Groups of loyalist samurai also formed, dedicated to preserving the Tokugawa bakufu and the traditional social order. Among the most prominent of these groups was the Shinsengumi, a bakufu sanctioned militia over two hundred master swordsmen. Nicknamed the "Wolves of Mibu", the Shinsengumi acted as both a peacekeeping force and as assassins. Their steadfast devotion to the Shogun, even as their cause became more and more helpless, has made them cult heroes in modern Japan, and is epitomized by the popular tale of deputy leader Hijikata Toshizo's last days. Before riding off to a battle against revolutionary forces that he knew he could not win, Hijikata reputedly said, "I am not going to battle to win. With the Tokugawa government about to collapse, it would be a disgrace if no one is willing to go down with it. That is why I must go. I will fight the best battle of my life to die for the country." As he lay dying on the battlefield, Hijikata penned the following death poem, an old Japanese custom stretching back to their earliest recorded history:
Though my body may decay on the island of Ezo, my spirit guards my lord in the east.
According to their website, the modern day Shinsengumi Restaurant Group chose their name after deciding to adopt the original Shinsengumi's philosophy towards dedicated service, and to apply that philosophy towards serving the restaurant group's customers. Centered in Southern California, the group owns a number of traditional Japanese restaurants in Torrance, Gardena, and Fountain Valley. Shinsengumi Robata Yakitori in Fountain Valley is one of their most popular offerings, right around the corner from Shinsengumi Hakata Ramen, another of their popular locations.
A number of articles have already been written about the Shinsengumi Robata Yakitori dinner experience, including this one by my buddy Elmomonster. The food is consistently excellent and somewhat expensive. The atmosphere is raucously authentic, exactly like similar establishments in Japan. Step inside and you'll feel as if you've been whisked away to Tokyo.
What fewer people have covered is Shinsengumi's lunch service, which is a far cry from their dinner service. Lunching at Shinsengumi is like eating at an entirely different restaurant. Instead of the usual chaos, shouting, and rushing about, the wait staff is calm and welcoming. Since the robatayaki selections are limited to set items during lunch, the chefs are friendlier, and have more time to chat with customers as they cook.
Like any self-respecting salaryman, I'm always on the lookout for a good lunchtime bargain. The massive lunch sets at Shinsengumi Robata Yakitori offer considerable bang for the buck, and give the restaurant a much higher ROI during the day. This magnificent feast set me back $9.25, and is the most expensive of their lunch sets because it includes the Tenpura Udon. Most of their lunch sets run in the $6-8 range. You can also order ramen from their sister restaurant next door, since the two share a connecting walkway. This gives you a stunning variety of inexpensive and filling lunch options to choose from.
For me, one of the main lunchtime draws at Shinsengumi is their Tenpura Udon, which is amusing given that the restaurant specializes in grilled meat. The udon is classically prepared in a clear, light broth and served with two slices of kamaboko fish cake and a scattering of sliced green onions. The flavors are subtle, so I always kick them up a little with a generous dash of shichimi togarashi.
The real appeal of the Tenpura Udon lies in the fried food portion of the equation. Two large prawns and an assortment of sliced vegetables are dipped in a batter made with rice flour before being skillfully fried to a golden crisp. A quick dip in the tentsuyu sauce and grated daikon mixture provided, and you have a supremely Zen juxtaposition of salty, sweet, savory, and crunchy.
With such a large portion of excellent Tenpura Udon, the inclusion of a similarly large serving of Gyudon is gluttonously sinful. A large bowl of steamed rice is topped with a heaping helping of thinly sliced beef and onions, which have been simmered in a sweet, soy-based sauce. A garnish of Beni Shoga (pickled ginger) is the standard accompaniment, used to cut the sweetness of the sauce and the richness of the meat. It's deliciously simple and simply sublime, although too much sauce may be included for some.
You'd think that this lineup of power hitters would be enough to quell the rumblings of my appetite, but I fell victim to dumpling envy during my last visit and ended up ordering this half portion of gyoza. These dumplings were excellently done, with crispy skins, and juicy interiors. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten that I'm not particularly fond of Japanese gyoza. I find their pork, cabbage, celery, and carrot fillings to be too finely minced and lightly flavored for my tastes. I guess I'm just too used to the meatier, more flavorful Chinese versions. Gyoza lovers would be ecstatic over this offering. I, on the other hand, was mildly disappointed.
Shinsengumi Robata Yakitori - For a serene lunch in peaceful surroundings, come judge for yourself whether their commitment to service does justice to their legendary forbears. The food is good, the prices are excellent, and the helpings boggle the mind.
Bill (for one):
Tenpura Udon & Gyudon Set - 9.25
Gyoza (half order) - 3.25
Tax - 0.97
Tip - 2.00
Total - 15.47
Shinsengumi Robata Yakitori
18315 Brookhurst St., #1
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
For a complete list of the Shinsengumi Restaurant Group's other offerings, click here.