Back in June, Little Tokyo moved from its original humble digs on the west side of Summerville to a new location on St. James Avenue in Goose Creek. It’s a much larger space with twice the tables of the old place. The restaurant is still run by Utako Furukawa and her husband Jose Moreno, but now they have more help both in the kitchen and out in the dining room. Along the way, they’ve made upgrades that seem aimed at taking the fare a little more mainstream.
The expanded menu now includes a small selection of sushi rolls, and the prices have inched up a bit as well, topping out with a two-tail lobster dinner ($20) and the big Tokyo combination platter ($25), with a lobster tail, beef and chicken skewers, and shrimp and vegetable tempura.
There are over two dozen appetizers on the menu, and one could easily assemble a full meal just from various combinations of these. Popular items include chicken and beef skewers ($5) and a wide range of tempura — everything from mushrooms ($3) and asparagus ($3.50) to a whole soft-shell crab ($5). The squid tempura ($4.50) is not the standard rings you get with fried calamari but rather long, solid cylindrical pieces fried in an airy, crispy batter.
The eggroll ($1.75) is one of the simplest and best of the appetizers, fried a deep golden brown with a pleasingly dense and savory mixture of pork and vegetables inside. It’s sliced diagonally into two pieces and served with a little bowl of pale orange dipping sauce that isn’t even needed because the eggroll is flavorful enough on its own.
As many adventurous local diners have already discovered, Little Tokyo offers a slate of authentic dishes that are fairly rare in Americanized versions of Japanese cuisine. One of these is the grilled smelt ($5), a version of the traditional salt-grilled fish. Three thin silver smelt are simply sprinkled with salt and grilled on both sides. They’re served whole, heads still on, with a crispy char to the skin and tender, grainy flesh that you can eat, bones and all. Other items like fermented soybeans ($3.50) and assorted Japanese pickles ($3) are great, inexpensive ways to sample traditional flavors.
For under ten bucks you can fill up with big bowls of udon noodles swimming in a rich broth and topped with kitsune (fried tofu, $7.50) or tempura shrimp ($8.50). A new addition are the donburi (rice bowls), which come with everything from beef or chicken (both $8) to katsu (breaded fried pork, $8.50) and eel ($9).
There are larger, more elaborate meals, too. One of my favorites is the gyoza dumplings ($9.75) which, like all of the entrees, are served on a big platter (in the dumplings case, it’s a big red plastic boat) along with soup, salad, fruit, and steamed rice. The superb dashi soup has a few noodles and sliced scallions in a clear, seductively smoky broth.
The salad, just shreds of cabbage and carrots coated with the same orange dressing that comes with the egg roll, and the fruit, one small piece of orange and cantaloupe, are dull afterthoughts, but the dumplings are delightful. You can get them steamed, deep fried or — to meet in the middle — pan-fried. This last approach steams the dumplings so that they are tender and cooked-through, then sears them on just one of their triangular sides, resulting in a great texture that is both tender and crispy. The pork filling inside is deliciously mild and smooth, too.
Yellowtail is a staple of Japanese sushi bars, and in case you’re wondering where all the rest of the fish goes after the big parts are sliced off to roll up in rice, check out the grilled yellowtail neck ($11.25). A big slab taken from the area just behind the fish’s gills is served, two small fins still attached, on a big round ceramic plate with a round bowl of thin, tart ponzu sauce. The skin is charred from the grill, and while it looks temptingly crisp, it’s actually rather unpleasantly oily and serves as more of a bowl from which you pluck the tender white flesh to dunk in the ponzu sauce. It’s served with a small pile of shaved daikon radish, which provides a very clean, mild accompaniment.
For dessert, there’s a big tempura fried banana with vanilla ice cream ($2.75) and red bean and green tea ice cream, too. The last two — a bargain at a buck fifty — are smooth and subtle and go well with a hot sake to round out a satisfying culinary exploration.
Little Tokyo 2.0 has a lot of nice touches, like the warm towel brought to cleanse your hands at the beginning of the meal. The clean comfortable interior is understated, with yellow walls, sturdy pale wooden furniture, and stylish framed photographs. At the same time, the napkins are paper, the chopsticks are the cheap snap-apart kind, and most of the plates and bowls are made from heavy-duty plastic. In essence, it’s a straightforward Japanese-style family restaurant.
The fact that Little Tokyo is no longer crammed into a small building shared by a barber shop and an old gas station might take away the delight hardcore foodies have of discovering genuine fare in the least likely of circumstances. And the larger menu with its more accessible items and higher prices mean that, while still a moderately-priced restaurant, it’s no longer quite the steal it once was. But the food is notably good, and one can hope the new location will lure even more local diners to experience a little taste of good old Japanese comfort food.