For Japanese food in El Segundo, Saloon Osaka is a hidden gem – Daily Breeze
If you’ve ever turned onto Main Street from the Imperial Highway in El Segundo, heading for the many restaurants in the heart of town, you’ve driven past the sign for a branch of 7-Eleven, looking more like a casino in Las Vegas, than a chain convenience store in a mini-mall.
Chances are good that you haven’t noticed an understated sign in the back of the mall, barely visible even when you drive in and park, that marks a deeply Japanese café called Saloon Osaka — one of the truest journeys to Japan you’ll find in SoCal. It’s a remarkable destination, where peace and serenity seem to envelope you as soon as you walk through the door.
Though there are lively sake and beer bars to be found in Japan, the classic Old West American concept of the saloon doesn’t exist; it’s never existed anywhere in the world but the Old West, and these days it’s something you might find more readily in a theme amusement park, when in a town in Texas or Montana.
So, though the name Saloon Osaka is colorful, this is more accurately Izakaya Osaka — a destination for small dishes in a casual setting. Or as the menu informs us, “Where residents and travelers rest comfortably.”
For me, what the Saloon was really about was the underlying serenity of the place. Which may come from the degree to which it’s concealed in the back of a mini-mall — an understated space, with a single bar for food preparation. And not a sushi bar, for there are no seats there. You seat yourself at one of the handful of tables, where you can contemplate a menu as minimal as the room.
In contrast to our numerous mega-roll shops, this is not a café where the names, and the descriptions, of the rolls go on for pages, go from madcap to outré, and back again, just skirting the edge of culinary madness.
The wildest the half-dozen rolls get is the LAX Roll — the airport is just across Imperial Highway — which is made with spicy tuna within, and yellowtail without. Nothing loony there. Ditto the Green Dragon Roll — crab, shrimp tempura, eel, avocado and cucumber. There’s a salmon-avocado roll. There’s a baked salmon roll. There’s a Rainbow Roll with tuna, salmon, yellowtail and eel. Nothing is made with cream cheese. And grateful I am for that. Small favors are much appreciated.
As befits an izakaya, the menu is focused on small portions of big tastes; this is food that made my mouth very happy, without having to gobble a lot — which is a deeply Japanese experience. Benihana is an alternative American take on a cooking that rarely meanders into the world of over-indulgence. (Except, more often than not, when it comes to drinking. Sake sure can sneak up on you!)
The menu begins, ever so simply, with appetizers like spicy tuna on rectangles of crispy sticky rice, a snappy mango and avocado salad (what a fabulous combination!), steamed edamame spiced with garlic, a spoon of uni and caviar — a dish that combines two of the most distinctive seafood ingredients in the Japanese kitchen.
As a point of contrast, there’s also crispy calamari, shrimp tempura and mixed tempura. Potato curry too. They were warmups for the short list of sushi, served in single pieces, and including more indulgence, a soft, creamy slice of toro, the sine qua non of Japanese seafood.
There are two sashimi assortments — so simple, so perfect. And for those who need more, there are five dinner combinations, including a chirashi bowl of sashimi, salmon roe and uni over sushi rice. There’s also deconstructed sushi, a sukiyaki hot pot with beef, shiitake mushrooms and enoki mushrooms; and a classic bento box of beef or salmon, with rice, tempura, sushi, seaweed salad and Japanese pickles.
The most extensive section of the menu, as befits an izakaya that calls itself a saloon, is the drink selection — 16 types of sake, nine beers, five flavors of soju.
What the place lacks are Japanese “salarymen” knockin’ ’em back after a long day — just like the “saloons” of Tokyo. Instead, you emerge into the glow of bright light, not from the Ginza, but from 7-Eleven. Cognitive dissonance? You bet. And I love it!
- Rating: 3 stars
- Address: 100 W. Imperial Hwy., El Segundo
- Information: 310-364-1231; www.saloonosaka.com
- Cuisine: Upscale Izakaya
- When: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday
- Details: In a mini-mall dominated by a 7-Eleven, hidden in the back, this highly authentic taste of Japan offers a limited menu of exceptional small dishes, along with a large list of sakes.
- Prices: About $35 per person
- Suggested dishes: 12 Starters ($4-$14), 6 Rolls ($9.50-$17.50), 4 Hand Rolls ($8-$14), Assorted Sushi Plate ($24), 3 Assorted Sashimi Plates ($28-$45), 7 Dinners ($14-$39)
- Credit cards: MC, V
- What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)