I grew up in New York, so when you say delicatessen I think corned beef on rye and a pickle at Tiedemann’s Deli. My world has been turned upside down since the appearance of Delicatessen by Osawa, a new grab-and-go concept featuring Japanese bento boxes, salad bowls, donburi and more. Operated by the same folks as the excellent Osawa Restaurant on North Raymond Avenue, the new location has a sleek look, fast service and fresh, unique, healthy food.
I’ve asked everybody I know who’s been to Japan (myself included) if they’ve seen delis there. They all say no, but add that one can get prepared foods like rice balls (onigiri) and fried chicken (kara-age) at corner convenience stores, commonly known as conbini. Delicatessen may be California-friendly nomenclature, but I think it works.
Delicatessen by Osawa is perfect for the many office and retail workers near the corner of Cordova Street and South Lake Avenue. There’s a refrigerated grab and go section with pre-made poke bowls, sushi and prettily packaged bento boxes. The prices range from $7 to $15. It’s not exactly cheap, but the food, particularly the raw fish, is so much fresher than your average grocery store-bought product.
My poke bowl was irresistibly delicious — even though I was full I ate every bite, including each grain of the delicious, sweet rice. There’s something about the way Japanese chefs make their rice that gets me every time. I enjoy Persian rice, Thai and Indian rice, sometimes Korean rice, but Japanese rice is my all-time favorite, and Osawa gets it right. They have onigiri as well, shaped into thick triangles for easy transportation. I liked the warm salmon onigiri, but I think the sour plum rice ball might’ve been more fun.
The bento boxes with their half-dozen or so compartments are a veritable playground of flavors. My sister really enjoyed her Osawa Box with miso-glazed salmon, pickled lotus root and other tsukemono (pickled veggies), a few slices of spicy tuna roll, yummy rounds of thinly sliced pork nukimaki with asparagus tucked inside, and a fresh veggie salad.
It all went down quite well with their Grab & Go ginger green tea lemonade ($3.75). Or, if you’re into a milky, watery, slightly acidic beverage, grab a can of Calpico, widely loved in Japan. Finally, if you’re sticking around the pretty, orchid-filled dining area with modern furniture and lighting, there’s bottomless cucumber-lemon water available (the plastic cups are ridiculously small though).
Peruse their website for salad ingredients you’ve likely never heard of. I made a point to try everything I’d never had before: kinpira gobo (burdock root cooked in a sugar-soy sauce), konnyaku (a taro-like jelly), hijiki seaweed and kale, and quinoa ohitashi (literally “soaked”) in a dashi sauce. Go ahead, be daring — everything is delicate and pleasing to the palate, and though things may look unfamiliar, there are no alarming flavor surprises. As my sister put it, “It’s like a spa of food. I left with a happy belly.” Beware however: not everything on the web menu is available at all times. The deli dishes change depending on seasonality and availability.
For those wanting something a little more “California,” they offer chicken, salmon and tuna tataki salads on fresh greens ($9.50 to $12.50). The dressings, made from things like miso, yuzu and ginger-garlic, bring out the best in the fresh salad ingredients.
The prepared Japanese salads are all in a chilled display case and are dispensed by friendly servers behind the counter in portions of 2 ($6), 3 ($8) or 4 ($10). There is a hot display case as well with croquettes (typically potato and crab), pork katsu (panko-breaded cutlet) and chicken kara-age (fried chicken). I wasn’t too impressed with the croquette, but it’s not bad for a quick, warm snack.
For something more stick-to-your-ribs, try their excellent curry or donburi (rice bowls). Made famous at Osawa’s companion restaurant, you can score the Japanese curry at the deli for a few dollars less ($10.50 at the deli). It has a fabulous deep, earthy, complex flavor I couldn’t even attempt to deconstruct, but it must contain garam masala and perhaps red wine. This is my kind of umami. It comes with large chunks of beef and vegetable or with pork, chicken, dumpling or veggie.
They offer four donburi choices. Your rice bowl could be topped with soy glazed black cod (yum), sukiyaki or assorted seasoned vegetables, but I chose oyako don which literally translates as “parent and child.” When you realize its main ingredients are chicken and egg, it all makes sense. But there’s much more to this simmered concoction, like scallions, spices and a mirin-sake-dashi sauce, making it a true bowl of comfort food ($9).
Parking on the street is always a challenge, but there’s plenty of space in the underground lot just west of the restaurant on Cordova. They validate for one hour, so bring your ticket. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. In the 3 to 4 p.m. hour, you’ll see employees enjoying free, chef-prepared meals in the dining room amidst dozens of millennials of all ethnicities. It’s a cool place to hang out with an oolong tea and your smart phone.
Delicatessen by Osawa brings authentic Japanese street food to the lunch crowds of South Lake. Come in for a quick, nutritious bite, hang around a while with a bowl of something warm, or grab a bento box to take back to your desk. Just don’t come expecting corned beef on rye.
Delicatessen | by Osawa | 851 Cordova St., Pasadena | (626) 844-8788 | delicabyosawa.com | No Alcohol/Major Cards