Want a Taste of Japan? Go West, Young Diner.
Japanese celebrities locate the DFW's epicenter at the crossing of Belt Line and Rochelle roads in Irving.
That's the intersection that's home to three authentic-leaning Japanese restaurants, including Mr. Max, an izakaya around which traveling Japanese musicians, comedians and ballplayers plan their layovers. Rumor has it that Ichiro's a fan.
Mr. Max is closed at lunchtime, but I visited the other two eateries today in the company of a Japanese restaurant informant, an expat who's made a careful study of Japanese food in the area. And while I didn't find any dishes that would merit a 7,000-mile journey, I did sample a curry udon that easily justified the trip from Dallas.
As my sherpa pointed out, it would be hard to guess the menu at Hanasho from its customer demographics: There weren't too many Asians among the noon lunch crowd. Hanasho is popular with rushed white-collar workers who prefer bento boxes to burgers, and the kitchen seems to cater to them: The saba shio, or salted mackerel, was over-sauced, the green salads overdressed and a ginger pork overcooked. But the restaurant did right by the basics, serving satisfyingly sticky short-grain rice and an onion-rich miso soup.
Still, the miso arrived before the entrees, a clear indication of the restaurant's caving to American tastes. The ambiance felt considerably more Japanese over at Hanaki, where the chef greeted us in Japanese and the television was tuned to a concert by Japanese rising stars, the Middle-Aged Crisis Band.
Hanaki was renovated last year, and the dining room -- hung with paintings of camels and tigers -- is now noticeably well-appointed. Or noticeably, at least, until the food arrives, at which point it becomes impossible to divert one's attention from the table.
We tried a terrific oyakodon featuring a perfectly seasoned omelet of broiled chicken layered over a deep bowl of rice. But the best dish, by far, was a fragrant curry udon. The flavorful noodles, firm on the outside and slightly gummy on the inside, reminded my guide of the pleasing contrasting textures of mochi. The rust-colored broth was lovely too, balanced and complex, with just the right amount of curry.
"We're probably the only people eating hot soup for lunch today," my dining companion said with a laugh.
We didn't regret it.
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