Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yojimbo and Diner Demands

There are certain restaurants to which you travel because there’s something about the place, maybe it’s the people, maybe it’s the food, maybe some mysterious combination of the two that makes every meal memorable.  Yojimbo is, without a doubt, one of these places.  What used to be just another old beach house on Alameda’s Park Street has been converted into a matchbox-sized restaurant with the attitude and ambiance of a close friend’s home.  It’s places like Yojimbo that make hopeless romantics lose it.  The walls are littered with black ink renderings of Japanese and American pop culture icons; Clint Eastwood, Kung-Fu Panda and Totoro to name a few, all painted by one of Yojimbo’s two young chef-owners (who also happen to be brothers).  It’s tiny enough that if there were a bar it could easily be mistaken for an izakaya (the after-hours Japanese bar-and-snack shack hybrid), but it’s also tiny enough that the very thought of trying to find space for such a scheme is pretty much laughable.  It’s so cozy that it’s only out of the kindness of our hearts that we finally end up leaving because when you’re occupying one of only ten other tables, letting the hours fade into the night, it’s easy to see how you’re gluttonous ass is sucking the funds out of the place just by being there, cute as you are.

Coming from humble means, when my 24th birthday rolled around this April, Yojimbo was my celebratory meal of choice.  A lack of financial brawn would keep me out of Yellowtail, my alltime favorite sushi spot (so far), but I knew that with enough batty-eyed persuasion I could convince the chefs at Yojimbo to put together a stellar birthday menu.  And this is what they designed:

Traditional Japanese-style marinated vegetables, or, futomaki, with inari (deep-fried tofu skin) and pickled daikon.

Tempura roll topped with shiro maguro (white tuna), lemon and black tobiko (flying fish roe).

Salmon and avocado topped with unagi (BBQ eel) and wakame (seaweed salad).

The meal was incredible.  The chef who prepared the rolls was extremely humbled by our request; he kept asking, "My style, style...?" to make certain we were all on the same page.  The two young women who tag team the dining room as servers were courteous and helpful as always, my water glass is never half empty for a breath past thirty seconds.

So considering just how much I love Yojimbo, you might be able to understand my disappointment when one of my dining companions informed me that they had witnessed the chefs using store-bought instant ramen noodles and foil-wrapped instant soup packets to make their now very popular, very large bowls of “spicy ramen”.  Hard as I try to forgive this choice of prepared ingredients (of which there are considerably more worthy candidates for this application), I can't forgive the chefs for taking an instant noodle-spice packet combo that costs .32 cents at Walmart and elevating it by doing nothing more than adding the word "spicy" to the dish's description on the menu.  Let's leave out the fact that these guys are charging $7 to $8 a pop for these things!  I'd be completely forgiving if they were charging a mere $1.50 for the providing all of the quality boiling water and expertise it takes to make the dish, but they’re not, and it’s killing me a little inside.  No doubt this is what Curtis Stone was referring to when he accused chef Hugh Acheson of “cooking down to your guests” on the last nauseating episode of Top Chef Masters.  (Go here for’s Eddie Huang’s unmistakably misogynist take on the show).

As customers, don’t we reserve the right to demand more of the restaurants we love?  Does it not suggest something terrible about who we are and what we value when items like “spicy ramen” show up on menus?  I say this with the understanding that this is not Japan.  And no matter how much we’d like to have a genuinely Japanese experience at a sushi spot some 5,478 miles from the food’s country of origin, it just ain’t happenin’.  What is possible, though, is an appreciation of these wonderful, incredibly unique restaurants for exactly what they are: a well-intentioned love letter to Japan from a tiny suburban island on the coast of California.  I encourage you to continue your patronage to Yojimbo, and to start if you haven’t yet begun, but starve the menu of orders for mediocre ramen.  If we can destroy the market for it, we can destroy the need to make it, and together as eaters and chefs, create something better, which is always, in the end, the goal, no?

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