“I was a little nervous about going into this restaurant at first,” says Hawaiian Lance Kita as he leads our small group to a small windowless shop. We approach a sliding door with slotted wood, resembling a bamboo forest.
I’m surprised by his confession. As he mentioned in his soon-to-be-released TEDx talk, part of his reason for starting the Awa Mystery Dinner series five years ago was to encourage foreign residents to try out new, out of the way eateries. After all, it doesn’t take much courage to go into a chain restaurant, or one that has fake food in the front window, but foreign visitors new to Tokushima might miss out on the more intimate spaces and original dishes prepared in smaller restaurants. Most menus at such places are only in Japanese, after all.
“I read about this place in a magazine,” Kita tells us. “It’s called Mocchan.”
From outward appearances, it’s hard to discern the menu or the cost of having dinner here, but Kita checked it out beforehand. He has already arranged for the food that will make up our three-stop meal, with each course served in a different, previously undisclosed restaurant.
When we enter through the flap of indigo blue noren curtain, the action behind the counter is boisterous. We are welcomed and led to a small, private tatami room. After shucking our shoes, we crowd around the table, which is already set with this store’s signature dish — potato salad made with daikon pickles and served with the kind of wafers that normally encase ice cream. The potato salad, mounded on a pottery plate, has a nice crunch and a smoky flavor from the pickles.
The server brings plates of tempura-fried stuffed lotus root, and lightly sauteed firefly squid, which is only briefly in season, and is so named because the tiny squid flicker in the water. The latter is wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Although most of the participants in this, the 20th Awa Mystery Dinner, are from abroad, Kita says that as the series became more popular, Japanese diners asked to join as well. On this evening, our group is made up of four Americans, one Canadian, a German and one Japanese.
We move on, walking down rain-wet streets to another tucked-away establishment, this time with an Italian flag out front.
“This is Anji,” Kita says.
The mix of cuisines is one of the delightful surprises of the evening.
It’s still relatively early, and the restaurant is empty. Kita likes to hold these dinners during off hours, since we are only sampling from the menu, not ordering full courses. We settle at a long wooden table, and grunge-like music spews from the speakers. The menu is scrawled on a blackboard in Japanese. The owner, a trim Japanese man with longish hair and an immaculate white shirt, greets us and brings out dishes of tripe in tomato sauce flecked with wasabi leaves. I’ve never had tripe before, but the tomato sauce is excellent.
A small bottle of sparkling sake arrives, along with richly flavored balsamic chicken and mashed potatoes, homemade bread, and spaghetti pepperoncini, which has the interesting addition of cabbage.
Next, we move on to Oz, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. The front window is filled with brightly colored fake ice cream sundaes. The interior has a retro feel with faux Tiffany lamps, and little round tables.
“We’re getting the Strawberry Tower,” Lance tells us.
The owner brings up two humongous parfaits, one by one. As I take up a long-handled spoon, I realize that we will be eating out of the same dish, date-style. At this point in the dinner, our group has achieved a kind of intimacy.
With one exception, I had never met any of these people before this evening, I had never been to the three restaurants we visited, never sampled tripe or sparkling sake. By Kita’s standards — and mine — this dinner has been a great success.