One Saturday we shove our homework into a corner and make a dash for San Francisco before another spring storm takes over the bay. Parking is as easy as hiking with a twisted ankle, but all that matters is we find a spot, then stroll a mile to the food bazaar on Webster street, Japan Town, arriving just a little bit before noon. Up from the steep sidewalk we see rows of white tents and white chairs, smoke rolling above the grills covered with beef and pork riblets, a line getting long on one side of the conglomeration. It is still early in the first morning of the Cherry Blossom Festival.
The carnivore instinct leads me right to the grill. It’s never too early to eat meat. The first booth whips out rice bowls with either ribs or unagi, braised eel cut into palm long chunks. We don’t feel like filling up with a rice bowl just yet, so we walk further down the row eying signs, then back track to the Nihonmachi Little Friends’ booth for three skewers of grilled beef at a mere five bucks.
Crispy-charred-edge marinated beef, though erring a little on the chewy side, delight my feet after that hike from our parking spot. The downright old school meatiness would have well enhanced the kiddie dollar snack omusubi, wedges of plain white rice mixed with nori bits, which Mudpie buys way after we finished the skewers. Waste not want not, the musubi will find its place in my lunch this week, after I wrap it up in nori sheets and maybe with a slice of fried spam. My idea sprouts from seeing at least three booths selling spam musubi and dozens of family walking around with golden brown sauce at the corner of their mouths. I, however, fall victim to the facile yakisoba, soft stir fry noodle with crunchy cabbage dressed only with soy sauce and seaweed sprinkles. The noodle tastes flatter than it looks, and certainly flatter than the wad of six dollar bills we pay for it, but it is a good pacifier for the empty stomach.
One block east of the food tents, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo artists are pounding their drums on stage. Their vigorous sincerity pumps rhythmic waves of festive air into the onwatchers’ lungs. To the hundreds of Japanese gathering there, I wonder if the drums have the same effect as the firecrackers we set off on Lunar New Year’s Eve, a simple string of sound that brings both excitement and quietude. The drums do halt my hungry thoughts for a moment, until I see some kids weaving about the crowd holding teriyaki burgers and shaved ice.
We’re back to Webster. The teriburger line wraps around one end of the food square, and Mudpie refuses to take one for the team. The fried fish ball line is no better, but I want to find out what the frenzy is all about, whether Mudpie does or not.
Just as we get in line, a lady asks us if we know the fish balls are any good. We don’t. So during the twenty-five minute wait the lady and Mudpie go over what is up with the LHC in Geneva, current status of the string theory job market, Berkeley Bowl, the beautiful harmony between Eastern religions and sciences, Francis Collins, and which patisserie is the best in San Fran. Meanwhile I can’t take my eyes off her unagi rice bowl, the eel skin shines gloriously in its rich brown sauce. Slowly but solidly we get to the tent where all the pouring, flipping, and toothpicking take place. The cast iron molds are just as busy as the deft hands hovering over them.
Although the man jokingly says it’s a secret recipe from Japan while he collects orders, this fish ball booth is the only booth with a crystal clear ingredient list on the banner. Although it is called takoyaki (“fried octopus”), it’s a simple ball of batter, fish stock, egg, and seasonings. (Still, it resembles an octopus head, intentionally or not.) Although it looks perfectly solid, it has an air pocket inside, resulting from the flipping of the hemisphere while the batter is still runny. Although it is fried, it is soft. Although the long line suggests that it is amazingly worth the wait, it is not. The seaweed sprinkles, red ginger and green onion do little more than cosmetics, the okonomiyaki sauce is rather too tart. Its goodness lies solely in the warmth to battle those crisp wind blows. In hindsight we probably should have stood in the teriburger line.
As the tongue craves for some sweets, we walk around to the grilled beef and yakisoba side, this time to stand in line for a red bean pancake, imagawa yaki.
The fluffy dough is just like any pancake our mothers make for breakfast on special days. The making process, like those fish balls, is fun to watch. They pour the batter into rows of circular iron molds, wait a few minutes for the batter to semi-solidify, then comes this semi-circular trough, looking like a cracked-open bone filled with marrow, from which they spoon some red bean paste onto half of the cooking pancakes. The other half are flipped over to make the pancake tops. The batter turns solid, the division between two halves is sealed, three bucks are handed over for exchange of two blowing hot cakes. Mudpie loves the bean stuff. So much that he insists on looking for more inside the Kintetsu mall. I feel more inclined to sitting down, and those benches near the Kinokuniya bookstore and Izumiya have never sounded better. So into the mall we go.
But boy am I a fool. On days like this benches are a luxury, and it’s just rude to fight over a seat with the petite ladies in colorful kimonos and huge wooden zōri, or families with babies. The mall is packed. The human flow is like a school of salmon. My tiny stature serves me well in whizzing through elbows and shoulders, but I would have missed the best catch of the day had Mudpie not spotted the nameless but busy tables in front of Cafe Hana.
Ten bite sized cubes of cold mochi, five different flavors. From right to left: 1. yomogi (mugwort) – tastes as grassy as its alternate name kusa mochi – “grass mochi”, 2. mango – tastes more like jackfruit or longan, 3. kinako – actually this is warabimochi (jelly-like sweet made of bracken starch instead of sticky rice), covered in soybean flour (kinako) which tastes like peanut butter, 4. lychee – the second tastiest, and 5. strawberry – the tastiest. Chewy, refreshing, gently sweet like a rose petal, I would eat these all day. The best part: it is assembled upon request. The confectionery magistrates, who may be part of Cafe Hana’s team, cut and roll these slabs of sweets in powder and into the plastic boxes, each containing only one flavor. But if you kindly ask, they’ll throw together a mixed box for you at the same price. Top it off with a three dollar scoop of lychee ice cream, as we do, and you’ll feel ten or fifteen years younger. You know, those days of hustling about the school cafeteria, eating cheap treats, feeling fresh and complete. If there’s anything I don’t regret buying at this fair, it’s the lychee ice cream and the mochi at those tables in front of Cafe Hana.
If there’s anything Mudpie doesn’t regret buying at this fair, I think it’s the daifuku, also from those tables in front of Cafe Hana. That red bean addiction is strong.
Pink or green, smooth or sesame coated, the daifukus are good companions for chrysanthemum tea. The plain, chewy sticky rice outer layer damps the sweetness of inner red bean paste. The cold confection enhances the warm drink.
On our way out of the mall, we sidestep in line for one last treat at the flowery booth Kissako Tea. They have the little mochi balls in pink, green, and white with red bean paste filling, and they also have the mitarashi dango, which I’ve always been curious about since I read Sugar Bar Diva’s toothsome post. Four simple sticky rice balls on a skewer sounds like a boring snack, but the chewiness dressed in a rich syrup of soy sauce, sugar, and starch is everything but plain. Its taste and texture amazingly resemble malt sugar. It marks a triumphant incorporation of savory condiments into the sweet realm.
At four something in the afternoon, the food bazaar is still going strong. All booths, not just the fish ball and the teriburger, now have a long line. The kids are still with wide open eyes, Hello Kitty headbands, spam musubi and cups of shaved ice. The dogs are still obediently looking at their humans eating beef skewers. The girls in black and white kimonos are still taking pictures between giggles.
And so we march our full tummies a mile back to the parking spot. The sky is blue. The streets are quiet. The wind has ceased its dry cold swirls. The car stands there, with a ticket.