Ramen-heads rejoice: Mitsuwa Gourmet Food Fair kicks off

The Mitsuwa Gourmet Food Fair, a four-day food fest that opened Thursday and runs through Sunday, occupies a relatively narrow swath through the Mitsuwa Japanese mega-market in Torrance, but the number of street snacks to eat and food items to buy is expansive (including spicy cod roe sacs for $58.99 a pound, dried Atka mackerel and pickled octopus).  

Fried fish cake on a stick and deep-fried panko-crusted croquettes are available at the west entrance of the store, and at the other end of the strip of tatami-decorated stands are sweets makers from Sapporo and Yamagata, a chirashi chef from Shimane and a sushi bento specialist from Hokkaido. 

The line for the croquettes in a dozen varieties already was long on the afternoon of opening day, and though the fish cake on sticks in flavors such as cod roe with cheese and octopus with ginger were a burnished golden-brown and the croquettes were shaggy with panko and had potato filling so creamy it was almost pudding-like, sitting under heat lamps does fried foods no favor.

But at the last stand, nearest the food court, custard- and caramel-filled griddled cakes and bento boxes were being prepared in front of customers. The kanimaki (crab rolls) from an Otaru Station purveyor of ekiben (bento especially for train rides) were made with delicate crab and salmon roe from Hiroo in Hokkaido. Other specialties included mackerel sushi rolls and seafood bento.

The obanyaki maker poured pumpkin batter into a griddle that turned out small glutinous cakes filled with red bean, custard or a dense dulce de leche-like caramel. They look a little pallid, but are gooey and chewy and weirdly good. Another specialty pastry, dorayaki, features two small pancake-like wrappers (sort of a cross between pancake and the popular Japanese castella sponge cake) sandwiching red bean paste or green tea or black sesame cream. But these were called maki dora because they had a single oval pancake folded around the filling. 

Not to miss are the inari from a Shiname chef who stuffed the fried tofu pockets with sushi rice, shredded Sea of Japan red snow crab and tamagoyaki (omelette), crunchy lotus root and sesame seeds. The chirashi (seafood-topped rice) was made with the same ingredients but with whole pieces of crab leg meat atop the rice.

Cross the food court to find the specialty ramen of Kamome Diner in Kesennuma. It might look like a standard bowl of ramen: pale, wavy noodles on the thin side, pork belly, bamboo shoots, green onion and boiled egg (when they haven't run out of the latter). But the broth's not-so-secret ingredient is the oil of sanma, the silver-skinned saury fish, which adds another dimension of subtle funk and ingeniously helps the broth cling to each noodle. A bowl ramen-heads would appreciate.

Mitsuwa Gourmet Food Fair, 21515 S. Western Ave., Torrance, (310) 782-0335. Also, 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 557-6699, www.mitsuwa.com.


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