Shin Sen Gumi
18517 South Western Avenue
Gardena, CA 90248
Japanese food is all the rage these days, and it’s not just sushi. It started years ago, a pre-pubescent introduction to a high hat, an awkward, almost reluctant appreciation for flashing knives and flying shrimp, which later evolved into an adolescent flirtation with soggy tempura and dry, overcooked chicken drowning in a too-sweet teriyaki sauce, wondering if you’re doing it right because you don’t love it like everyone else says they love it. That grew into a sophisticated, romantic affair with sushi, a meaningful relationship built on balance and trusting omakase, and now has blossomed into a full-blown orgiastic, swinging “relationship” that includes everything from doing it yourself in a steaming hot bath of shabu shabu to unrestrained sharing of multiple tastes with multiple partners at the izakaya, their faces glowing pink, screaming “kanpai!” between every frenzied shot of sake. You’ve come a long way, baby-san.
Izakaya is the flavor the month – the term referring to a Japanese pub that’s focused on drinking, but like many American bars, serves food to keep your sobriety in check. I’m no expert in Japanese cuisines, but it seems that the term has broadened in scope, used to describe any type of Japanese restaurant that offers an assortment of small plates, anything from raw fish to tempura to kushiyaki – any type of meat or vegetable impaled on skewers then grilled. Yakitori, chicken, are a type of kushiyaki. If “yaki” hasn’t been thrown around enough, there is a specific type of izakaya, a robatayaki, which is a bar centered around a small robata grill that turns out all kinds of grilled things, many of which are kushiyaki.
While there are certainly a number of izakaya-type places in LA like Musha and Furaibo, pure robatayaki are rare (or maybe I've not been looking hard enough). I sat down at Katana’s robata bar, which had excellent food, but for some reason, sitting amongst the glitterati and sipping sake with my pinkie in the air doesn’t have the same kind of feel as a rustic, raucous robatayaki. I didn’t realize I missed it until I went to Shin Sen Gumi, a tiny shoebox of a robatayaki tacked onto the end of strip mall in Gardena.
Like all things Asian, the parking lot of the strip mall in which Shin Sen Gumi is located is small. Even smaller are the waifishly narrow spaces which, in order to accommodate the throngs, seem to have been trimmed of a generous six inches on either side. This effort to squeeze in just two or three more spaces in each row isn’t a problem for the majority of turbo rice rockets neatly lined up as if docked at the mother ship, but if you drive anything larger than, say, an iPod nano, be warned.
We scribbled our name at the bottom of a long sign-in sheet on a small stand out front, then stepped aside, not quite fitting into the living Dragonball Z diorama on the sidewalk, small gangs huddled together and halo-ed with their own brand of smoke – Parliaments here, Marlboro there. Though the crowd looks formidable, the wait is insignificant, probably only long enough to enjoy one cigarette, a lung-teasing appetizer before a full meal enveloped in smoke that could put an entire clubful of Koreans to shame.
Seating inside Shin Sen Gumi makes the parking lot feel as wide open as the prairie. Tables around the perimeter are separated by a mere sliver of space that automatically decides for you that the sveltest of your group has to shimmy her way through to sit against the wall. You can’t see much of the action at the robata grill through the haze if you sit that far away, though, so we wedged ourselves into a space at the end of the bar. If you have an issue with personal space, get over it. Or drink something. Or just drink something anyway. Before my butt is even firmly planted in the chair, I’ve ordered “Ume shu rocks!” Plum wine does rock, but I drink it on ice. ;)
It’s loud, fast, and sometimes feels like semi-controlled casual chaos. The sheer number of people crammed into such a tiny space accounts for much of the volume, but the staff add to the hyperactive atmosphere with shouts of “ira-shai-masse!” that even ripples all the way to a server in the furthest reaches of the kitchen everytime someone walks through the door. Servers are less like real servers, and more like live versions of the little yellow AOL stick figure, simply running order messages from you and popping back with a plate of food from the grill master. There are no place settings. Chopsticks are already on the table for you to grab, should you need them to help you tear meat off the skewers, as are toothpicks for after dinner.
Because we were sitting at the bar, all we had to do was shout an order to whomever happened to be standing within earshot of us. There are a few cold appetizer type dishes available, but we had come to Shin Sen Gumi for meat off the grill. The rest of the menu is easily over three dozen items long, and has everything from vegetables to every part of the chicken. Skin. Gizzard. Heart. And what the hell makes something a “Special Heart?” I didn’t want to know.
Negi tori (chicken and green onions) and beef are familiar and an easy to start. Nothing is outrageously seasoned, relying mostly on very light glazes or marinades and the simple flavor of the charcoal under the grill. However, I did discover a small plastic jar of what looked like crystallized wasabi, but threw my tastebuds into confused pandemonium. What is this?!? I caught one of the servers who was flying by and asked what it was – yuzu mixed with salt and hot pepper. I put it on everything thereafter, even dismissing the ketchup and mustard that came with the tiny, greasy pork sausages for the chartreuse rock that is now my crack. I suspect that it was the yuzu salt that was making me so thirsty for glass after glass of the ume shu.
At $3.75, shimp is the most “expensive” item off the grill. We ordered it because that’s what happens when alcohol loosens your purse strings like that. ;) Besides, I wanted to know why shrimp was so damned expensive. It is two times the price of a quarter of the items because some deep sea diver had to run a bayonet right through what could have been a small lobster. The shrimp is enormous. It came, as all shellfish do, with a wedge of lemon, and that classy Japanese condiment, mayonnaise. But don’t worry, someone once told me that Japanese kewpie mayo must be a slim-fast version otherwise the whole country would sink into the ocean. LOL!
After ume shu-encouraged generosity comes bravery. I wasn’t about to touch an internal organ, but chicken skin sounded harmless enough. *eh* Who am I kidding? Harmless? Chicken skin is a Delicious Life delicacy. Where others pluck crispy crunchy greasy skin off fried chicken with healthy intentions (never mind the fact that if “health” is an issue, they shouldn’ be eating fried chicken anyway!), I snatch the skin from the edge of their plates and devour it like a potato chip. Shin Sen Gumi gives something as uninspiring as chicken skin an extreme makeover, getting it into perfectly petite shape, curling it, and adding some color with a few minutes in the mystic grilling booth. And oh, what wonders a dab of gloss can do! I can never taste the Colonel’s extra tasty crispy with the same gusto again.
Tsukune are chicken balls, and no, we are no longer talking organs (that would take *ahem* a lot more than a half dozen rounds of plum wine). They were good, heavy, dense. If your order the tsukune, order two, because there are but three on each skewer, and who cuts a meatball in half?
Dining companions often encourage drinks when there is an ulterior motive, and tonight was no different. Was he trying to numb my senses to take advantage of me? He knows my policy. I even reminded him that I don’t do “that stuff,” first, second, never. “Come on,” he urged. “We’re adults,” he encouraged. I hadn’t been careful. The ume shu had gotten the better of me, and caught up in the wild, feverish ordering frenzy, I gave in to his goading. It was as if all those little skewers were some deliberate tension-building foreplay that led to this one moment when I finally shrieked, “Bring the chicken heart!” And make it “Special” so I don’t regret it.
It was special alright. So special that when the spear of about a half dozen tiny little hearts, with aortas and arteries still attached to them, arrived at the table, I let them sit on the plate while I excused myself with a chicken wing. Maybe I thought the hearts needed to stop beating or something. I’ve seen a chicken heart before, inside a whole chicken, all wrapped up in a convenient little paper purse that I can toss right into the trash. But these were so...small. I didn’t expect them to be so small, which is better, I think, but which also meant there were more of them. I ate one. It tasted like...rubbery chicken.
The chicken heart was about as wild as I was going to get. If you want gizzards, you’ll have to go knocking on someone else’s door, cowboy, because I needed vegetables after that. Asparagus would have been a little too thick for my taste, but corseted with fatty, translucent pork belly, the woodiness
was hardly noticeable. Shiitake were also fine, though a little plain. A good dollop of the yuzu salt fixed that problem.
I have been confronted with quail eggs on several occasions, but have always declined. Quails remind me of pigeons and the only experience I have had with things that pop out of a pigeon’s butt is not a pleasant memory. However, quail eggs didn’t seem so intimidating after tearing into a chicken heart as if in some bestial sacrament, so I tried one. Funny how everything comes back to chicken. The quail eggs tasted just like chicken eggs, with a higher yolk to white ratio. Now I have a decent memory of small birds’ butts.
Our furious pace around the menu was slowing down, not for lack of interesting items to order, but simply for the law of alco-physics. We were reaching a point of saturation. The thin flap of pork belly on the asapragus hadn’t been enough, so we tried pork belly, straight up. It was a wonder how something that’s virtually liquid can stay strapped onto a thin wooden stick. Shin Sen Gumi offers rice in the form of shaped pyramidal cakes that are tossed onto the grill, but we didn’t order them, as rice has always been unnecessary “filler” (*gasp!* and I call myself an Asian!). Sweet potatoes served a dual purpose – as a token starch for the meal, and dessert. They were the lone item we ordered that didn’t come straight off the grill. There was some incredibly smooth, buttery sauce drizzled all over the deeply golden sweet potatoes that made me take notice. What is this glorious ambrosia of the butter gods that has my tastebuds singing more loudly than on an alcohol buzz alone?!
I looked up. I saw the blue botttle at the end of the bar. It was Parkay. The sweet potatoes were doused with Parkay! I was going bonkers over a butter-flavored spread in a tub that that talks?!?! *oi* At least it doesn’t contain any trans fats. ;)
If for nothing else, I'll be going back to Shin Sen Gumi for the condiments.