A few weeks ago I competed alongside three other food bloggers in Japan Society’s Clash of the Foodies. You can now watch the entire program online, beginning with my shitty cartwheel and ending with the Taste Buds taking second place. Our prize, bottles of Zen Green Tea Liqueur, couldn’t have been a better match – while first place (a bunch of swag, $100 at a nice Japanese restaurant and bragging rights) would have been nice, I have little use for pride and at least two uses for emerald green booze.
Still ripe with Japanese affection weeks after J-Cation, I joined Bobby Digital’s art school cohort on a day trip to Mitsuwa Marketplace, a miniature theme park disguised as a shopping center in Edgewater, New Jersey. Mitsuwa, a chain development based in Torrance, is a known force in Southern California, mostly for the fact that almost all of the storefronts it houses revolve around food. While the Jersey branch isn’t accessible by public transport, Mitsuwa wisely offers New Yorkers round-trip shuttle service from Port Authority for $6.00.
Our plan was simple: Start eating at lunch time. Keep eating through supper time.
Santouka, the beloved Asahikawa-style darling of pretty much everyone who’s ever tried it, is always my first stop at Mitsuwa. When visiting the Marketplace in Costa Mesa, I would walk into the food court to find almost every counter idle, while a long line of noodle fiends stretched from this uncanny source of wonderful ramen.
The offerings of Santouka in Jersey lived up to that memory: I loved their hot miso ramen as a Californian, and I love it just as much as a New York transplant. While nowhere near as punchy as the spicy shio at Minca and Kambi, Santouka’s tonkotsu-based, miso-tempered, bowl is a nuanced blend of sweet, savory and rich, smooth currents of milky and spicy swirling around and soaked into a ridiculously generous serving of thick ramen noodles.
Toro-niku, defined simply by Santouka as “special,” presents a bit of mash-up vernacular used to describe extremely tender meat (apparently comparable to toro, which describes the cut of tuna often used for sushi). I’ve had toro-niku in the form of stewed pork before; Santouka’s special pork consists of moist slices of pork cheek, flanked on one side by a browned edge and on the other by a sliver of creamy, delicious fat.
Tororo rice, a small bowl of white rice blanketed by a fluffy yet slimy layer of grated Japanese mountain yam, is not beginner’s food. The very slightly savory aspect of the mostly sweet yam, especially when matched with the natural sweetness of Santouka’s excellent rice, makes for a great flavor; however, the cool serving temperature and slippery, slimy texture of the topping might make for an uncomfortable first bowl.
Speaking of comfort: Bobby’s platter from China Table Tokyo Hanten, a cafeteria-style smörgåsbord of dumplings, patties and fried things, consisted of… well, why don’t you just guess what was involved?
After lunch, we wandered through the Marketplace for midday snacking. Minamoto Kitchoan, which could easily be mistaken for a jewelery and perfume department, stands in the main thoroughfare, selling immaculately conceived and elegantly formed confections of sugar, rice, flour and chocolate to the upscale dessert fiend.
I wasn’t in a position to buy gift-wrapped, chocolate-covered wafers shaped like wedges of hard cheese, so I spent ten minutes reveling in the the grocery aisle’s Japanese soft drink display. Do I want a coffee boss, or do I want a BLACK BOSS? This is Engrish existentialism at its finest.
After indulging in desserts, candies and soft drinks, we walked through the book store and house wares shop, where I eventually become the owner of brand new Japanese tea set.
Dinner at Mitsuwa brought me to the counter of Sanuki Sandou Udon, where I placed a simple order for udon with soft-boiled egg. Sanuki’s broth wasn’t particularly memorable, but its clean composition (I rarely find greasy udon fun) made for a fine bowl of soup, and breaking the egg yolk halfway through produced a nice transition from warming to hearty. At $5, this dish only strengthens the argument that soft-boiled eggs should be added to everything ever made – at least to every bowl of noodles, in any case.
I closed off our four hours of eating with a few bites of Santouka’s ikura (salmon eggs) over rice. The pairing was excellent: Each twinkling pearl of roe collapsed into a minute burst of oceanic bliss, just a bit salty, just a bit fishy and just a bit juicy. It’s nice to know that something this delicate can be so accessible to the everyday eater.
In the end, that’s the fundamental source of Mitsuwa’s greatness. None of the food here is on the level of a $100 meal won by defeating a band of half-naked luchadores – is anything, really?
Yet, as a reflection of the strong food ethic that helps define Japanese culture, Mitsuwa’s approach to flooding the senses with umami – at a price, aesthetic and convenience level that matches most of the shoppers who make it to the land of the rising food court – is unparalleled.
I decided to go with Black Boss, by the way.
595 River Road,
Edgewater, NJ 07020
Shuttle at Port Authority Bus Terminal