Seeing Samurai

Photo by David Robert

Painted faces of ominous Samurai seemed to growl at me when I walked inside Kazuko’s Japanese Fast Food. If I had a queasy stomach, I might have walked back out into the blistering heat.

But as I glanced at other comical porcelain Japanese faces with balloon cheeks and bright lipstick, I felt reassured, welcomed.

What balance.

Kazuko’s, a treasure of a restaurant awkwardly sandwiched in a strip mall with gun stores and card shops, doesn’t do itself justice by its front window advertisement. The cheap, sticky lettering exclaims, JAPANESE FOOD, and windows, covered with bamboo mats, conceals the cozy restaurant within. My friend Tim said he’d driven by the restaurant often, and considered eating there, but never felt compelled to walk in.

“How do you like it?” I asked Tim after he had a few minutes to absorb the atmosphere.

“The ambiance is nice,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “There are lots of flowers.”

We looked around us. Real and artificial plants hung from the ceiling, and trees stood in corners of the restaurant. Bamboo shoots, bonsai trees, a mossy waterfall and a miniature porcelain glowing tower decorated a wall near the entrance.

Pleasantly grinning—and coldly menacing—caricatures of Japanese men and women hung from the white-painted walls. A stack of old National Enquirers wilted on a bench near the front register. Easy-listening music reverberated in the background. The mood created by this cacophony of Japanese and American culture felt right.

“It’s Zen,” Tim said.

I agreed. Though the ominous Samurai still glared at me, I felt the chi, or flow of positive energy. Tim and I plunged into chatter about mundane topics, from deranged relationships to the drudgeries of full-time school and work.

Owner Kazuko Sakamoto, a petite, older Japanese woman, served us green tea as Tim waited for his cold udon soup, the daily special for $5.65. I’d ordered Combination Plate A—pork cutlet and tempura, for $8.19. Sakamoto placed a brass tea kettle on our table. I sipped on miso soup, a warm concoction of broth, skinny noodles and sliced green onions that accompanies main dishes and combination plates.

Once our food arrived, Tim skillfully used chopsticks to maneuver udon noodles into his mouth. I chose a fork and went for the tempura, battered-dipped and deep-fried shrimp and veggies. It was decadent. The light, fluffy batter melted in my mouth. The shrimp and vegetables were perfect—not too soggy and not too firm, not too greasy and not too dry. The pork cutlet, breaded pork served with tonkatsu sauce, was a scintillating mixture of salty meat and sweet sauce. I barely touched the white rice, as the enormous portions of food included a garden and macaroni salad.Unable to inhale any more food, I set down my fork."Overall impressions?” Tim asked.

I belched loudly, signaling my universal approval. The Samurai glared at me. OK, so maybe they didn’t appreciate the burp. Oh, well. My belly was full, and I didn’t mind.

As we left, Sakamoto peeked through the curtain that separated the kitchen from the restaurant, shyly saying good-bye with a clipped Japanese accent.

We stepped out of Zen kingdom and back into the heat. I wondered whether the Samurai warded off any unreceptive customers in protection of madam damsel Kazuko. Either way, I knew I would return for my next meditation session, accompanied by the fierce Samurai.