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Taiko (the restaurant, not the drums)

August 31, 2011

Don’t get me wrong, I love taiko, which literally translates in Japanese to “drum”.  Have you ever been to a taiko performance?  It’s riveting!  You can feel the beat of the drum through your soul and you can follow the story of the music through the beats.  It’s one of the most intriguing and beautiful art forms (yes, it’s an art form, because it’s not just about picking up drum sticks and banging it on a drum) that you can witness.  But I’m not here to talk about taiko drums, I’m here to talk about Taiko, the Japanese restaurant in Irvine.

Now, admittedly, even though I’m a Southern Californian and many people have this idea that those of us from the South must be all frou-frou and eat sushi and sashimi all the time, that’s entirely not true.  At least not where I’m concerned.

Somehow, for me, the idea of raw fish is a bit frightening.  I don’t even eat raw meats.  I won’t order my steaks rare.  So, why would I eat a fish from the ocean straight into my mouth?  But, mind you, that doesn’t mean that I don’t like Japanese food.  Confused?

Japanese food isn’t all about raw fish and sushi.  There’s a whole world of Japanese food out there, including tempura, and teriyaki and udon noodles and teppanyaki and yakiniku.  And if you don’t know what some of these forms of Japanese food are, well you’re missing out.  But that’s for a different day for a different post (wait until we get to talking about Gyu-Kaku!)

A few months back, I received a phone call from my dad telling me that a friend of his had invited my mom and him to go out to lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Irvine called Taiko.  My mom, like me, is not a fan of anything raw.  In fact, she’s worse than I am.  So, she heard Japanese and immediately started trying to find excuses to get out of going to lunch for fear that she wouldn’t be able to find anything to eat.  I quickly went to Yelp! to try and figure out what this placed called Taiko was all about.  My dad’s friend had given him basic directions and told him that once off the freeway, my dad would be able to find the restaurant right away because there would be a long line out front.  What restaurant, in the middle of the week, for lunch would have a line?  Surprisingly, when I went on Yelp! I discovered that this was quite the popular restaurant and that others had also noted the existence of a line right before the restaurant opened for lunch and opened for dinner.  Yelp! also told me that this restaurant had both a sushi bar as well as a dining area, the restaurant took no reservations and was strictly on a first-come, first-served basis.  But, the reviewers also mentioned that the restaurant was a family-run operation that had been in business for 30+ years and was good and cheap for authentic Japanese food.  I quickly assured my mom that she would most definitely be able to find something other than sushi at the restaurant.

A few days later, I get a phone call, this time from my mom, stating how much she liked this restaurant and how she had to take me here to eat one day.  She of all people, someone who didn’t consider herself as liking Japanese food, liked Taiko.  This was a sure sign that there must be decent food here, at least.

So, the following weekend, my husband and I and my parents went to Taiko for lunch.  We got there about 30 minutes prior to the restaurant opening, and sure enough, there was already a line.  By the time the restaurant opened its doors, the line was a good 50-60 people deep.  Of course, being a Japanese restaurant, most people were in line waiting for a spot at the sushi bar.  I understand that the sushi served here is flown in fresh daily from Japan.  Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of the restaurant.  I was more than happy to sit in the dining room area and order non-sushi related items.

Much to my delight the food was actually pretty good.  The miso soup was nice and not too salty.  The tempura shrimp and vegetables was delicate and delicious as was the dipping sauce, which was perfect.  My meal also included sesame chicken which was so flavorful and tender with just the right amount of sweetness to the sesame.  My husband ordered a dish with teriyaki chicken which he devoured in minutes.  He said it was one of the most tender chicken dishes he’s ever eaten.  The chicken was so tender it was almost melt-in-your-mouth worthy.  We were impressed with the restaurant.  Their service was terrific, and efficient and fast, the portions generous and the prices very reasonable.

On a subsequent trip to Taiko (mind you, one of many meals we’ve had there over the past few months), we decided to check out the restaurant for dinner.  My dad being a more adventurous eater had actually tried sashimi during one of his previous visits with his friend.  He had said that it actually tasted a lot better than he had thought it would and that he believed that my husband (who also had never had raw fish before) and I should try some sashimi just to say we had at least tried it.  He ended up ordering some tuna, which I figured couldn’t be too bad.  And to my surprise, as well as my dad’s and my husband’s, I actually tried it.  Ok, it wasn’t that bad.  Raw fish wasn’t nearly as mushy as I had imagined it being.  And once dipped in soy sauce and wasabi, actually was pretty good.  The fish was nice and firm and obviously fresh and the taste was pretty decent.  I’m not sure I’ve acquired quite a taste for it yet, or that I would order it on my own.  But I certainly wouldn’t say no to it if I was given some to eat.  Heck, I could even see myself branching out and trying different types of fish beyond just tuna.

Beyond just trying sashimi that night, we also tried another new item.  This was huge for me as I never like trying anything new.  But my dad assured me that what he was about to order was really, really good, and even my mom said it was good.  I figured it couldn’t be too terrible right?  What was this item?  Yellowtail fish cheeks.  Huh?  Who knew that fish had cheeks you could eat?  I, for one, had no idea!  Apparently, this is a dish that they don’t put on the menu, but you just have to know to order it.  The problem is, they only get delivered so many yellowtail a day, and each fish only has 2 cheeks.  So, its not an advertised menu item simply because there’s not enough Yellowtail cheeks to go around.  Thankfully, the cheeks aren’t served raw (whew!), but rather they are cut out from the fish with the bones still attached on one side and then grilled until the fish is cooked all the way through.  They are served with a side of some sort of vinegar-y dipping sauce, fermented ginger and tomago (Japanese sweet egg omelet).

I must admit, one bite of the Yellowtail cheek meat dipped in the vinegar dipping sauce and I was in HEAVEN.  That was absolutely one of the best dishes I’ve ever had.  Not just one of the best fish dishes, but one of the best dishes period.  The meat of the Yellowtail cheek was so tender and flaky and smooth and oh-so-melt-in-your-mouth it was unbelievable.  Paired with the vinegar tang in the dipping sauce it was completely out of this world.  I don’t even know how to describe how good this was.  I’m not sure my husband had the same reaction to it that I did, but I don’t care.  That just means more for me to eat.  The next time we go back to Taiko, I’m not going without ordering Yellowtail cheeks.  Even just thinking about how good it was and writing about it and then seeing the picture of it, my mouth is already watering.  It’s just that good.  You just have to experience it for yourself.

I always find it fun and exciting to experience new restaurants, new cuisines and new dishes.  Trying something that you’ve never had before can also be an experience in and of itself, generally one I don’t like to have, but in this case, I’m glad I went for it.  Otherwise, I’d never have known just how much I love Yellowtail cheeks.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011 9:32 pm

    Great story!

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