code word: nanbankan

nanbankan
11330 santa monica blvd (between corinth and sawtelle)
los angeles , ca 90025
310.207.8726

I drive along Santa Monica Boulevard bewteen Sawtelle and Barrington Avenues almost once a day, and even though a giant bright red and green neon sign screaming “kebab and chinese” seemingly overshadows it, I have always been more curious about the modest black and white sign below that politely states “japanese char-broil cuisine.” (The photo above is misleading, but hey, it looks good!) Nanbankan has no real storefront, and if you don’t look carefully enough, you’d walk right past. It’s like finding our way into the secret palace hideaway of shogun society, and I wondered if we needed to whisper a Japanese code word as we pushed open a medieval castle door that has the restaurant’s name branded into it.

there is a greeting of “ira-shai-masse,” but it’s a subtle, warm welcome, not like the overly exuberant shouts i’m used to in japanese restuarants. with a courteous nod-bow, our host seats us at a table; our group of six would have taken up too much real estate at the robata bar. a young couple on one side of the room is huddled over their table, whispering in japanese and giggling in hushed tones. in the corner, there is a family with a small, well-behaved little boy outfitted in a full body spongebob squarepants bib. another couple, he asian, she caucasian, dine with what look to be his parents-in-law. it’s an eclectic mix of diners.

we don’t seem to have a single dedicated server. someone brings water, another takes our beer order, and our host brings steaming hot towels to wipe our hands. the whole staff is on point at all times for any customer in the restaurant, yet they neither hover nor ask obvious questions.

before we order, the staff brings each of us a small dish of carrot and celery sticks, a slice of radish, and a little layered pyramid of cabbage. it was a rather taste-less salad, i thought, until i realized that the vegetables were to be dipped in a tiny bowl of miso sesame dressing on the side. oh my. this wasn’t a serving of vegetables with dressing, this was sesame miso with vegetables as utensils. it was awesome, and that was a starter we hadn’t even ordered.

nanban yaki and tsukune

we had a little trouble at first, negotiating the menu. i’m learning – it’s not just yakitori anymore. hot things, cold things, grilled things, not-grilled things, sushi things. our servers were helpful and made recommendations being neither pushy nor gush-y. most of the items have a japanese name with a short description underneath and a number in parentheses. like sushi, one order of a grilled item has 1, 2 or 3 skewers.

steamed, salted edamame

miso soup and edamame came first. i never order edamame in a restaurant because it’s like ordering chips or beer nuts. the soybeans are often overcooked to gray or stone cold. however, these were steamed just long enough to soften the pods to a warm, bright spring green, and just short enough that the baby beans inside were crisp tender. was i really so jazzed about edamame that i had to take a picture? perhaps the large asahi was making me giddy.

hard-boiled then grilled quail eggs
negitori (chicken and scallions)

it wasn’t the beer. shortly after the edamame, a parade of dishes came out in perfect tempo. i felt like an overzealous fashion photographer, snapping pictures of every waif of a skewer sashaying down the table runway modeling meat and vegetables, with miso, ponzu and other sauce accessories. ah, the staff gets it now and they put the plates in front of me first. we pause for my flashbulb, then pluck pluck pluck, we pull the meat and vegetables off, discarding the skewers in ceramic cups that the restaurant has thoughtfully placed on the table expressly for that purpose.

tebasaki chicken wings
nasu (eggplant)

the tsukune were chicken meatballs that were not golfball-sized, which would imply heavy, hard, dense. no these were ping pong balls, light, springy, yet tight enough to hold their shape on a skewer. only the word “cute” could describe the hard-boiled then grilled quail eggs, lined up like three little skeeballs at the arcade. i love eggs, but i think i was a bit weirded out by “quail” so i passed. a mildly sweet sauce dressed both the beef nanban yaki and the negitori, and both were tender. i’ve always had eggplant with a sweet sauce, as well, but nanbankan’s nasu were in a tangy miso that were a refreshing surprise. tebasaki chicken wings were crisp on the outside and meaty on the inside, though i have to admit, i missed the spices that furaibo puts on theirs.

chilean sea bass
stuffed bell peppers with mustard

chilean sea bass was white, flaky, and a good contrast to the chicken and beef dishes. we ordered stuffed peppers, and leave it to the japanese to one, find teeny tiny bell peppers, and two, serve them with yellow mustard! i wasn’t so hot on the
mustard, but dipped those baby bells in the sweet sauce on the other plates.

beef carpaccio with ponzu
unagi and spicy tuna rolls

we also ordered non-grilled items. we wrap sliced beef filets, presented like carpaccio, around onions and spice, then dip in a ponzu. it wasn’t bad, but i wasn’t used to eating meat that is still slightly frozen. spicy tuna and unagi rolls were beautifully presented , 3 by 3 on a square white plate. spicy tuna without mayonnaise, and with the addition of not just julienned cucumber, but testing the palate with gobo. nanbankan not only knows their grill, but they know to sweat it over the fryer, too.


enoki, oyster and shhitake mushroom tempura

mushroom tempura could only have been as light-as-air as they were if the batter was thin to begin with, and the temperature of the frying oil is sky high. the enoki looked a little too alien for me, but i ate more than my share of oyster and shiitakes. two more mushroom dishes came out in tiny cast iron skillets: mixed mushrooms and garlic sprouts, mushrooms and scallops. both were sauteed in butter, creating a sauce that we wanted to pour into a bowl and eat with plain rice.


two saute skillets

mixed mushrooms sauteed in butter

namuru (steamed spinach)

we finished with namuru, a funny translation of the korean word “na-mul,” which means plant, and were two bowls of steamed spinach. one in a ponzu sauce, topped with bonito flakes, and the other in a sweeter sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. we couldn’t finish them. thank god they were the end of the procession, though that didn’t stop us from a single scoop of green tea ice cream. it’s the only dessert that nabnakan has, as if they know that no one could possibly have room after the meal.

i can’t believe that it’s taken me so long to discover nanbankan. it’s not usually a topic of discussion, and there isn’t any hype. after some quick research, i realize that it’s because nanbankan is over 20 years old, and the usual “buzz” about restaurants that occurs within the first few years has long ago passed. but that’s exactly what nanbankan is. like an immortal feudal japanese emperor, now a gentle and modest wiseman, hidden away from everyone except loyal subjects like me, who will go back again and again.

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  • tokyoastrogirl

    Your photos are making me drool. I can’t wait to try it…my dad would be in heaven. Thanks.

  • tokyoastrogirl

    Your photos are making me drool. I can’t wait to try it…my dad would be in heaven. Thanks.

  • sarah j. gim

    yeah, i was pretty much drooling on my keyboard as i was posting them up, too! and to think i don’t even love maki sushi… ;)

  • MEalCentric

    Planning a trip here this week (thanks to the mouth waterig pics), what were the prices like?

  • sarah j. gim

    the prices aren’t too bad at all. most everything ranges from $3.95 (vegetables) up to $8.95 for seafood. specials can be a little more, depending on what it is. i’ll be looking forward to reading about your trip on your blog this week!

  • Anonymous

    lamb chops are 11 bucks, and the sole is a bit more than that. overall though, it’s a great bargain. I managed to spend 80 bucks on a two person dinner sans alcohol, but I also eat there twice a week and eat a lot when I do.

  • Foodie Universe

    I went last night and didn’t think it was that great. The miso dressing for the salad was too salty, and the veggies were unweidly, especially the huge chunk of lettuce. The sea bass was good, but nothing special. I couldn’t eat the whole dish of sauteed mushrooms–the butter and salt got to be too much about halfway through. I also ordered baby octupus, which came in a soy-based sauce that didn’t do much for the octopus. My friend’s $9 glass of pinot noir left a lot to be desired. Also, I saw pre-made maki in the fridge!!! Sigh. Sitting at the bar, the elevatory music was a bit loud and obnoxious.
    In spite of all this, every single table was already reserved when we arrived at 6:00. I’m not sure why this place is so popular.

  • sarah

    hey amy! i am so sorry that your experience was just *blah*. how funny, i think i am just a saltaholic because i loved the dressing and the mushrooms because they were salted well! did you notice at all if most of the patrons were japanese? perhaps it is so popular with japanese immigrants? not sure either, though i did love it ;)

    (8/25/05)

  • skptk13

    Kudos for you ability to understand Amy’s distaste for her experience. But for those prices and for the experience of a almost all skewer restaurant….I think I still am eager to go. Thank you all for your comments, I cant wait to go!

  • tmacman

    Oh how we miss Nanbankan! From the incredible food, to the warm and friendly manager Tony Ono. We lived in the neighborhood when it still was considered “Little Japan Town”. So many wonderful Nisei and Sansei business owners. Most have either passed on, sold out or moved on. But Nanbankan remains!! When we are in L.A. Nanbankan is a MUST!
    A true hidden gem in L.A.

  • nhburdick

    Have been going here for years — love the hatsu, sunagimo, corn, tomatoes and uzura especially; sorry that others have been disappointed on this blog — but couldn’t ever imagine trading my seat at the bar and Takashi’s welcome (btw, re: lettuce salad appetizer — I eat with my hands, and just dip a single layer at a time, seems to work out just fine).

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