While I was in Houston last year, I went to the place many credit as one of the first restaurants to popularize fajitas: The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation. It speaks to the impact of this eatery that I shouldn’t have to mention the fajitas were served on a sizzling skillet.
Thanks to this restaurant and others like it, by the late ’70s and ’80s, sputtering platters of seasoned protein and veggies became a fixture of every Tex-Mex restaurant worth its guacamole. The appeal of having your steak, chicken or shrimp delivered atop a searing cast-iron plate has become synonymous with the dish. It’s all about the danger and the theatrics, as well as the fact that what you’re about to eat will be kept as hot as it possibly can be. After you’ve had it like this, fajitas served any other way never tasted as good.
I thought about Ninfa’s as my sizzling platter of rice and beef arrived at the new Pepper Lunch in Irvine. Here, I thought, was another bellwether. The Japan-based chain has built an empire on serving all of its food on cast-iron plates heated to 500 degrees. It boasts more than a hundred outlets in Japan and branches all over Asia, but the Irvine store is its first in the U.S. And as soon as I saw the smoke, smelled the fumes and heard the sputter, I realized this concept has the potential to leave just as indelible a mark on our food culture as those pioneering souls who served sizzling fajita platters in Texas.
But here, the rocket-hot plates aren’t just for show. The raw beef—sliced thin and scattered around the outer periphery of my rice dome—actually hissed as it cooked on the hot iron. It’s said that the founder of the chain, Kunio Ichinose, conceived the idea in 1994 because he didn’t want to hire a chef to cook his food. The solution Ichinose devised begat the superheated cast-iron plates that have become synonymous with his brand.
It should be noted that a lot of thought went into those plates. They’re designed and patented specifically for use at Pepper Lunch restaurants. According to the website, they’re brought to temperature by special electromagnetic devices that accomplish the task in as little as a minute. And because of their thickness and high thermal efficiency, the plates are capable of keeping any food heated at 175 degrees for 20 minutes.
I can verify this claim: My lunch stayed hot for at least that long. And to prevent my elbows or fingers from getting cooked along with the beef, the plate came cuffed with a thin paper barrier that resembled the hats worn by In-N-Out fry cooks.
But as integral as those iron plates are to the experience, there are other components that are just as important. The vessels came slicked in butter in which the sliced meat practically fried. For the signature pepper rice plates, a nugget of seasoned pepper paste hid in between the grains. If you opt for the curry beef rice, there’s a morsel of curry paste that’s not unlike the bouillon cubes that start a typical Japanese curry dish. But no matter what pepper rice variant you order, the point is to mix all of it together to form a cohesive dish that’s something like fried rice. You can choose to ignore the two squirt bottles that hold a specially formulated garlic shoyu and a sweet sauce, but that would be a mistake.
Another mistake is to opt for any of the plates that doesn’t have rice. You could, for instance, spend $24 for a garlic-butter-topped rib-eye that comes with corn, carrots and green beans. But then it won’t be that much different from something you’ve had at other places that serve its steaks on super-heated plates.
Pepper Lunch also offers the option to upsize your meat portion by 50 percent for $2.50, or you can double it for only $4—but in my opinion, this is unnecessary. At first, the quantity of meat for the basic dish may look as if it’s not enough, but once I started mixing, I realized it was plenty. It helps to think of it, again, as fried rice, or maybe a hot stone pot bibimbap, or even paella, in which the meat is merely an agent of flavor. Besides, we all know the best part of those dishes is when the rice develops that perfect crusty bottom. Pepper Lunch’s searing-hot cast-iron plates all but guarantee it.
Pepper Lunch, 2750 Alton Pkwy., Ste. 101, Irvine, (949) 387 6290; ca.pepperlunch.us. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Entrées, $9.90-$23.90.
Edwin Goei was born on the island of Java, grew up in La Habra, studied in Irvine, and eats everywhere. Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, he went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.