Spoon House is a restaurant that's all about spaghetti.
It is a paean to spaghetti, an ode to spaghetti, a song of spaghetti.
You should order it, for the spaghetti is cooked to order. You can sit at the counter and watch. Though the real fun thing is, this is spaghetti done Japanese style. Which means you can have your spag topped with sea urchin, fermented soy beans, and a plum and shiso mix. This is one mega fusion experience.
Spoon House, which is the American branch of a restaurant in Tokyo, has been around for as long as I can remember. It's a a quirky corner eatery a few blocks off the main restaurant row of Western Avenue, with a kind of makeshift interior, that is easy to find on a weekend night; just look for the crowd of people waiting in front. When you consider that there isn't a dish on the menu priced over $10 — and very few that even approach the $10 mark — then you know that this is one of the great dining deals of Southern California. And we're talking about under $10 for a meal that begins with the house bread — a mildly flavored, somewhat airy take on French bread — served with little foil packets of butter just like in the old days.
For a buck extra, you can get the house salad, which like the bread, harkens back to an earlier era. It's lettuce and tomato topped with a snappy miso dressing, the first inkling that something ethnically alternative is going on here. Another inkling is the curious seating options. There are a handful of small tables though most folks wind up sitting at either the counter in the outer room, or the counter that sits in front of the open kitchen — it's just like a sushi bar, sans the sushi. Still, despite the sushi-less bar there are sushi-esque ingredients that top the pasta. It's all a happy mishmash.
Rating: ★ ★ stars
Address: 1601 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena.
Hours: Lunch and dinner, everyday.
Details: Soft drinks. Street parking. Reservations not taken.
Prices: Spaghetti Dishes, $7-$9.75.
Cards: MC, V.
If you sit at the counter in front of the kitchen, you'll be treated to a cooking show that involves a team of cooks first weighing the spaghetti on small scales — adding a strand or taking a strand off — so that every order of spag is exactly the same size. (The dial faces into the kitchen, so it was hard to figure out how much pasta each order gets. My guess is a quarter pound, but I could be off.) Then, the pasta is plunged into a hot water bath, emerging perfectly al dente every time; this crew has got their spaghetti timing down pat.
The pasta, however, is just a side show when it comes to the dishes served at Spoon House. There are some 60 different saucing options on the menu. This is where the Japanese-Italian fusion really soars.
Now, you can, if such is your desire, keep things simple, going for the spaghetti Bolognese, with a good (though slightly watery) tomato and meat sauce. You can trick up the Bolognese as well with meatballs, wieners (yup, wieners; it's an ingredient that appears unexpectedly on a lot of Japanese menus), and a “garnish” of egg and bacon.
Move up to the Napolitano prep, and the pasta gets panfried. Go for the spaghetti Mexicana, and you get your pasta prepped with salsa, along with beef, chicken or shrimp. Go for the California style and the topping is crab meat, avocado and mayonnaise (another western ingredient that's much loved on Japanese menus).
Go for the Chinese chicken salad spaghetti and you get — well, it's a bit hard to say what you get. The topping is sort of almost a Chinese chicken salad. But the chicken isn't so much chopped as it is minced. And there isn't much salad in the salad. It's a cult dish here taht's hard to resist, but it sure is strange.
And it's just a doorway into the rest of the options. There's a large section of the menu dedicated to spaghetti tossed with a cod roe and butter sauce (tarako), to which you can add squid, seaweed, sea urchin, kimchi, shiso and shimeji mushrooms. There's a variant made with squid and hot wasabi horseradish, and another with fermented soy beans (natto) and shiso. There's a spaghetti omelette. And there's spaghetti with corned beef and cabbage, which, I think, is an Italian-Irish dish.
And yes, you do get a spoon with your spaghetti.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.