's no info out there in cyberspace, I'll often call the restaurant and ask them to fax me the menu. Yes, I am that much of a dork. This time I was lucky...Izakaya Haru Ulala has their own site and a page on Japanese Restaurant Info, and there were several recent posts on Chowhound with menu recommendations! I studied my options and felt ready to go.
But you know those times when no matter how mentally prepared you are, you still end up in one big ball of confusion? Sometimes the variety, the wealth of options actually backfires on you. Like when you go shoe shopping determined to find a pair of black peep-toe stilettos and are faced with a sea of other options that just throws your brain into turmoil. First of all, you can't find the black peep-toe stilettos that you came for, and "Oooh look! There are pink peep-toe stilettos!" You keep walking around and you see stuff on sale and next thing you know, you're asking the salesperson to get you the gold slingbacks and white kitten heels. Needless to say, my first trip to Izakaya Haru Ulala was a little like my shoe shopping example.
I walked in with a couple of specific dishes in mind--grilled okra, braised short rib with daikon, and grilled chicken skin skewers. We got our menus, which, funny enough, looked like fobby stationery--they're handwritten and handdrawn with a combination of felt tip pen, pencil and crayon and there are cutesy little drawings of vegetables with smiley faces and stuff. OK, I see the grilled okra...but where are the chicken skin and the short ribs??? I asked our server, a cute, bubbly Japanese girl whose English was less than perfect, if they had these items and she looked at me puzzled. After a few seconds, she got the chicken skin part..."Aah yes, we have." But the short ribs with daikon she didn't seem to get. I got the daikon part across, because she pointed to the grilled yellowtail with daikon on the menu, to which I then said, "Yes, daikon, but with beef?" No luck. I wished that I had brought my research hardcopies with me.
Pics of their cute menu...Haru U-RARA???
We'd put our order in for the okra, the chicken skin, and some sushi, but dammit, I needed more food...and variety! We kept a menu at the table, but we noticed that there were handwritten and handdrawn signs advertising not-on-the-menu specials all over the restaurant, plus a dry-erase menu board on an easel outside. I told Isaac "I'll be right back." So off I went, first outside to look at the dry-erase menu. "Oooh, they have fried soft shell crab!" Then as I went back inside, I did a full-on inspection of the perimeter, studying all the posted specials. I hovered over people already having dinner, some looking at me like I was crazy. "Oooh, they have grilled oysters!" Finally, I spotted another dry-erase board behind the counter with more daily specials, and there it was--the short ribs with daikon! I called our server over to order the rest of our food but she still gave me a somewhat puzzled look so I brought her to each of the signs and pointed to them. Hey, whatever works.
Surprisingly, the braised short ribs with daikon came out first, and was so tender that it broke apart with the slight touch of a fork. The salty pungency of the hockey puck shaped slice of braised daikon complimented the soy-infused soft chunks of beef perfectly. Thinly sliced scallions were sprinkled on top to add a subtle edge and a tiny chunk of hot yellow mustard flanked the side of the small bowl to add some heat. An excellent dish which I'm glad I was finally able to find!
Braised Short Rib with Daikon
Our grilled oysters were plump and fresh, with that chewy and creamy funkiness that only oyster fans know and love. A few squeezes of lemon and a couple sprinklings of sea salt made them even better, and I'm not sure how many of you do this, but drinking the oyster juice out of the shell is a must for me. Lemony seawater is the only way I can describe it, but it's wonderful. And don't forget your beer! (Izakaya Haru Ulala's got Kirin on tap, by the way.)
Yummy Grilled Oysters
I was a bit disappointed with the fried soft shell crab which looked like a big fried smooshed spider. I like my soft shell crab with more of a bitter taste from the innards; this one seemed to have no taste at all besides that of the batter and the citrusy ponzu dipping sauce that came with it. The grilled okra, however, was delicious. They were grilled to crisp-tender perfection, the outer hull and the inside pods popping in your mouth with every bite. They were brushed with oil and charred a bit to add some nice smokiness, and a small pile of bonito flakes sat on top to make the dish even more tasty.
Fried soft shell spider, I mean, crab
I had ordered three chicken skin skewers but our server brought out only one. "Sorry, we can only make one," she said smiling. I guess they ran out of chicken skin? Whatever. I wasn't about to ask. This wasn't nearly as good as the chicken skin skewers I'm used to a few doors down at Kokkekoko, but still passed. It needed to be a little thinner, more crispy. But nevertheless, it had a nice fatty chewiness with a little charring along the edges; the sweet gingery sauce it was brushed with was also quite tasty.
ONE chicken skin skewer
We also went for some sushi options--albacore nigiri and a shrimp tempura roll. The albacore was fresh and buttery soft, sprinkled with scallions and a small dot of grated radish for some kick. The rice, however, was a tad too vinegary. Our tempura roll looked more like sliced hockey pucks; they were huge and fell apart really easily. A real pain in the ass to eat, especially with the goopy sweet teriyaki-like sauce squirted on top.
GIANT, soggy tempura roll
Now as it was only two of us, I didn't get to try a whole lot. We couldn't have possibly ordered any more than we did, and I don't think izakaya tastes as good out of a doggie bag. So still intrigued by all the other options in which I didn't get to partake, instead of doing the whole "Where do you wanna go? I dunno, where do you wanna go?" thing Friday night with Isaac, I immediately said, "Let's go back to Haru Ulala!" No objections from my other half.
There was one suggestion from my web-tective research that I had in mind for this time. According to one Chowhound, the buta kakuni, pork slow cooked with soy and ginger, was a must-try. Again, it wasn't a regular menu item, so I asked our server, this time an ultra hip Japanese rock star looking guy, if they had it and he looked at me with confusion. I quickly looked around at the many specials postings, but wasn't able to see it, so I finally asked to borrow his pen and wrote it on the back of my chopstick sleeve. "Oh, buta kakuni!" he said. OK, maybe it's just me. At least they had it.
Or so I thought. Rock star waiter guy came back a couple minutes later, laughing. I knew this wasn't a good sign. "So sorry, but we do not have buta kakuni today." Aww man. Oh well, wasn't meant to be. He suggested the short rib with daikon; I said I had that last time, so then he suggested the grilled short rib. OK fine. It wasn't the greatest suggestion, however. The beef was very tender and tasty--marinated with a sweet glaze--but the plate was only about six microscopic slices. Not worth it.
Almost nonexistent grilled short ribs
The grilled enoki mushrooms were delicious. Brushed with a thick but not sticky soy based sauce, the crunchy bunches of our thin fungi friends had the perfect combination of texture and taste.
Grilled enoki mushrooms
I loved their deep fried camembert cheese, which looked like a deep fried popsicle. Breaded in crispy panko flakes, the French cheese was a prime example of salty and creamy goodness. We wanted to eat it like a popsicle, holding it by the stick, but the ooey-gooeyness of the cheese made that a little impossible, so we had to forgo the fun and finally eat it with a fork. We also went for their deep fried oysters, also breaded in panko for some extra crunch and texture, and very plump and fresh just like the grilled ones we'd had just a few days prior.
Deep fried camembert cheese-sicle
Phat phried oysters
We ordered some nigiri again, this time tuna, salmon and yellowtail, and like last time was fresh but had the a tad too on the vinegary side rice. Why we didn't just go for sashimi I don't know, but oh well, the rice fills you up at least. For some odd reason, Isaac loves tempura rolls. I think he wanted to challenge himself, because he wanted to see if he could possibly get the tempura roll made smaller and without the sauce. I was a little embarrased when he asked rock star waiter guy because I didn't want these guys to think we were trying to tell them how to make their food. But rock star waiter guy simply laughed and agreed to see what he could do. A few (hopefully nice) words were exchanged with the pleasant mom-looking lady behind the counter and she looked at us, laughing and nodded. "OK, I will do," she said, agreeably. Fortunately, I think she was a genuinely nice lady for one, and secondly, we could also see her preparing the food, so there were no opportunities for surprises in our sushi roll, if ya know what I mean. This roll was more like Isaac's cup of tea. Small, tightly rolled, no sticky sauce. These guys were definitely getting a good tip.
A "that's more like it" tempura roll
I needed something to soak up all the beer I drank, so I added on the soba salad that I had eyed on the next table. The soba noodles were an interesting shade of avocado green and were perfectly chewy. Tossed with mixed greens, shredded nori and a lip smacking ginger soy dressing, it was a refreshing way to end our meal.
Sushi-making mom lady couldn't have been too mad at us; as we were leaving, she called us over and apologized for the fact that they were out of buta kakuni. "We have next week, come back next week," she urged us. OK, we will! Then I'll get to try the sake steamed clams, and kurobuta tonkatsu, and grilled shishito peppers, and grilled onigiri, and...
Ooooh, I just loooove variety!
Izakaya Haru Ulala
368 E. 2nd St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012