Real Japan at Mr. Max
|Unadon with ika shoga in the background|
With blacked-out windows and a big sign with an ambiguous name that could be a front for anything, Mr. Max may not look like much from the outside, but step through the doors and you're transported to the other side of the globe.
It's a small restaurant; three tables sit on an elevated platform to the right, and a small bar, lined with Maneki Neko, has nine seats. The tables were filled with Japanese men, all sitting on the floor, shoes left at the stairs leading up to the platform; small dishes and beer were being passed around, and the scent of cigarette smoke faintly lingered. Behind the bar, a grey haired Japanese man, clad in a traditional chef's robe and Japanese headband stood, intimidating at first but instantly softening as he welcomed me to take a seat at the bar.
The waitress instantly identified me as non-Japanese, and handed me the English menu. The Japanese menu lined the dining room; poster board tiled the back wall, and a white board was behind the bar, each with a set of Japanese characters and a price. Don't come here looking for a rainbow roll. The only thing you could order here that would resemble your average Americanized sushi spot would be sashimi, maybe nigiri. The menu is composed of many small dishes, mostly seafood, and larger cooked entrees like donburi, udon and ramen. After starting with grilled beef tongue (tanshio) and sautéed squid with ginger (ika shoga), my dining partner and I ordered the ramen with pork belly (chashumen) and the eel donburi (unadon), respectively.
As soon as my order was relayed behind the bar I watched as the chef skewered a butterflied eel segment and started it on the grill. Every few seconds, the eel was glazed, ladle by ladle, with that soy based sauce we all know from eating unagi. The unadon was served to me in a deep bowl, the lacquered piece of eel sitting on a heap of rice; a simple presentation allowing the eel to be the main attraction. The eel had the consistency of any properly cooked piece of fish: tender, moist, but still retaining its shape, easily picked apart with chopsticks. I mixed the glazed grains of rice in with the rest and left the bowl clean. This may have been the first time I left a Japanese restaurant with a full stomach. While enjoying my meal I watched as dishes I didn't see on the menu come out of the kitchen Next time I'll bring along somebody who knows how to read Japanese.