Saturday, March 27, 2010

Just when I thought I knew Japanese in Anchorage...



Living somewhere as small as Anchorage for six years made me start to think that I was an expert on all worthwhile local haunts. But recently I learned that I was wrong. Case in point: Yamaya. Not to be confused with Yamato-ya, Ronnie's, the former Pete's Sushi, I Love Sushi, Sushi and Sushi, or any of the other reasonably tasty Japanese restaurants in Anchorage.

Located in the heart of downtown Anchorage in a slightly dingy, sky blue bungalow, windows obcsured with with Japanese scarf-style curtains, Yamaya Seafood Restaurant looks like it could be a front for a gambling operation or money laundering scheme. And with its hand-scrawled sign in English and Japanese advertising its hours of operation of 5-9:30pm, it's one of those places that I hadn't gotten around to trying.

That is until I made a point of it for my birthday. And there we were, my boyfriend and me, wandering around the building, not quite sure where exactly we were supposed to enter, and not quite sure if it was open despite the sign. We finally enter a sliding glass door that's just about two feet away from the nearest table. Seated there is a young, Caucasian co-ed and her tall, Afro-haired, mix-raced date; until our arrival, they were the only non-Japanese in the room. Seated at another table are a pair of Japanese tourists, and at the third table, a group of five Japanese and Japanese Americans in their early-twenties, some of them local some of them not, all tittering with laughter like school girls. Perched comfortably at the bar is a white-haired Japanese man in a business suit, stoic, who has just cleared a small plate of food and and a small clay carafe of warm sake. When we enter, the Caucasian girl looks at us and smiles, and says, "Yeah, this is the entrance; we weren't sure either."

The furniture is low, rustic, both Japanese and Alaskan in style, made of partially unfinished laquered logs. The dining area is a converted living room in between the kitchen, and a front room that serves as a gift shop. There is a long picnic table with benches on either side, about three or four other small tables, and a bar along the counter dividing the kitchen from the guests. All told, the 12x12 ft room could comfortable seat about 15 patrons on a busy night. The kitchen is no larger than the one in my fourplex.

Our maitre-d is a petite Japanese woman with a thick accent who looked in her late-sixties. She also serves as the sous-chef to her husband, scarf tied around his forehead, salt-and-pepper hair, healthy belly, monitoring an active stovetop. From what I glean, the waitress was their grand-daughter and the busboy the grandson. The lady of the house seats us at the only available seats at the same table as the mixed race couple. She explains to us with thinly veiled pride, "The gyoza, I make it fresh. People tell me it's delicious." Mid-order she scurries off into the kitchen. With a knowing and discrete smile, our waitress fills in and says, "She didn't finish taking your order, did she."

Unconventional in a town like Anchorage, this little room has a story. The lady of the house explains, "I came here thirty years ago, thinking, God would take care of me, and then I saw the beautiful mountains. And then they gave me $1000 to live here. I thought, can't be bad!" She makes the sign of the cross as her grand-daughter stands behind, pantomiming the gesture. She is telling a story she's likely told before, and explains with pride, "This is Japanese cooking. You have the same chef every night. Not like other restaurants. We are the ones here every night." For about four and a half hours a night. Except for when they're not.

The only menu available is displayed on the wall; more hand-scrawled Japanese and broken English, black magic marker on pieces of white printer paper. The decor, sparse--a Japanese travel calendar and a couple of other random items. The dining options are few, but impressive. We choose steamed dungeness crab, fried mackerel, grilled octopus, and shortspine thorny head fish, lovingly referred to as "idiot fish," all local harvests. For appetizers we choose fried tofu seated in a delicate soy-based broth, and the home-made gyoza. Simply cooked, the flavor of the seafood speaks for itself.

Washing it down with large bottles of Kirin beer, and little teacups of hot sake, listening to the sound of my co-patrons chattering in Japanese, the world felt right that evening. The place brings back memories of two little Japanese basement restaurants I used to haunt in New York City and Vietnam. Austere in decor, and down-to-earth in drink and cuisine. A sense of secrecy, reminiscent of a speak-easy in a science fiction movie. As if the people in this room knew something. But yet, comforting, and old-fashioned at the same time. A little buzz, a lot of seafood, I truly feel like I'm being taken care of by somebody's Japanese grandma.

The bill comes and it's barely $70.00 for the both of us. Doing the math on the drinks and seafood, the hours of operation, and the rent on the prime real estate, I leave Yamaya a bit perplexed at how it stays afloat. Good thing for money laundering.

Yamaya is not exactly NYC's Nobu; it's better. Using only local ingredients, owned and staffed by a charming cast of characters who know their seafood, this little local time capsule imported from Japan is a gem buried in the heart of a mountain town. Tell a friend. Or don't.