Spaghetti turning Japanese in Vancouver

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      Feeding the beast—otherwise known as Vancouver’s insatiable appetite for Japanese cuisine—has not come without its hits and misses. Waves of Japanese culinary trends have washed over our city. Many have taken root, such as okonomiyaki, ubiquitous sushi, and now ramen. Others have surged in and just as quickly receded.

      Sanuki Udon, Vancouver’s first stand-alone udon shop, opened in the fall of 2015 but has already closed. Yoshoku, or Japanese takes on western diner-style dishes, appeared in the form of trendy Ping’s and the West End’s Barefoot Cafe, but it never became a full-fledged phenomenon and those establishments have since washed away.

      That said, there is a Japanese food style that has quietly established itself in our city and combines both noodles and yoshoku. Yes, food believers, although it’s not necessarily a culinary trend, Japanese spaghetti has found a cult following.

      You won’t find it on the menus of most Japanese restaurants around town, but there are some places that do serve it.

      One of them—the laid-back Café de l’Orangerie in Marpole—offers several Japanese spaghetti dishes alongside other yoshoku entrées, such as Japanese curry, korokke (croquettes), ponzu-sauce hamburger steak, chicken nanban, and doria (baked rice and vegetables).

      The casual and cozy atmosphere, coupled with reasonable prices and generous portions, attracts young families and weekend brunchers to this South Vancouver spot tucked away in a strip mall.

      The pasta-menu options read almost like a Japanese home cook’s endearing, earnest attempts to make western homestay guests feel at home, with increasing degrees of experimentation, interpretation, and even that most delicious ingredient: eccentricity.

      Pasta options range from more traditional dishes, like spaghetti carbonara and creamy tomato spaghetti to seafood-oriented concoctions, such as masago creamy spaghetti (with squid, mushroom, roe, asparagus, and cream), all $9.80 each. Then there are the mashup comfort-food curiosities, like hashed-beef-stew creamy spaghetti and hamburger steak ($13.80)—just like Mom never used to make.

      A generous serving of wafu-style spaghetti ($9.80), which came with mushroom, garlic, bacon, and cabbage, topped with nori (dried seaweed) and bonito flakes (dried tuna), was a tasty twist on Italian pasta, though it leaned toward the oily side and the bonito flakes do have a sharp fish flavour.

      Café de l’Orangerie doesn’t specialize in Japanese spaghetti, but there is a West End location that does. Spaghetéi is a chain that originated in Aomori, Japan, in 1975.

      The cozy premises, featuring a mix of Asian and western décor, are clean and quaint. Much of the charm comes from the staff: highly attentive, extremely courteous, and ever so sweet.

      All of their dishes come with complimentary garlic French bread. Surprisingly, it has a green tinge to it, thanks to a coating of spinach, along with maple syrup, butter, and—of course—garlic.

      Seafood lovers have a few dishes to pick from.

      On one occasion, I took along someone well-versed in Japanese cuisine—my mother—who tried the mentaiko dish. She was pleased to be able to discern umeboshi (pickled plum-apricots) within the mélange of flavours. The mushy texture of the marinated roe may turn off those unaccustomed to it, but the nori adds an attractive saltiness alongside the mushrooms.

      An appealing brunch option is the egg and marinated shrimp with just the right amount of shoyu (soy sauce).

      The dish with the strongest and most accessible flavour for western Japanese-food lovers is the barayaki plate ($13), which they describe as the “traditional food of Aomori”. The entrée offers noodles, pan-fried beef, and onions, all lightly coated in teriyaki-style sauce. The mix of Asian saltiness and western ingredients makes it taste more akin to Malaysian or Singaporean noodle dishes than spaghetti.

      If you think these food combinations are odd, consider what Asian people must think when they see North American sushi rolls for the first time—sushi turned inside out, to boot.

      And, yes, vegetarians have options too. There’s the salad spaghetti ($11) featuring egg, radishes, peas, tomatoes, and other vegetables, all in a house-made dressing. There are also side orders such as the mushroom salad ($7.80, or $4.80 for the small size) and tofu with mentaiko sauce drizzled on top ($4.30).

      What is great is that there are options to accommodate all appetites: each dish can be downsized to a smaller plate (one dollar off) or upgraded to a larger one (one dollar more). Easy.

      If you think you don’t have room for dessert, think again. The powder-snow milk syrup ($4.50) is a fascinating curiosity. The shaved frozen milk, topped with either raspberry, matcha, or blueberry sauce, melts in your mouth just like real snow, leaving behind only a milky, sugary flavour, and almost nothing to actually swallow. It’s perfect for washing away the saltiness on a stomach full of pasta. My dining companion was perplexed by its novelty as he tried to figure out what to make of it.

      What’s more, happy hour isn’t just on weekdays but operates seven days a week from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., offering discounted prices on dishes, drinks, and desserts. Selected main dishes are $9.80 each.

      While Japanese spaghetti may not become something that appears on most menus, you can enjoy it while it lasts. As they say in Japanese, buon appetito!

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