One of my favorite places for comfort food dining is Yama Restaurant in Alhambra, California.
It meets all of the qualifications for the comfort category. I started going there before I can recall, so it reminds me of my family and youth. The food is hearty and filling. This is no sushi joint. You can get sweet and savory, grilled and fried, stews and starches.
In fact, I’d suggest that if you love basic, all-American comfort food, you could satisfy all of your Main Street (seriously, it’s on Main Street) cravings at this little Japanese joint.
Yama’s specializes in Japanese comfort food: teriyaki, tempura, tonkatsu and sukiyaki. Before the 1980s, sushi wasn’t even on the menu.
THE YAMA SPECIAL
Though nearly every combination of fish, fowl, pork and beef can be had these days, the Yama Special ($12.95) is the original combo plate here. Teriyaki beef, assorted tempura, char siu and a side salad arrive on a hubcap-sized plate. It’s classic Japanese food super-sized for American appetites.
Meals include a pot of rice for the table, unless you get a rice-based dish like sushi or a donburi. This is not a mere bowl of rice that you have to order separately, this is a family-sized pot of rice. Yama’s spoiled me, since I now feel cheated by Japanese restaurants that don’t do this.
TEMPURA – DEEP FRIED BLISS
I measure all other tempura by that served at Yama’s. Some may get close and maybe one or two have passed it (yes, at one time you could have emptied your wallet at A Thousand Cranes) but most fall short in both quality and quantity.
The shrimp are jumbo but it’s the batter that rules. The coating here is a shatteringly crisp tangle, like a miniature coral reef my meal might have inhabited in the not-too-distant past.
The trick, I’m told, is to make the batter ice-cold and then drop the battered pieces into the hot oil. The temperature difference causes the batter to explode in the oil, where the moment of detonation is frozen in time to create the crisp yet jagged surface on the tempura. A quick swish in the dipping sauce (tentsuyu) and eat quickly before it gets soggy.
The Yama Special comes with two of these mammoth shrimp along with a varying assortment of tempura vegetables: green beans, potato, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), mushrooms and more. I dream of someday bringing in Maui or Vidalia onions and asking the chef to whip up an order of what would be the greatest onion rings ever.
TERIYAKI – IT’S JAPANESE FOR BBQ
The teriyaki here is a thin slice of beef that is charred over an open flame and then cut into bite-sized strips – all the better to eat with hashi (chop sticks) – and then finished with a teriyaki glaze.
The salty bite of shoyu (soy sauce), a bit of sweetness and a hint of ginger make this my favorite teriyaki sauce. Here, my young taste buds learned about umami decades before the word entered my vocabulary.
Tip: Get the beef. The chicken is just chicken. It’s the tofu of the animal kingdom, and if you want tofu you’ll enjoy it more in the sukiyaki or the miso soup.
CHAR SIU – IT’S CHINESE FOR BBQ
The char siu (Chinese BBQ pork) is probably the least impressive element on this plate, though it used to be my favorite part. Unlike the other parts of the Yama Special, I’ve found char siu that’s every bit as good or better elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat it. It’s BBQ pork after all. If you want a little bit of a kick, try it with a dab of the hot Chinese mustard you’ll also find on your plate.
SALAD – EAT YOUR GREENS
What’s wrong with the Yama Special is the same thing that’s wrong with anything once considered campy, then kitschy, then retro before it was treasured all over again. When did a pile of iceberg lettuce, shredded cabbage and French dressing become the default side-salad at Japanese-American joints across the land? Mercifully, the creamy orange dressing of decades past has given way to a vinaigrette style French.
The salad doesn’t make the meal healthier, but it’s a crisp palate cleanser between bites of salty-sweet grilled beef and deep fried seafood. It’s the cole slaw on this plate of BBQ and fried treats.
Can you find better teriyaki and tempura than what they serve at Yama? Yes, you can. Can you cover it with the cash you have in your wallet right now? Probably not. I’m sure someone is doing Wagyu teriyaki and spot prawn tempura, but you’re going to pay dearly for a small gain in quality.
Beyond just the food, the entire atmosphere of Yama’s is comfortable. It would be hard to imagine anyone being put off by the staff, surroundings or especially the food. Very little has changed at Yama’s over its 40 years and isn’t that at the heart of comfort? A link to the past, whether it be a person, a place, a scent or a taste is what we all seek to soothe our souls. Maybe Yama’s is not the food you grew up with, but try it out and you’ll find echoes to your past that will make you feel right at home.
433 West Main Street
Alhambra , CA 91801