June 10, 2013 Updated: June 10, 2013 at 1:20 pm
While I mourned the loss of the Lettuce Head when it closed early in 2011, I was intrigued when Cafe Banzai Japanese-Korean Restaurant opened in that space.
While Japanese flavors tend toward subtle and refined, Korean food is often bolder and earthier. Since I appreciate both cuisines, what could be better than having them both in one place?
Cafe Banzai doesn't look like much from the outside, and the interior is a little worn and faded. But the grace and hospitality of your hosts will make you feel instantly welcome. The menu is reasonably priced, and while most of the dishes were delightful, there were a few efforts that fell short of the mark.
The vegetarian eggrolls ($2.25) are a nice way to start the meal. The filling is based on skinny rice noodles instead of cabbage, and is studded with carrots, onions and mushrooms. The veggie tempura ($5.50) is also good. I recently got broccoli, onion, zucchini, sweet potato, eggplant and a winter squash in my order. The vegetables were all cooked through but still snappy, and if the tempura coating wasn't the lightest I've ever seen, it was still light and crispy without being greasy. The California Roll ($4.50) is only fair, with a distinct taste of mayonnaise that doesn't belong. The Cucumber Roll ($3.50) was light and refreshing.
One of the bargains at Cafe Banzai is the Chicken Teriyaki bowl for $5, all day. It's simple and unadorned, but filling. Steamed white rice is topped with a generous portion of chicken with their house-made teriyaki sauce, a delightful blend that accents the meat without being either too sweet or too salty. The ginger and garlic are evident in just the right amount.
The lunch specials are another bargain, all priced at $5.99. You can choose from Chicken Teriyaki, Beef Bulgogi, Spicy Chicken or Spicy Pork. Each dish, smaller than a dinner-sized portion, is accompanied by steamed rice, a small green salad, miso soup and a small pile of chewy yakisoba noodles. This is a fresh and delicious meal for less than $6 and beats the pants off anything you can get at a fast-food joint.
All the dinner entr?s come with rice, the green salad with ginger or ranch dressing, and an average miso soup. The Tofu Teriyaki ($8.95) is particularly delicious. The mound of golden tofu cubes are crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside. The homemade teriyaki sauce is drizzled over the top, with extra served on the side. While it's not listed on the menu, you can request Curry Tofu for the same price. Identical tofu preparation, but this time the tofu is bathed in a delicate, savory curry sauce along with onions, zucchini and carrots.
Firmly on the Korean side of the menu is Beef Bulgogi ($10.95). Thinly sliced ribbons of beef are marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, pepper, onions and a touch of sugar before being quickly saut?d with sliced onions. The beef is succulent and slightly sweet. The Spicy Chicken ($10.95) sounds similar but has a completely different flavor profile. The marinade is based on a Korean chili paste, so the flavor is sharper, tangier and hotter, although not too hot. The chicken is also saut?d with onions and served in bite-size chunks.
Much less successful was the Chicken Katsu Donburi ($8.95). Everything that could go wrong, did. Traditionally, the chicken is coated with panko bread crumbs and then fried, sliced and served over rice and vegetables. I think that was how this effort started, but the resulting flavor and texture made me suspect the cutlet had been prepared in advance and then microwaved when ordered. The breading was soggy, and the chicken was chewy, all coated with an unusual, weblike gloss of scrambled egg.
Another rice bowl, the Bibim Bap ($9.95), was outstanding. The steamed rice was topped with ribbons of blanched zucchini and carrot, fresh bean sprouts, grilled beef, barely steamed spinach and a flawless sunny-side-up egg. The small bowl of red chili paste on the side allows you to spice the dish exactly to your preference.
If you have an appetite for something very basic, try the vegetable and egg fried rice ($6.95). The fried rice is combined with a deft hand, so the eggs are not overcooked, and the resulting dish isn't greasy. But the addition of more vegetables would make it a more interesting and satisfying dish.
The Shrimp Yakisoba ($9.50) disappointed. Very similar to chow mein, this Japanese dish combines ramen-style noodles with a thick, sweet yakisoba sauce. Here, the preparation came with shreds of cabbage and carrot, onion and a very few mushrooms. The shrimp, while plentiful and tasty, were slightly overcooked and chewy. The Chap Chae ($8.95), however, is wonderful. The clear, chewy sweet potato noodles (also called glass noodles because of their clear color when cooked) are stir-fried with spinach, tender beef, carrots, onion and mushrooms in a savory sauce flavored with sesame oil. This is one of my favorite versions of this dish, which is spicier than most.
If you want a little something sweet and a little something different, order the mochi ice cream ($3.25) for dessert. Sweet balls of ice cream are wrapped in a soft, chewy mochi dough. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made of glutinous rice. The thin, chewy wrapper can be difficult to cut with a spoon, but these are served with the ice cream balls already quartered, topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. The strawberry is soft and sweet, while the green tea has an earthy, almost grassy note that may take some getting used to. But I'm willing to work at it.