Little Tokyo’s been around for a long time, but since I am too lazy to go up north to Makati, I never had the chance to eat there until last weekend.

How to describe it? Little Tokyo is a little ramshackle collection of “authentic” Japanese restaurants run by Japanese nationals, all found in one little compound in the middle of bustling Makati.  It’s not in the saucier part of Makati, rather right along Pasong Tamo, so the place reeks of the stench of the city and has all the parking headaches you can expect from diving into a busy metropolis. Fortunately, it was early Saturday and I had just gotten off my graveyard shift so we got there around 11am MLA time, and parking was still possible.

The place is actually pretty nice. You start off entering through a Torii arch (which sadly was blocked by a brigade of parked motorbikes) but once inside you walk along nice brick path that would have felt like a wonderland transporting you into Japan… had not the stench of Makati’s sewers pervaded the entire walkway.

That said, once you get to the compound proper you get some nice landscaping, with Japanese garden architecture dotting the outdoor tables and chairs. It was still early and the first shop to open was Kagura, and it opened 11:30am and it was only 11:00am. We sat down in the sweltering heat, pretending to be able to read the Japanese writing all over the walls and feeling stupid when we couldn’t.

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Very nice Zen effects with these stone lanterns
There's a small town rustic charm to this Tokyo recreation
There’s a small town rustic charm to this Tokyo recreation
This is the Kagura restaurant
This is the Kagura restaurant

That said, the minutes passed by pretty quick and we went into Kagura, the first restaurant to open. It specializes in okonomiyaki, a not so well-known pancake dish that Ranma 1/2 fans will surely be familiar with.

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The okonomiyaki was pretty good! Each plate cost was from 160 to 180 bucks, and the four plates fed our party of six quite well. Okonomiyaki is basically pancake batter fried on a hot gridle with miscellaneous toppings inside (anything goes — Okonomiyaki basically means “have it your way”) but we got shrimp, pork, squid and chicken. It’s then lathered with some okonomiyaki sauce on top, and drizzled with some creamy mayo yumminess.

Only thing is — I can’t really recommend going all the way to Little Tokyo just to eat okonomiyaki if you’re from the South. Why? Because there’s a restaurant named Fukuya in Filinvest Festival Mall that serves almost the exact same okonimiyaki.  It tastes exactly the same. The recipe they use must be extremely similar, and that’s fine because it’s a good one. But you can get the same thing here in Festival Mall for about the same price — I should check because I haven’t eaten there in a while — and they also offer it in the same way — Osaka-style without noodles as pictured above, or Hiroshima-style with noodles.

All in all, good eat, but you can get the same in Festival Mall. I’d like to reiterate that this okonomiyaki recipe is the best I’ve had so far, it’s much better than the one you get from, say, Teriyaki Boy. Their’s is a pretty bad okonomiyaki recipe even if I like eating their other recipes, but their okonomiyaki is definitely not to be ordered.

Well, one restaurant down, there were like four more to go. Unfortunately, only Hana was open and the rest like Oishinbo were still closed. So we just went to Hana to get some kakigori and takoyaki.

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We have Halo Halo, those crazy 11’s have their Shaved Ice

Now, kakigori is a favorite summer treat in Japan. It’s basically shaved ice with some syrup flavoring and thickened up with some condensed milk. I’ve never had kakigori before but I have eaten shaved ice outside of a halo-halo in the past.

This kakigori though was awesome! I opted for the Ramune flavor, as I’ve never tried Ramune and have always wanted to see what it tastes like. Ramune is one of those classic Japanese pop culture things, it’s basically Japan’s Coca Cola. It’s a wonderfully blue soda that has a special bottle with a ball that keeps it sealed, you have to pop it open with the special tool the bottle comes with and the ball falls into the bottle, rolling around as you drink your sugary death.

Look at that beautiful azure color. Ramune!
Look at that beautiful azure color. Ramune!

I have no idea what it tastes like and I have never had Ramune in my life. So here’s a first. My friends got melon and green tea with azuki.  The Ramune and melon flavors cost 90 bucks each, the grean tea azuki was a whopping 180 bucks, guess that magic azuki beans are expensive, lol. It also used macha powder to give it that green tea flavor.

The melon was pretty pedestrian and didn’t really do anything for me. It’s… melon. Boring.  However the Ramune was more exciting as it was a new flavor. It’s a bit hard to describe how it tastes, but it was quite sweet with a light tang to it. I did not really taste the carbonated nature because it already got absorbed into the ice and the fizz was gone. I will have to try a real bottle of Ramune in the future to get a better grasp of what it tastes like.

But the magic though was in the condensed milk they used. You need to pay an extra 10 for the milk — no biggie but frankly why would you want kakigori without the milk?! That’s like halo-halo without milk. It would suck. They should make it standard and price it at 100 bucks instead.

I don’t know what brand of condensed milk they used, but it tasted wonderful. It’s what made the dish really good and it made me feel like I was eating iced flan. The condensed milk definitely tasted like leche flan, even though it wasn’t cooked like flan at all. I was happy.

The macha green tea azuki bean was the best flavor of all, the macha really worked well with the condensed milk for the best sweetness balance, and the azuki gave the ice dish some much-needed texture and extra flavor. I would recommend this, however the price is a bit much for what you get to be honest. I rather spend 180 on a cup of Pink Berry. Actually, I find halo-halo to be a superior dessert and cool summer snack in almost every way, and it’s hell of a lot cheaper, but there’s a beauty in simplicity.

But I digress. And you can make this stuff easily at home with some ice, a shaver or blender, some condensed milk and flavoring anyway. But again.

Back to Hana, we also tried some takoyaki. A plate of six cost I think 140 bucks. What is Takoyaki? Well it’s basically a Japanese fishball or squidball, but it’s made of nice batter and sauce, dotted with bonito flakes, and the secret sauce — a slice of octopus tentacle.   What does it taste like?

Takoyaki -- best I've had

Well, perhaps one way to describe it is — it’s tastes like okonomiyaki except rolled into a ball. That’s pretty much how it tasted; it’s basically thick batter grilled in special metal round molds that give it that round shape. Unlike okonomiyaki which is flat, though, it’s a round ball so the outside gets burned and tinged to a crisp shell, with some sauce and mayo lathered on and bonito flakes added.  This shape means the inside gets to stay battery smooth and mushy, much like some good bread pudding.

The bonito flakes are a wonderful addition, they crinkle and writhe like a thing alive, giving you the impression of an octopus wrangling out of that ball to attack you. It’s an awesome effect, and eating it gives a nice touch of saltiness to the dish. The octopus tentacle inside was soft and not tough, which was very good.  I loved it!

It’s a much, much better takoyaki compared to the one you get from, say, Zaibachi, which is dreadfully bad and just batter, tasteless flour and not the bread pudding kind. I give this takoyaki a thumb’s up.

We didn’t stop at that, though. I ordered a maki platter because I really wanted to try some good authentic Japanese maki. As any fan of Japanese food should know, those crazy 11’s like to make this thing called sushi, which people have wrongfully attributed to be ‘raw fish’ for the past few decades.  Just to be sure we’re on the same page — sushi is “vinegared rice” prepared with whatever mix of toppings you want. The “raw fish” is actually sashimi. Maki is a specific type of sushi that is rolled, usually in nori or seaweed.

But enough of the food lesson. We’re here to praise or bash food, and I’ll tell you exactly what’s great about Hana’s mixed sushi platter. The platter came in four flavors of five pieces each.  I was most excited about the Hana Maki which seems to be the signature dish of the restaurant. It’s a maki with fine pink salmon wrapped around it. Also present was a kabayaki unagi roll, with lovely eel as its centerpiece. There was also some weird vegetable sushi with cucumbers, cabbage and stripped crab sticks. Lastly, some pretty ordinary tuna hosomaki. The whole plate was around 800 bucks. Not bad — if everything on it is good. But still expensive. You can get, for instance, the Tempura Premium Sushi Platter for about 900 bucks and it has a whopping 72 pieces of delicious maki. But back too the Hana platter….

MIxed Maki Platter. Hana Maki on top, Kabayaki on left, Tuna hosomaki on right, and veggie thingie down below
Mixed Maki Platter. Hana Maki on top, Kabayaki on left, Tuna hosomaki on right, and veggie thingie down below
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This may be the single best maki I have ever had in my life.

Here’s the thing. The Hana Maki was AMAZING. I cannot stress this enough. THE HANA MAKI ALONE MADE THIS TRIP WORTH IT. That’s how good it was. The salmon literally melted in my mouth. That’s how fine it was. It’s top-grade salmon, perhaps the best I have ever had, several levels above the shake sashimi you get in other restaurants or buffets like Vikings, Yaki Mix or Sambokujin. There is no comparison. Come over here to Little Tokyo just to order heaping platefuls of Hana Maki. You will thank me.

The kabayaki eel was okay. Not great, but it was okay. A bit of a letdown after the awesomeness that was Hana Maki. That was a dish worthy of being the signature dish of the restaurant. The presentation that makes it like a flower (“Hana” haha), the soft smooth melting taste of the salmon, the light Japanese mayo, salmon roe bubbles popping between my teeth, it was amazing. The rice was good, not great, but the greatness of the salmon more than made up for it. And what the hell. Wasn’t I talking about the kabayaki and not the Hana Maki? Yes, it’s still on my mind. I can’t get it out of my mind!

Ahem. Back to the eel. The eel was good. That is all. Well no. It’s good, but I have had better eel maki at, say Tempura. Their Caterpillar roll is superior to this one. The nice thing about the eel maki is the kabayaki sauce, which is one of my favorite Japanese sauces, but overall the roll was pretty normal.

Now on to the crap. The tuna hosomaki is pretty standard hosomaki fare. Which means, it’s shit. You can taste the vinegar, and any dish where I can taste the vinegar is an automatic fail. I realize that’s how hosomaki really tastes like, but I have never liked hosomaki. I don’t hate vinegar, it’s a necessary ingredient in adobo, and other great dishes, but if I eat something and it tastes like vinegar, like you know, you opened a bottle of vinegar and chugged it down — then it’s a failure. The best vinegary dishes don’t taste like vinegar — the vinegar melts into the background amidst the complex mix of flavors. The best adobos can do that. So do the best makis. Hosomaki does not.

But I wasn’t really expecting much else from the hosomaki, so no biggie. Just so you know, this hosomaki tastes just like the hosomaki you can buy from Zaibachi. In case you really wanted some. But again. Don’t. But hey maybe you like hosomaki, I will not judge. Your bad taste. (mwahaha)

Lastly was the weird veggie maki. I forgot what it’s called. I didn’t bother to learn it. Because it was icky. And yucky. At the same time. It’s basically strips of cabbage, cuts of cucumber and grated crab stick in between rice and nori. I guess some people like that. I don’t. Don’t order this.   Just order a platter or three of Hana Maki.

And lastly, another weird dish. It’s called Tuna Isobe Maki. I don’t know what that means. But when you see it, it looks like chocolate!!!! It’s amazing how it looks like chocolate. Then you eat it, and it tastes like raw tuna. With some chili powder on top. Some mayo. And rolled in nori.  It’s a step up from hosomaki. But it still wasn’t anything to write home about. Don’t order this.

Tuna Isobe Sushi. Looks like chocolate!
Chocolate Sushi!!! Just kidding. It’s Tuna.

And that, my friends, was my adventure in Little Tokyo. Did you like that?  Did I make you laugh and dazzle you with my wit and charm? Did I make your “I will kill you one day” list for trashing your favorite Japanese food? Did you think my description of the food was lousy? What’s that, you can do better? Please do tell me about it in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

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Posted by Erwin Anciano

Erwin has been eating food for the past 30 or so years. Yes, he actually thinks that makes him an expert on all things food-related.