A good dish of barbecued eel can fix just about any ailment. But, failing relief, you can always pass the time trying to figure out what it is, exactly, that eel tastes like. I’ve heard people say it tastes like chicken. I’ve even heard it compared to a honey-barbecued riblet.
A well-prepared unadon or eel bowl revolves around unagi (freshwater eel) cooked kabayaki style (filleted, deboned and grilled with a sweet basting sauce) and placed on a bed of sticky rice. Unagi is a popular summer dish in Japan, rather like our American penchant for grilled burgers and dogs when the weather warms up.
Light and Healthy Mirai Express makes unadon with an ample portion of eel, rice and avocado-cucumber garnish. Eel can be pretty pricey, but their fine version barely dents a diner’s wallet at $6.95.
The past five years have seen four restaurants in this particular storefront on Harvard between Central and Silver. I wasn’t wild about the last three. It seemed like a damn shame that such a perfect spot in the University area hadn’t produced an eatery with some staying power, so I had high hopes for the new guys on the block.
Lunch here was terrific, and my two illustrious dining companions, new Alibi intern Maren and super-boss Laura, seemed to agree.
I just had to get a bowl of tropical fruit-flavored shaved ice ($2.50). It proved to be a good call, as we were all panting and sweaty when we got there. I felt like a kid again scooping neon-green shaved ice into my grill. The three of us slurped down most of the stuff with battling spoons.
We ordered the san sai soba ($5.95) for an appetizer. The menu description hooked us: A large bowl of cold buckwheat noodles with “Japanese mountain vegetables.” Upon my return the next day for dinner (yeah, it was that good) I inquired about the mysterious veggies.
Owner Lily Genka told me the delicate greens and tiny mushrooms had no literal translation, but they were “wild, organic and very healthy.” The noodles were superb for a light lunch, and I was still combing through the leftover soy-based sauce long after the rest of lunch had arrived.
We all had traditional bento box lunches ($7.95 each). Each came with miso soup; salad; steamed rice; a choice of shrimp and vegetable tempura, California rolls or sashimi; and an entrée choice of chicken karaage (fried chicken strips with a hint of ginger), chicken teriyaki, sesame chicken, tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), or vegetarian tempura and veggie sushi.
The bento boxes made for a satisfying lunch—to the point where none of us could finish everything before throwing in the napkin. The miso soup was notably more robust than much of what I’ve had in town. The sashimi was no cop-out, either. We were each given four thick slices of fresh, raw fish—salmon and maguro tuna, both tender and sea-licious. Our salads had a creamy, light dressing on them. Although my pork cutlet was rather dry, the velvety, aubergine-colored dipping sauce was tangy and tasty as all giddyup. There was even an orange slice in one of the tray's little compartments for dessert.
The next evening’s eel dinner came after one of those long, crappy days that made me question my sanity. Just the simple task of chewing the rich, sweet bites of sea-meat seemed to make the day worth enduring. I loved the way they put a little extra sauce on the rice and sprinkled it with sesame seeds before laying the smoking-hot filets on top. The bits of sliced avocado were a fantastic complement to the glutinous steamed rice and savory sauce.
And I wasn’t broke. By all rights, eel this good should probably cost two or three times as much as I paid. I mentally re-routed my commute to give myself access to this restaurant for takeout. Eel is cheaper than therapy, and if you throw in some Japanese mountain vegetables, it's also an excellent source of fiber.
The Alibi Recommends:
• Bento box lunch
• Cold soba noodles with mountain vegetables
• Unadon (grilled eel bowl)
• Lily says, "In July there will be menu changes like more fish and sushi selections.”
Light and Healthy Mirai Express, 120 Harvard SE, 265-5436. Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Sat. noon-8 p.m. Closed Sun. Price range: inexpensive. No smoking, booze pending, credit cards accepted, patio.