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December 16, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, December 16, 2005

Good Value Japanese Good Value Japanese (December 16, 2005)

Quick, budget-friendly meals available at Kamei Japanese House

By Elaine M. Rowland

I don't usually put the words "inexpensive" and "Japanese food" in the same sentence, but after a couple of meals at the decade-old Kamei Japanese House restaurant in Mountain View, I now know where to find some of Japan's best-known dishes without paying through the nose.

Kamei offers a host of different Japanese cooking styles-from barbecued (robata) to fried (tempura) to raw (sushi and sashimi), with portion sizes such that you can order several favorites -- like tempura, yakitori, teriyaki and sushi -- at one meal. And while the food may not be Michelin four-star, neither is the price tag.

Kamei's front room is a rather stark red, white, and salmon color with banquettes. There's also a sushi counter by the kitchen, but I prefer the more interesting booths toward the rear, demarcated by noren (Japanese curtains). Families, couples and singles all found plenty to enjoy, bent over their bentos or slurping down noodles. But before you go, brush up on your chopstick skills, because I didn't see a single fork.

Start with some appetizers, like crispy vegetable tempura, sliced onions, carrots and broccoli that are batter-dipped and fried into golden brown puffs. The tempura comes with a light soy-flavored dip ($3.95). Another staple of Japanese menus is yakitori, served here as two skewers of grilled chicken and green onions with sesame seeds and a thick dark sauce tasting of sake and soy. Both were tasty small dishes to get the mouth watering.

There are exceptions to the tapas-sized portions, and they include soft drinks (at $1.25, my Sprite was the size of a Big Gulp), and the piping-hot green tea, which came in manly-sized mugs. (Next trip I think I'll wade into a sake.) But along with the drinks, the udon bowls -- soups with fat, white noodles -- were huge, easily a full meal for one person. I tried both the seafood and the chicken bowls ($6.95 each), and preferred the chicken. The seafood had the usual thick, white noodles and cabbage, along with shrimp, white fish, and a cephalopod (not sure whether it was squid or octopus) in a simple beefy broth. But the chicken soup was better; made with cabbage, carrots, green onions, broccoli and smoky grilled chicken, it had a complexity the other soup lacked.

Since the test for any restaurant serving sushi is its tuna, I ordered the red tuna sashimi ($4.95), sliced and served raw, and prettily presented with pink pickled ginger and wasabi. Wasabi, if you're unfamiliar, is the green, paste-like mustard that shoots waves of heat straight into your nose. The tuna was pretty good -- tender, not squishy -- but was a tad fishy-tasting at one end. Still, it was nothing that couldn't be fixed with a little ginger and/or mustard. The dish was also served with daikon radish (which often comes pickled, but was plain in this case), providing a break from the intense flavors of the ginger and wasabi.

Since plain, raw fish isn't for everyone, Kamei also has a variety of maki, or rolled sushi, wrapping raw and cooked fish with other ingredients within seasoned rice and sheets of dried seaweed (nori). I tried the Philadelphia roll ($4.25), made of cream cheese, salmon, and avocado. This is a very creamy roll, and a combination not everyone is going to love. It was rolled with skill, and the ingredients tasted fine, but its gooey texture was too much for me, and I found it hard to taste the salmon.

If you go for lunch, you'll be served a bowl of miso soup, that curious broth with clouds of fermented soybean paste gravitating together in the center of the bowl. There's something oddly mesmerizing about pushing your spoon through it and swirling the particulates, like watching a lava lamp. This miso was just fine -- hot and flavorful, with some diced tofu and leafy seaweed-looking bits.

Also at lunch, Kamei offers specials in bento boxes ($6.95 for two item choices, and $9.95 for three), the lacquered, compartmentalized trays popular in Japan as lunch boxes. I chose the bento with five gyoza (pot stickers) and shrimp in spicy sauce. The shrimp were fried in a light tempura batter and drizzled with a hot red sauce which seemed skimpy at first but proved to be sufficient, given how hot it was. The batter was light and crispy without being greasy. The gyoza were fairly nondescript dumplings, but perked up in the dipping sauce that came with the lunch. The rest of the bento included rice and a crispy salad of iceberg, radicchio slivers, and carrot slivers.

Kamei specializes in quick Japanese food that's better than fast food -- like a Happi House but much more attractively presented, without costing a lot more. There's a huge variety of cooking styles and ingredients. And if the service is sometimes a little overeager to take your order and bring you the check, it's also prompt and pleasant. Takeout is also available.

INFORMATION: Kamei Japanese House, 240 Castro St. (between W. Dana and Villa), Mountain View, (650) 964-6990 Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 3 p.m. Open for dinner Saturday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., and Friday 5 to 10:30 p.m.

CHECKLIST: outdoor seating - no private lot or valet parking - no reservations - no credit cards-yes takeout-yes high chairs-yes alcohol-yes noise level-quiet bathroom cleanliness-decent

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