[Hole in the Wall] Bowled Over on Balboa at Macksan's Cafe

Who’s the Macksan’s?

Bawdy Balboa: What happened to you? I haven’t visited in years, and you’ve changed quite a bit—for the worse. Your many USC flags seem worn, your sidewalks barren, the mom-and-pop businesses increasingly replaced by places better-suited for Corona del Mar (I’m looking at you, Segway Orange County). I last stopped by during lunchtime on a brisk, sunny February day that belonged on a post card—and yet I saw few indicators that the beach bums, coffin-dodgers and tourists of your past were still around.

Actually, I only saw one: at Macksan’s Cafe, near the Pavilion and the last remnants of the Balboa Fun Zone. It was around 12:30 p.m., and an Andy Samberg look-alike dragged his Jewfro up to the counter of this Japanese restaurant. “Hello?” he mumbled to the kitchen, where the owner/chef was busily preparing my beef curry. The sleepyhead stood for a minute in his T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops before a woman came out with his to-go order. He paid, offered thanks, and then went off to undoubtedly eat and snore anew.

I’m not sure how long Macksan’s has been around, but I first noticed it by accident among the sea of Italian bistros, pizza spots and breakfast joints on the peninsula. It’s the only purely Japanese restaurant around. While it’s nothing along the lines of Kappo Suzumaru or any of Takashi Abe’s outposts, don’t think the owners have watered down their cuisine for gaijins. Here exist robust udons—five of them—ranging from a simple su to a tempura udon in which fried meets scalding in a union of fatty heaven. Forget cereal, and instead try a true breakfast bowl: oyakodon, egg, chicken and green onions mixed, then placed over rice (they also sell one made with katsu). It seems like a simple dish, but this version is worthy of a Tokyo streetside stand.

You’ll also find standards for the old-money Balboa crowd: fine teriyaki bowls, a dozen or so sushi rolls, along with an acceptable, though uninspired, nigiri selection. But if I’m ever in the area, and I don’t want to gorge on oyakodon, I’m sticking with the curries. Japanese curry is an obsession of mine, and Macksan’s satiates it: thick but not clumpy, sweet with a bit of spice, the type of sauce that you pool the last remnants onto the center of your plate in hopes of tasting another little concentrated bit. Thrown onto white rice, Macksan’s curry is unassuming but charming, like the Balboa of yore, the Balboa of memories.

Macksan’s Cafe, 712 E. Balboa Ave., Newport Beach, (949) 675-8659.




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