512 Boone Hill Road, Summerville
You wouldn't expect to find one of the most interesting Japanese restaurants in the area while pumping gas on the outskirts of Summerville. But anytime you see a painter's work truck, two empty police cruisers, and a couple of monster trucks caked in mud parked outside a place devoid of neon beer signs and loitering restrictions, you should probably check it out. Little Tokyo resides underneath a lone banner announcing its name and shares space with the gas pumps and a barber shop west of Summerville on Boone Hill Road (17 Alt). Inside, you'll find Jose Moreno and Utako Furukawa, partners in life, partners in business, and purveyors of the Japanese soul.
Most cookie-cutter Japanese menus seem to lack soul around here. They all too often pass off low-grade sushi, dreadfully chewy tempura, and watery broth with a few scallions floating around as the real thing — and it's about as real as branding a bean burrito sold with a Chihuahua bobblehead toy at two in the morning as "Mexican."
Little Tokyo has no sushi. In fact, outside of a few hibachi-style entrees, some teriyaki, a barbecued eel bowl, and the seaweed salad, there's probably not much that the average Joe would even recognize, which must be why they offer a ribeye steak with mashed potatoes "special." Those who explore the menu further will be rewarded with adventuresome flavors from caring hands.
It's amazing that the little place even exists. Jose was born in Honduras and immigrated to the U.S. in 1983. He was working at a Japanese chop house called Shogun out in Louisiana, learning the tricks of a foreign cuisine, when he fell in love with one of the waitresses, Utako, who was a fresh arrival to the States. A few months later, after Hurricane Katrina, she called a friend in Summerville and Little Tokyo was born.
They, like most Japanese places, specialize in seafood, and you can't go wrong. The open kitchen along one wall of the joint slings out some mean, salt-grilled fish, and the chefs keep up a constant banter with the patrons. They seem to know every bubba that walks in the door.
I like to order the grilled yellowtail neck ($7), that little slab of flesh and fat right behind the gill socket — call them the cheeks — that often gets trashed in American preparations. In Japan, they don't waste fish; it costs too much. They also salt grill a very good mackerel (saba) filet ($6), and a cold appetizer of silky tofu, bedecked with shaved bonito, the hot tang of grated ginger, and green onion will get things started for only three bucks. But then, almost all the appetizers are only three dollars.
The squid tempura ($3) is not the measly calamari you'll find at a tourist joint downtown. This is an entire sea creature, tentacles as big around as your pinkie finger, crisped and flaking with a crackle of a crust, salty and chewy and dripping with a sweet dipping sauce. Fat bowls of noodles ($6) — soba, ramen, and udon — steamed with deep flavor. They are evocative of the homespun nature of the place, where things don't have to be fancy to be good, and the value of the food surpasses the out-of-the-way location and stark gas-station setting.
Little Tokyo proves that food doesn't have to be expensive to be good, that one can learn the trade without a fancy culinary degree, that the best food is usually the stuff that someone loved on for awhile before sliding it onto your plate — and it shows. Jose and Utako took the American Dream and ran with it. I'd say they're almost to home plate.