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Robots and Pizza, Japanese Style

Yoshimatu's food is inexpensive and good. And its décor is insane.

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I can honestly say that I have never eaten at a place like Yoshimatsu.

I've been struggling with a proper way to describe the place. Here's the best I can do:

1. Take a small, counter-style Japanese food restaurant where you order at the counter and are expected to bus your own table--to the point that there's a sign on the way out asking if you've remembered to clear off your dirty dishes.

2. Throw in a sort of old West wooden décor, complete with a faux roof over the counter and enormous wooden booths.

3. Put different action figures and stuffed animals over the place, including some having what appears to be a battle on top of the faux roof.

4. Put a TV in the corner showing clips of all sorts of weird Japanese shows, some of which feature robots in the midst of serious emotional issues.

5. Add in a touch of Hello Kitty in the form of a defacto spokescat that appears on many of the small signs placed around the restaurant.

6. Play jazz music in the background (at least that was what was playing when I visited; it provided the robot saga with a surprisingly appropriate soundtrack).

7. Most importantly, include good, healthy Japanese food at a reasonable price.

That, my friends, sums up Yoshimatsu.

Weekly icon Jim Nintzel met me for dinner there on a recent evening. Jim suggested the place, as it's one of his favorites. After walking in and adjusting to the sheer weirdness of the décor, I was ready to order.

The restaurant has an expansive menu, nicely placed on the wall behind the counter. The offerings are hand-written on sticks of wood similar to small paint-stirrers, giving the operation a bohemian sort of appeal. The offerings include noodle soups, curry dishes, rice bowls, combination meals, hand rolls, desserts and numerous sides, along with an entire menu of vegetarian dishes. The restaurant's menu pledges that the tofu, carrots, eggs, soybeans and "a lot of vegetables" are organic, and that only canola oil is used.

As I was pondering the menu and wondering what in the hell was going on with the robot saga on TV, an employee walked out with a dish for another diner. It looked delicious. I was informed it was a "Japanese pizza." That made me stop pondering the menu; I ordered the shrimp pizza ($5.95). Jim decided on the salmon bento, or combination plate ($7.25). We also decided to split an order of curry chicken udon (soup, $5.50) and an order of gyoza, dumplings steamed with pork ($3.50). Jim wanted to be boring and got a soda to drink ($1.30), while I decided to be adventurous and ordered something called a maccha (ceremonial green tea) au laut ($3.30).

We sat down and started discussing work, the weird TV offerings and the various festive action figures. But our conversation was kindly interrupted by the arrival of the soup, the gyoza and my au lait.

As for the au lait: If you think you'll like steamed milk combined with green tea, like I thought I would, this drink is for you. If you don't think you will, get something else. It's that simple.

The soup was decent, but not spectacular. Carrots, mushrooms, green onions, potato, seaweed and a nice amount of chicken were present, but the curry flavor was extremely muted. I'd order it again, but I would ask them to bump up the curry flavor about five-fold. The dumplings--resembling what many would call pot stickers--were tasty, but nothing special.

The entrees were far more special. Jim's combo plate, served in a compartmentalized tray, was devoured quickly. Jim enjoyed the salad, sweet potato and sticky rice; he's not a fan of miso soup, so I enjoyed that for him. He was kind enough to offer me a piece of the charbroiled, cut salmon, which was perfectly cooked and pleasant. Café Terra Cotta, this ain't, as Jim pointed out. But, then again, Café Terra Cotta doesn't have ambiguous red stuffed animals decorating its walls, does it?

But the star of our meal was my pizza. Made from flour, cabbage, egg and shiitake soup, it looked like a mutant overgrown crabcake or something. Then, it was topped with barbecue sauce pickled ginger. This, my friends, was delicious. I will go back and order this many, many times. My only complaint: The several shrimp, which were supposed to be on top (according to the menu) were actually embedded whole in the pizza, meaning the shrimp were not distributed well. For the record, the pizzas are also offered with pork, sliced octopus and vegetable.

It was a strange, yet thoroughly enjoyable dining experience. If there's ever been a restaurant on the face of this Earth that could be described as "unique," this is it.

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