Sakura Saku - Huntington Beach
Upon hearing that phrase, I shuddered as my culinary senses prickled, detecting a disturbance in The Force. Somewhere out there, in Huntington Beach, there was a Japanese restaurant that dared to create this aberration of nature, this unholy Frankenstein monster of dish that...combined taco meat and grated cheese with Japanese rice.
I read about it on Mmm-yoso. Kirk, its creator, was minding his own business, ordering lunch at a joint in HB, when he got a whiff and caught sight of the thing.
"...one of the young men on a nearby table was eating the strangest bowl.....it smelled like taco meat.....and when I inquired, I was told, it was something called "Taco Rice", which was taco meat topped with cheese, tomato, and lettuce on a bowl of rice! I was told that the "young people like it."
Immediately, I was intrigued, but also afraid -- the kind of fear that drives a man closer to his destiny. I was going to try this "taco rice", even as a small part of me said "No!"
Thankfully, the whole of my soul would not be swayed and yelled back with a defiant "Why not?!"
An officemate, seeing determination in my step as I marched out of my cube clutching my car keys, asked, "Hey, where are you going?" I told him of my quest, and he reacted as I expected anyone would -- with a scrunched face and one word: "Ugh!"
At the same moment, another co-worker, who was a Marine, overheard the conversation and said to us matter-of-factly, "Why...I haven't had taco rice since I was stationed in Okinawa."
This was starting to make a lot of sense. A U.S. military base abroad is always bound to influence local food. Think of Hawaii and SPAM. All it takes is one homesick Marine and an enterprising indigenous cook and BAM! A dish like taco rice (or takoraisu) is born.
Inevitably, the invention becomes loved by the locals too. After that, it's only a matter of time before it appears stateside, in a West-to-East-to-West feedback loop.
So with this new-found knowledge (a fact later confirmed by Wikipedia), my two intrepid comrades and I set off and found Sakura Saku, whereupon we ordered the dish. I took mine as the restaurant offered it, with lettuce and tomato, but my ex-Marine friend opted for no veggies**.
When it arrived, it was exactly as I imagined. Ground beef -- seasoned not unlike Taco Bell's or any other all-American Tex-Mex taco -- is heaped on top of Japanese sticky rice. On the side, there's even a small bowl of Pace Picante Sauce, along with a pair of chopsticks.
I used the chopsticks not without appreciating the irony.
How did it taste? Well, in a word: good. The neutrality of Japanese rice plays well with the strong flavors of taco meat and cheese -- not at all the disaster I thought it would be, but also, decidedly ordinary.
It's neither scary nor freakish nor particularly life-changing, like finding Bigfoot only to discover that he's just a really hairy homeless man.
Takoraisu doesn't aspire to be more than the sum of its parts -- and still, it works. But it's nothing that you can't make at home with a skillet and a packet of Lawry's seasoning.
Perhaps the only thing surprising about it is the price: $6.50, which is a hard sell for this Southern Californian who was raised on rice and 49-cent tacos (eaten separately, of course). But to the Okinawan, I suppose it will be a taste of home. How's that for irony?
Though I do wonder if somewhere in Japan, there is a Japanese food blogger who has written a post like this about seeing a California Roll at his neighborhood McDonalds.
7572 Edinger Ave
Huntington Beach, CA 92647
**NOTE: My other friend took the chicken karaage combo as his lunch. And it was just as good as Kirk described. Juicy, crispy, gigantic hunks of fried, sake-marinated goodness. A bargain at $6.00 since it also includes rice, salad, yakisoba, and a soft-drink. The owner is exceedingly nice, twice as cheerful as the Hello-Kitty posters and glitter he's strewn all around his place.