This afternoon, my mother, brother and I went to meet up with an old family friend for lunch in San Jose’s Japantown! Not the greatest part of San Jose, but there’s no shortage of excellent Asian stores and markets and, of course, Japanese restaurants. Apparently at the turn of the century Japanese immigrants began to build houses next to the city’s Chinatown, most of whom were single men working in the fruit orchards. Most residents were forced to go to Wyoming during World War II and then moved back following the end of Japanese internment. These days, there are plenty of family-owned businesses that remain, including a fantastic tofu store that sells some of the best home-made tofu I’ve ever tasted.
Of all the Japanese restaurants in the neighborhood, Gombei is supposed to be among the best. They don’t serve haute cuisine gourmet food like they do at Nobu, but rather hearty and authentic Japanese comfort food. For $8-$12, diners get what seems like as much food as a three-course meal.
There’s actually no waiting list for tables, so customers have to line up outside until they’re called in. Despite being a party of five, we actually didn’t have to wait that long; probably about half an hour. Because it was peak lunch hour, the waiters were extremely busy, but at least they weren’t inattentive.
I ordered one of the special lunch combos of the day, a beef yakiniku with various seafood fry (shrimp, calamari, and a crab croquette). The meal also came with a small plate of what we call 小菜 in Chinese; somewhat like an appetizer but smaller and lighter. This particular dish was a bit of cold marinated sliced cucumber, soybeans, and two chunks of sea cucumber.
The marinade was sweet with a bit of a sour tang from the vinegar, which didn’t have the dark and cloying flavor of basalmic vinegar but rather a light and crisp feel which made the cucumbers taste more fresh. While the cucumbers were good, I liked the soybeans even more; they were tender without being mushy or too solid, and took on a pleasant graininess when chewed. The sweet and sour marinade enhanced the milky and vanilla undertones of the beans, leaving a very pure earthy flavor. The sea cucumber, while not the most flavorful seafood, had a fun squishy and slippery texture.
After I finished my mini appetizers, I moved onto the fried food.
The fried seafood had panko breading that gave the exterior a slightly rough and crunchy texture, and was topped with something that was like tartar sauce. While there wasn’t anything wrong with the flavor (let’s be real; you can never go wrong with a combination of fried food and tartar sauce), it was a bit too heavy for me. The crab croquette, with the bits of imitation crab meat mixed with peas and carrots and mayonnaise, was especially hard to stomach.
The beef yakiniku, though, was excellent.
Yakiniku, sometimes called Japanese barbecue that involves grilling small chunks of meat or vegetables over a griddle, is said to have been inspired by Korean barbecue, and I could definitely see the similarities. Both were on the same spectrum of smoky-sweet, and had the addition of some chopped green onions and sesames to top the meat and enhance the flavors. The yakiniku, though, was a bit closer to the sweeter side of the spectrum than KBBQ. The meat was cooked to a medium-well, which made it a bit tougher than I would have liked, but the bit of fattiness of the cut improved the flavor and texture. Despite the toughness, each bite was still thick and juicy.
The fried tofu that was part of Mom’s lunch combo is also worth trying, with the seafood flavors and chunky and juicy textures pairing well with rice. While the tofu texture wasn’t uniform throughout, each bite proved to be interesting. Her tuna sashimi, however, wasn’t the freshest. Then again, I suppose it’s difficult to get perfect sashimi-grade fish around here.
Though Gombei’s by no means the best Japanese restaurant in the world, if you ever find yourself in Japantown, I would still say that it’s worth a visit for lunch. It’s a lot of food, so be sure to bring a large appetite so that you can do the meal justice.
Rating: 4/5 spoons