My frequent dining companion, Dixon, a mutual friend of ours and I went downtown last night to see Point Break, LIVE!, the absurdist stage adaptation of the 1992 Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze extravaganza (don't ask).
We figured since we were downtown and it was a bit later than than the normal dinner hour that Suehiro Cafe was the perfect choice. I had been to Suehiro a handful of times but not in several years. I would find myself there late at night with a group of people after a couple of cocktails and an art opening or two. My memories of it were good but blurry to say the least.
Suehiro is essentially a diner with vinyl booths, be-aproned waitresses and simple, Japanese comfort food. It draws a loyal group--Little Tokyo locals, museum/Gallery Row patrons, artists from the loft districts nearby, and even the post bar-closing crowd (Suehiro is open until 1am during the week and until 3am on the weekends). There are usually one or two people waiting in front of the Please Wait to be Seated sign but tables turn quickly, there is often room at the bar, and the two servers regularly working are very fast, kind and accommodating.
Last night I ordered the Okonomi Plate ($9.60) which is served with rice and miso soup. With this dish one may select one item from three lists.
Column A: -Ginger Beef -Pork or Chicken Katsu -Broiled Saba (Mackerel) or Sanma (Saury)
Column B: -Gyoza -Shumai -Edamame or Natto
Column C: -Cold Tofu -Lightly Boiled Spinach -Two Eggs Over Easy
I chose the broiled Saba, shumai and cold tofu. It was presented on an actual compartmentalized cafeteria-like plate along with macaroni salad and a shredded cabbage salad.
The miso soup was very well executed with abura-age -- a nice surprise to the soft tofu one normally finds in this dish. My Saba was a definite highlight, marinated in soy glaze and broiled masterfully. I just love the saturated, crispy under skin paired up with a dollop of daikon.
The cold tofu was exactly what one would expect and did not disappoint. I only craved a bit more saltiness in it, perhaps some ponzu or soy. It's topped with grated ginger, green onion and bonito flakes. Simple. Absolute. The shumai was steamed superbly and very tender but was wholly unremarkable in my opinion. I found that adding a tiny drop of the extremely spicy mustard helped bring some intrigue to it. The two salads that accompany the meal are very strange, unexpected and fun. I am admittedly a big macaroni salad fan and somehow - in this wacky little Japanese diner - this wacky little accoutrement is a delicious adornment in it's ideal place.
Dixon ordered the Combination Plate of sashimi and tempura ($14.00). The tempura was deftly prepared - light and crisp; melted in my mouth. He particularly liked the pepper. The sashimi is cut thick, and is very fresh (it is "chef's choice" but always tuna). This is also served with miso soup, rice, shredded cabbage salad, macaroni salad, daikon, pickled cucumber, and your choice of ice cream for dessert. We opted for both the green tea and red bean.
Our friend also ordered the Combination plate but with chicken teriyaki and sashimi and was very much pleased. We paired our meal with a couple of large Sapporos as they offer a large beer and sake selection. People are always fond of their Ramune as well (A 7 Up like soda, served in a glass bottle with a marble in it).
Lamentably, I forgot to order the House Special - a sweet miso based stir-fry of eggplant and green pepper which is reputed to be a major hit. It's slightly premature to be writing this review never having had the noodles, which ostensibly make Suehiro a destination point for many. The menu offers soba, udon, unagidon, shoyu ramen, katsu curry, suriyaki, gyoza, and much more. I've even heard rumor that they've got the best katsu-don found outside of Japan. I promise to visit again very soon and order a cross section of said items with words to follow. With prices like theirs I could probably order it all and still not break the bank.
Suehiro has good food, a homey feel, solid service and amazing value. I don't have a Japanese mommy, but if so I imagine the food would be like this.
337 E. First St.