The best part, aside from the quickly prepared but tasty Japanese cuisine, is that the open kitchen is an arm's-length away from diners sitting at the long counter. No secrets here: just cozy homemade Japanese edibles with friendly prices.
There are a half-dozen or so tables but only a couple of them can accommodate more than two diners. That's OK, because the fun part is watching the Akaboris' ever-pirouetting performance from the counter. The production isn't as razzle-dazzle as Japanese steakhouses; it is just the way the Akaboris navigate their kitchen.
Toshio Akabori grew up in Tokyo and always had a hankering to cook. It was his lifelong dream to have his own restaurant in America. He worked in hotel kitchens in Japan, eventually transferring to Guam, where he cooked while learning English. Six years later, he transferred again, this time to Missouri, where he completed his culinary apprenticeship.
Twenty-five years ago, he took the plunge, opening Tokyo Subway in Menlo Park near the busy intersection of El Camino Real and Santa Cruz Avenue. The long narrow space reminded him of the many subterranean restaurants that flourish in the vast Tokyo underground system — hence the name.
"Now, many people confuse us with Subway sandwich shops. We are not related in any way," Akabori said.
The space is simply decorated with brightly colored Japanesque banners, lanterns and textiles. It's all about the food here, and every dish is cooked to order and artfully presented, from the piping-hot ramen bowls to crispy tempura.
The menu can be overwhelming, especially if one is unfamiliar with Japanese cookery: sushi rolls, nigiri sushi, sashimi, bento-box lunches, udon and soba (noodle-soup bowls), don (also known as donburi: meat, eggs or vegetables over rice in a bowl), various combinations, a dozen side dishes and daily specials. For the uninitiated, the menu can cause the eyes to cross. I suggest going slow, reading thoroughly and asking questions even though the answers might be brief.
The prices quoted are lunch prices. The menu is the same but prices are a little higher for dinner.
On a recent visit, yosenabe ($15.50) was a steaming bowl loaded with chunks of salmon, shrimp, oysters, scallops, chicken, vegetables, tofu, yam noodles, etc., cooked in a fragrant, flavorful miso broth. It took a good five minutes for the bowl to cool enough to dig into. Meanwhile, subtle flavors wisped upwards, firing the appetite.
The tofu was wonderfully fluffy, almost marshmallow-like minus the sweetness. The fish was fresh, but the oysters had that intense, overly briny jarred taste. Still, they were easy enough to push aside.
The sushi roll combo ($7.25) included a hot bowl of miso soup and mini rice cakes stuffed with beans. I chose two each of the California rolls (crab, avocado and cucumber), kappa rolls (cucumber) and tekka rolls (tuna). Sauces, wasabi and pickled ginger accompanied. Overall, Tokyo Subway offers about 20 sushi rolls to choose from.
The ingredients for the various sushi rolls were assembled and quickly shaped, stuffed into seaweed sheets (nori), compressed with a bamboo mat and then sliced with surgical precision by Akabori. The sushi rolls were colorful, mouthwatering, clean and distinctive.
I loved the tempura that showed up in many of the combination plates. The deep-fried batter crisped the vegetables without leaving an oily residue. Some of the vegetables melted in the mouth; others needed minimal chewing. The near-weightless shrimp and scallop tempuras were my favorites.
The Subway combo lunches ($8.95-$10.25, depending on choice of ingredients) came with miso soup, a crisp but undistinguished salad and Velcro-sticky rice. I chose the chicken cutlet ($8.95), which was panko-crusted and feather-light. Panko breadcrumb makes superior fried foods, especially chicken. Other choices included pork, chicken teriyaki, beef, salmon and fried-oyster variations.
My favorite repast was the Deluxe Bento Lunch ($14.95). Bento is, simply, a complete meal for one. There are different types of bento and Tokyo Subway serves the meal in the most traditional way: in a compartmentalized lacquerware box.
Each bento order comes with miso soup, salad, rice, shrimp and vegetable tempuras. Then, one chooses among sashimi or sushi rolls, chicken, beef, pork, salmon, fried oyster or gyoza (pot stickers). Whatever the choice, it is a charming meal, beautifully presented and delicious to eat.
The restaurant offers a half-dozen sakes, chilled or warm; Japanese beers, red, white and plum wine and the usual assortment of beverages.
Tokyo Subway is not intended as elegant dining but the food is fresh and vibrant with a comforting homemade appeal. With 25 years at the same location, there is a loyal following. Orders are quickly and skillfully prepared, and watching the Akaboris in action adds bonus pleasure.
My wish is that they would reorganize the menu, making it easier to understand and to better define some of the dishes — especially for those unfamiliar with the nuances of Japanese cuisine.
605 Santa Cruz Ave.,
Hours: Lunch: Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Saturday-Thursday 5:30-9 p.m.; Friday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: sake, beer, wine
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: low
Bathroom cleanliness: good