Do you ever feel that as you grow old, your circle of friends grows smaller? You lose some to strange diseases, you lose some due to even stranger situations involving the loss of money and trust but most you lose due to distance. With internet technology so accessible these days, I find that it is the emotional distance, not the physical one, that can turn a friend into a stranger.
Then there are friends whom you don't really lose, they've just decided to seek greener pastures or run away from the hurts of a painful love affair gone wrong. One new found friend decided that the former is reason enough for him to chew verdant grass growing (probably more like clinging moss) in the concrete jungles of New York.
He is no stranger to working abroad though. Well, I guess no Filipino family is. With 1 out of 10 Filipinos working abroad, the OFW phenomena is not such a strange thing. It is a hard reality that many of us understand and bear.
But I digress. In his first few years in the work force, my friend worked in Japan, back in the days when its live entertainment scene was the arena of talented Pinoys and Pinays. There, he learned many new things like not getting lost in translation and that five-toed socks are for construction workers and not cool J-pop celebrities. When he returned home for good (or so he thought) one of the things he brought back here was his love for Japanese food.
Now that he's bound for a foreign land again, one of the things he promised me was a meal in a carinderia with a Japanese cook, right in the heart of Tondo. Some sort of unofficial send-off where we could make a new memory he could take with him to warm his heart amidst the cold steel and stone buildings of Manhattan.
Three rainy nights ago, along with A. (with whom my friend shares a peculiar interest for things supernatural), we grabbed a cab to Tondo. At the corner of Hermosa and Clemente Streets, right where an eskayola statue of Mama Mary seeks shelter from the rain in an MMDA-blue riprap grotto, we alighted.
Unlike most carinderias we are familiar with, this one does not have ready-made (or twice-cooked) food getting stale and cold in aluminum pots or trays. Instead there is a menu, three tables and a cooking area.
My friend introduced us to Mommy Edtitha and her husband Toshi, a cruise liner cook of twenty years who met Editha in Yamagata when she worked there as a cultural dancer (after a stint as a dancer for Pinyo TV shows like Eat Bulaga). They are also the parents of Suzuki, a past Survivor Philippines castaway.
It has been two years since Toshi has hung his cruise ship cook's apron and decided to put up this carinderia with Mommy Edith. Joy for us, because we then get to taste authentic Japanese cooking without the frills of high-end restaurants. Here. you won't find the overly soy-sauced dishes of commercially franchised Japanese food chains.
To drive away the cold, we ordered Ebi Ramen.
We also ordered a tempura platter. This is not as big as you are used to in the more commercial establishments but you have to appreciate that it is cooked right before your eyes. Toshi will slice the vegetable pieces, crush the okra between his palm and the chopping board while Mommy Editha prepares the thin batter.
Mommy Editha also prepared Gyoza, the Japanese dumpling made of minced pork, cabbage and lots of garlic.
We still had some room for Ebi (shrimp) fry before the main event.
Being true-blue Pinoys that we are, the grand event for us were the rice meals.
Tonkatsu or deep-fried pork cutlet...
Katsudon... pork cutlet with Katsudon sauce
Butadon...Pork in simmered in slightly sweet sauce
We ordered mostly pork meals as Toshi said the quality of beef from the market was not very good. He also remarked that beef in the the wet market nearby does not have the same tenderness as Japanese beef.
All meals were served with freshly chopped vegetables.
The rice served was not the sticky long-grained Japanese kind but it doesn't matter. You get your fill and maybe even order a second plate. Traditionally, the rice meals are served in bowls (from the word "don" which means , you guessed it... "bowls"), here they are served in melamine plates and eaten with spoons and forks. Many people in the humble neighborhood eat there, too. They are not astounded by the fact that it's an authentic Japanese meal. Rather, they are just content to eat good food at an affordable price. Everything we ordered was just billed for P495.
This was truly a dining experience that affirms that you can cook great food even in small spaces, using only a two-burner stove like the one Toshi brought all the way from Japan.
So, were you surprised that there were no raw fish and sea creatures wrapped in nori (seaweed)? Toshi wants to use only fresh ingredients and these are served only if they are called in advance by good, loyal customers. They also accept orders for westernized Japanese dishes like Kangkong pasta, Japanese burgers and the egg pizza.
A note to the picky diner- they only have three wooden tables and you have to buy your softdrinks and ice from the neighboring sari-sari store. There's also no washroom so better pee before you go here. All the worries will be worth your while.