By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
In the past 12 months I have reviewed 19 restaurants that serve sushi. Ask me how many restaurants I visited that served other styles of Japanese food.
That would be zero.
Truth is, in Japan people seldom chow down on whole meals of sushi, unless it's a special occasion or they're buds with the sushi chef. But in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties you can't flick a gob of wasabi without hitting a sushi bar.
Our preoccupation with dynamite rolls has meant that we've missed out on some things. In the past couple of years the rest of the country has been gaga over things like hand-pulled noodles, steaming bowls of artisanal ramen, savory Japanese pancakes called okonomiyaki and an Osaka street food called takoyaki (octopus fritters).
On Dec. 1, real ramen came to town. Kazuhiko Kunori, 51, was a chef at JoTo on Dale Mabry for nearly 20 years. He cooked the nonsushi dishes. He and his wife, Sachiko Kunori, 38, decided it was time to go out on their own and opened Nakaya. It's a humble box of a restaurant with an open kitchen and not much in the way of decor, in the space that briefly was Second Line Cafe and Nola Cafe before that. The "briefly" part may have been partly due to location: This place is hard to find. Google Maps doesn't get you quite there. Find the UPS Store; find the Walgreens; now walk around the side of the UPS Store that faces the pharmacy window and you'll see it.
Sachiko was nervous about a restaurant review. In her mind, they weren't quite ready. In fact, service at Nakaya is tentative and dithering but very sweet. And the menus at lunch and dinner can be cryptic: There's an entree called "karaage," no explanation. (It's small pieces of fried chicken that spent time in a marinade that tastes subtly of soy and ginger.) But how is this different from chicken katsu (breaded and fried chicken breast cutlets) or even the ponzu chicken, for that matter? The menu doesn't say.
Be bold and head for ramen ($9 to $12). The Cadillac version is chashu ramen, a rich soy-inflected broth swirled with spinach and seaweed and toothsome noodles, with halved soft-boiled quail egg, a pink-edged oddity called kamaboko (a cured seafood product that is more texture than taste), bamboo shoots, green onion and slices of roasted pork loin with a flurry of sesame seeds.
Before you launch, there's ramen etiquette. Eat it piping hot and don't mix in the toppings (alternate eating each one separately). Use your chopsticks and start noisily slurping up noodles, employing the spoon as support under the dangling noodles (to minimize splashing) and occasionally ladling up a spoonful of broth. Expert ramen eaters are lightning fast and adopt a hunched posture.
Wonton ramen ($11) is nearly as good as the chashu, as are fat udon noodles in broth topped with tempura-fried shrimp ($9). At dinner, a long list of appetizers should be investigated, many easily shared with the table. From ohitashi, a small bowl of cold boiled napa cabbage flavored with what I think was dashi stock and dried bonito flake ($4), to deep-fried blocks of tofu with a subtle dashi sauce ($3.50) or a fan of sparklingly fresh mixed sashimi on greens ($9.50), Nakaya exhibits lively flavors in clearly homemade preparations.
For some diners, Japanese food that covers new ground is a good thing. For others, it's a little intimidating. For them, Nakaya offers exotic-sounding things that are entirely accessible, from skinny grilled chicken skewer yakitori ($4) to breaded fried pork cutlets called tonkatsu ($14 as a dinner entree). Maybe it's no accident that Nakaya is sandwiched between the UPS Store and a pharmacy: Its affordably priced bowls of ramen are delivering a new remedy for the sushi blahs.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.