Longtime fans of the reliable Akai Hana (aka the former Restaurant Japan) know they can get another sampling of Akai Hana's classic Japanese fare just around the corner. Sharing ownership with Akai Hana, Tensuke Market sells discount-priced bentos and grocery-store sushi actually worth nibbling on. But Tensuke's got a lot more than that.
Past its sold-hot cans of coffee and tea, past cold health drinks with names like "Pocari Sweat" (sounds like a real thirst-quencher, doesn't it?), past pink powdered codfish meat alongside frozen salmon flakes and all other manner of ready-to-roll sushi-grade seafood, and past scores of wacky Japanese snacks and sweets, there's a little back room counter operation called Tensuke Express. It's a great little eatery with great big deals.
Keeping with the seafood-dense aspect of the store in which it's housed, visually, Tensuke Express is water themed. Thus, directly above a large circular table in the small restaurant's center gleams a gigantic cylindrical aquarium capped by a dramatic sort of crown with waves etched on it. And plastered all along one of the room's light aqua blue walls is a stratum of off-white wavy forms that recall seashells.
Given this Sea World-exhibit kind of stuff in the otherwise spartan snack bar, it's kind of curious that the bulk of Tensuke Express' offerings are more terrestrially oriented.
Oh sure, you can score really good fried shrimp (crackly, panko-crusted and characteristically cheap at $1.50 per each extra-long piece) and there's Tako Yaki too ($3 - a handful of fried batterballs with lumps of chewy octopus in their centers). Mostly though, Tensuke Express specializes in inexpensive bowls of soupy noodles and pick-your-protein-garnished rice.
Before dipping into those entree bowls, I recommend you begin with a terrific little Sunomono Salad ($3). A bed of warm, pleasantly chewy, wide and dark green seaweed ribbons was blanketed with batons of chilled carrot, cucumber and artificial crab meat. A mildly sweet vinaigrette accentuated the fresh and lively flavors and fun mix of textures.
The fried Gyoza (pork dumplings - $3 for a plateful) were another right-on starter. Their light and crispy pockets crammed with clean-tasting, scallion-scented ground pork made them unanimously popular at my table.
Even cheaper were big, thick and puffy paddles of panko-crusted Croquettes (80 cents apiece). These were crunchy, golden brown jackets jammed with mashed potato served with (BBQ-ish) tonkatsu sauce.
Rice-wise, you can top a smallish bowl with a variety of gob-pleasing goodies ($4), including excellent sweet BBQ eel (soft and delicate); Karaage (addictive Japanese-style fried chicken nuggets); beef gyudon (shaved, fatty slices of bulgogi-like, slightly sweet roast beef); a tender-enough fried panko-breadcrumbed pork cutlet; or a viscous, dark and sweet curry sauce with stray chunks of ultra soft, stewy beef.
On the glorious noodle-slurping front, Tensuke serves three varieties (soba, udon and ramen) prepared in marvelous and myriad fashions. Here's some recent favorites:
• Spicy pork kimchi udon ($6.50) : A clear, soulful broth with fun-to-chew-on slippery, fat noodles bolstered with sesame oil and perked up with garnishes like slices of rice cake and hard boiled egg, scallions plus sinus-tingling kimchi cabbage and pork.
• Yaki Udon ($6) : Here, the glutinous and thick udon noodles anchored a light and thoroughly delightful stir fry with pork and veggies.
• Shoyu Wakame Ramen ($6.50) : The familiar thin, crinkly and firm noodles were soothingly treated to a soy-based broth enlivened by seaweed, sprouts and lots more.
• Plain Soba ($5) : The simple broth kept the focus on the nutty, hearty little buckwheaty noodles.
For more local food news and reviews, click to G.A. Benton's blog at blog.columbusalive.com/underthetable