You won't see any English signage to indicate you've found Gyutan Tsukasa or any warning that what you're about to eat is beef tongue. If you're unfamiliar with it and don't know it's from Sendai, Japan—one of the first beef tongue specialists from that region to come stateside—you would only be able to deduce that this newest stall at Costa Mesa's Mitsuwa Marketplace food court cooks some sort of barbecue. All but a few of the paper and cloth banners hung, taped and plastered on it are scrawled in drippy Japanese script. The only English is seen on a set of three paper scraps glued under the "Open" sign. What it says—"beautiful skin," "healthy" and "collagen"—reads like the worst possible clues to a riddle you never asked to solve. These, for the record, are the purported medical benefits of consuming beef tongue.
So why would you want to eat beef tongue? Because it is wonderful. Set aside any qualms you may have about what it is because beef tongue is beef. If you can chomp on a burger or cut into a steak, you would be a hypocrite to turn your nose at tongue. And there may not be a better way to have it in Orange County outside taquerías and yakiniku restaurants than at this food court.
Placed strategically behind a window so everyone can see in, the white-hot coal brazier and the meat roasting on its grates lure you in. It's tended by a guy wearing a terry-cloth towel on his head and using long, wooden chopsticks to flip and prod the pieces over the smoldering heat. The man works in small batches. Once in a while, he plucks off one or two that have attained brownness, then piles the gyutan onto a waiting plate. He promptly replaces the empty spots on the grill with more meat he peels off from a raw, bloody block the size of a boulder. If this were an outdoor food court, the smoky aromas snaking out of his hibachi would tickle every nostril within a half-mile radius.
Gyutan Tsukasa at Mitsuwa Marketplace, 665 Paularino Ave., Costa Mesa, (714) 434-1023; www.gyutan-tsukasa.co.jp. Open daily, 11 a.m.- 8:30 p.m. Lunch for two, $15-$28; cash only. No alcohol.
You have exactly four options: a bento-box lunch set bundled up with paper that's to be carried away as takeout; a platter of fanned-out beef tongue, served with a side of soup and rice; a curry plate with a sea of gravy; and a deluxe meal set in which you get a little bit of everything, including a mucilaginous saucer of grated yam called tororo.
There is, however, only one rule to consuming gyutan: Eat it as soon as you can. The meat—cut to pieces no bigger or thicker than a matchbook and scored on both sides so they don't curl up during cooking—is at its optimum texture and flavor within the first five minutes. If you let it cool to room temperature, its high-fat content and latent qualities turn it into a rubbery sliver that'll inevitably remind you of where it came from. But if eaten hot, its concentrated beefiness rivals a marbled rib-eye, and its resiliency is closer to a properly cooked calamari steak than a filet mignon. This is beef at its most primal, seasoned with a little salt and white pepper—and not much else but the smoky imprint of imported Japanese coal.
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No matter what meal option you order, every serving comes with a wad of lightly brined mustard greens and a pungent serving of spicy, miso-laced pickles. The rice that accompanies it is studded with barley, and together with the condiments, they are as essential to the beef tongue experience as the bun and mustard are to a hot dog.
It's probably best to stick with the grilled gyutan than opt for the curry. The gravy Gyutan Tsukasa simmers pales when compared to that of the undisputed curry king of this food court—its next-door neighbor, Miyabi-Tei. Eaten side-by-side, you notice how much brighter and peppier Miyabi's curry sauce is. By comparison, Gyutan Tsukasa's is woefully flavor-deprived, but even its salad and red-tinged pickles seem duller and more drab. A bowl of broth Gyutan Tsukasa pours with a few of the meals also tastes more of the sliced green onions than anything else. The meat floating in the soup—long-cooked hunks that are also used for the curry—are spongy, soulless pieces of nothing, everything the freshly grilled beef tongue isn't.
Gyutan Tsukasa's menu continues to expand. It plans to offer gyutan bowls and other new items in the future. But I think everything it needs is already here: meat, fire and tongue-on-tongue action.