The Osaka pancake hit the table, and the cartoon began.
Known in Japan as okonomiyaki, the savory pancake arrived packed with cabbage and scallions and bacon and fat shrimp, fried to crisp edges and drizzled with Japanese Kewpie mayo and traditional smoky-sweet barbecuelike sauce. We were at TanakaSan, Tom Douglas’s new restaurant in the lobby of the Via6 apartments, just blocks from his Dahlia Lounge touchstone, and even before we got our food the place was in full roar. Every table was filled, including the ones that spilled out sliding doors onto the Sixth Avenue sidewalk; everyone was laughing and chatting, including the affable staff.
So it seemed fitting that when our Osaka pancake arrived, ruffled with bonito flakes—filmy bits of dried, smoked fish that undulate when exposed to heat—the thing was shimmying like a Disney character. As we waited for it to burst into song, I realized that this animated edible could be the mascot for TanakaSan.
To know why, you need to know a few things about the place. Five, to be exact.
1. It’s physically confusing.
TanakaSan is just one piece of the most overwhelming Tom Douglas project yet: Assembly Hall, a kind of Melrose Market for prepared foods. T-Doug practically invented efficiencies of proximity—his entire empire, now 19 businesses (many of which share walls), is stuffed into one square mile of downtown—but Assembly Hall beats them all with its dizzying variety of moving parts.
There’s Assembly Hall Juice and Coffee for baked goods and morning beverages (including smoothies). At the kitchen, there’s the Kitchen Counter bar where one can grab made-to-order weekday breakfasts: Asian or Americana, including breakfast sandwiches from the hearth oven. Down the hall, Home Remedy Market and Deli offers packaged Tom Douglas pastas and rubs, assorted groceries, and downtown’s most impressive salad bar. Zinnia Garden Bench sells flowers, decorative items, and gifts. Surrounding these are the kitchens for all of the enterprises, sitting areas for some of them, and a mezzanine and other public spaces whose purposes are vague, perhaps even to management. (Might liquor ever be served in these? Can Via6 residents use them as entertaining spaces? Unclear, unclear.)
This thicket of commerce is like one of those multiple-choices dining halls on a college campus; Via6 like a high-tech dorm for college grads. Residents are thus out of their minds with joy—Tanaka, Douglas’s longtime right hand and namesake for TanakaSan, suspects some residents don’t even own a pot to cook in. A visitor might simply be confounded. Where do I pay for this vase? one might wonder. Are these patio tables for sale, or did I just wander into another restaurant?
Amid the chaos, however, Tanaka-San’s space triumphs loud and clear. Warmly industrial, airy and open, bright with walls of windows, buzzing with chatter and loud music without being deafening—TanakaSan pulses with a casual, drop-in youthfulness befitting the food. This is not a destination restaurant. The TanakaSan logo is a big curly squid. Succulents poke like stegosaur spikes from Godzilla vases. To fit its irreverent soul Douglas and Tanaka could have pressed the decorative whimsy harder—but make no mistake: TanakaSan is their most fun restaurant.
2. It’s not actually Asian.
Given the relish with which Tom Douglas has been sneaking Asian elements into his menus since Cafe Sport, one might’ve predicted an Asian restaurant from this guy decades ago. Humility intervened. “I didn’t have the story to go with it,” he says. His modern American chops led to Dahlia, his wife Jackie’s Greek heritage informed Lola, his months in Italy brought Cuoco. “I didn’t have the confidence that what I love about Asian food was in my hands.”
Then Morimoto happened. Momofuku. National sensations recasting Asian food as a hip-hop, street-savvy fusion of Korean and Chinese and Japanese and Southeast Asian cuisines gave Douglas his blueprint. Tanaka, who had risen from his 1993 start at the Dahlia, had a similarly untrained, untraditional sensibility that played well with his boss’s. Born in LA to parents who themselves were born in Japanese internment camps, Tanaka had grown up in the heart of a multiethnic melting pot, savoring everything from California avocado burgers to Chinatown duck to the fried rice his mom made with ketchup and bacon.
The result is what Douglas calls “LA punk Asian”—authenticity assuredly not the goal. There’s no hum bao at weekend dim sum. One hash at breakfast mingles curried potatoes with pickled onions and a masala baked egg over yogurt spinach. (Refreshingly, the subcontinent qualifies as Asia in this house.) The opening menu offered miso-matzoh ball soup. Each table holds four classic condiments, tweaked: caramelized onion hoisin, Thai chili vinegar, smoky Korean dry rub with sea salt and sesame, and fermented black bean paste. And the fried rice? Tanaka’s family recipe, starring thick chunks of smoked bacon, crispy shallots, a softly fried egg—and ketchup.
Traditionalists seriously won’t like it here.
Sorry Mrs. Tanaka, but I didn’t like the fried rice either; even by comfort food standards it’s just not very interesting. Leagues better, and the best example of the playful Asian—playsian?— aesthetic done well, is the tea-smoked duck sausage. Tucked into a squishy steam bun scattered with poppy seeds, the smoky sausage is topped with neon relish and magenta dimes of pickled radish—a visual pun on a Chicago-style hot dog and a wildly impressive flavor party.
TanakaSan pulses with a casual, drop-in youthfulness befitting the food.
With all this mixed provenance, servers ought to be more informed than we found them. The traditional Tom Douglas fleet—engaged and down-to-earth foodies—has clearly burgeoned to include a few distracted types who evince little interest in the preparations. “I don’t know where this dish comes from,” shrugged one staffer when we asked—perfectly content to leave it at that.
3. Drinks are a big damn deal.
Douglas and Tanaka would’ve called TanakaSan an izakaya, or casual Japanese nosh bar, if they hadn’t felt it would narrow expectations too much. Their booze menu is broadly Asian, with
several varieties of the Japanese spirit shochu and its Korean variant soju, Asian lagers and Japanese whiskies, cocktails mixed with Eastern flavors like five-spice and ginger and green-tea ice cubes, and chuhai: the fruity, fizzy Japanese cocktails that TanakaSan brings to the table in the form of playful mix-it-yourself kits with cold-pressed juices.
Teetotalers will have their own blast, choosing among fresh fruit and vege-table juice combos, smoothies, coffees (including long-steeped cold brew and slow-dripped Kyoto coffees), mocktails (including one with galangal, kaffir lime, and lemon that inexplicably lacked vividness), or a full slate of Remedy teas.
Or they can do the reasonable thing and jump off the wagon for a sake slushy, which refreshes better than anything else I swilled in the memorable summer of 2013. The one with Aperol and pink grapefruit liqueur was a tart, sweet, slightly earthy stroke of brilliance.
4. It’s a menu built on craveables.
I am, in fact, dreaming of that sake slushy as I write this.
Also the gloriously greased curry lamb dumplings in chewy gilded wrappers, fragrant with cardamom and tamarind and piqued with a green-papaya sambal for dipping. Also the Malaysian caramelized coconut-chili beef over aromatic jasmine rice, topped with crisped shallots and a dripping egg. Also the chicken wings, armored to an impressive crunch and lacquered in a sticky-sweet fish-sauce caramel thrumming with garlic and serrano chilies—a screamin’ deal at $12 for six meaty wings. (Someone is executing all of this very carefully; we encountered not a single gummy dumpling or overcooked piece of meat.) Also, of course, Tom’s famous triple coconut cream pie—this really is worthy of its outsize reputation—which isn’t even on the menu, but which TanakaSan’s genial manager, having no idea I was a restaurant critic, sprinted across the street to Palace Kitchen to fetch when we inquired.
TanakaSan is built upon a truth Douglas has always understood: That customer cravings equal money in his pocket. The problem with a menu of crowd-pleasers, however, is that it can render that menu a little staid, a little starchy. Some appealing dishes were ultimately too one-note: banana leaf–wrapped pork shoulder, the unctuous meat elegantly tannic with char and draped in aromatics, grew tedious by the end. (I should’ve known; it was listed under “shared plates.” But perhaps a waiter could’ve reminded me that I’d need a complementary dish to go with it.) Lemongrass pork over rice noodles was full of nuoc cham flavor—period. The loco moco—that Hawaiian plate lunch staple in which rice comes topped with meat, egg, and sauce—featured finer-quality meat than this preparation has probably ever seen, namely delicate Painted Hills beef in a soft, pink patty. But the dish, draped in curry sauce, got boring fast.
C’mon boys, you’re two of the best fusionistas in the city. Fuse already.
5. It’s a work in progress.
But these guys are just as famous for their tinkering—restlessly changing up preparations, menus, even restaurant names and concepts, when they spy an enhancement opportunity. (See Seatown Snack Bar, now Seatown Seabar and Rotisserie; Serious Pie Westlake, now Serious Biscuit/Serious Pie; Etta’s Seafood, now simply Etta’s.) At TanakaSan, Douglas is already knee-deep in troubleshooting. “There are too many eggs on the brunch menu,” he fusses. “Not enough spice in the black bean paste.”
The ramen, for its part, got a ton of back and forth—including what Tanaka says were some 200 versions of the noodle alone. What they landed on for summer was an untraditional version that made purists scoff, but which I found transcendent: a pork and sweet corn broth, smoky as if someone bottled a campfire, then enriched with shiitakes, soft egg, fat chunks of pork belly, scallions, and rich butter, and perfumed with whiffs of ginger and garlic. The wavy noodles, a ramen classic, were perfect. Look for the ramen to change seasonally.
Look for lots of things to change, constantly. Perhaps next time I visit, the tumbleweeds in the mezzanine will be replaced by, I don’t know…the world’s first anime kaiten-teppanyaki bar?
Published: September 2013