“If you were trying to make sure nobody could find your restaurant, you might hide it here,” I remarked to my wife as we arrived at a pleasant little café in south Redondo. Obviously some people do find BamBiBu and the adjacent dry cleaners, but it’s a mighty odd place for any business – invisible from the street in the back of a parking lot behind the Albertson’s grocery store, Buca di Beppo, and a line of other small businesses. They’re obviously not depending on walk-by traffic, though people who park in adjacent lots may stop by just to see what is going on in the long-vacant space that was once Nancy’s Coffee Shop.
The sign announcing “Japanese Cuisine and Noodle” will give them some useful information, though the name is a bit of a puzzler. When I asked one server she said it was untranslatable, while another smiled and explained, ”Like Bambi, the Disney character, but a pig.” My guess is that there’s a pun in here that would be hilarious if I spoke Japanese, but not something I’m going to comprehend any time soon.
No pictures of cuddly pigs in evidence – the restaurant is sparsely decorated except for a windowsill topped with hundreds of little origami sculptures that customers have made from the paper on their chopsticks. The walls are so bare that one might think they just opened, but they have been serving since April so it is evidently an artistic decision.
The menu is short but still a bit confusing – the soups have almost identical ingredients except for the broth base, and the differences are not immediately apparent. Luckily our server spoke fluent English and helped out, so any confusion was quickly laid to rest. Besides soup there are the fried stuffed Japanese dumplings called gyozas, some sushi items and starters, and a few combination plates with fried pork or chicken and traditional side dishes.
Gyozas are like Chinese wontons and Korean mandu: triangular dumplings traditionally filled with pork, onion, and whatever vegetables are culturally appropriate. They are sometimes steamed, sometimes fried on one or both sides, and when fried on only one side are called potstickers. The Koreans and Chinese usually prefer their versions with a thick rice dough skin, while the Japanese prefer them thin.
BamBiBu makes its gyozas with a very thin, almost crêpe-like skin, and offer four fillings, all involving heirloom Berkshire pork, also known as Kurobuta. The regular gyoza is filled with pork, cabbage, brown and green onion, chives, and seasoning; the “Stamina” gyoza has added garlic; the spicy version hot sauce and red pepper; and the ebi shiso adds shrimp and minty herbs. They are made when you order them, which gives them incomparably better texture and flavor but also means that when the kitchen is busy it may take some time until you get them. On my first visit we had them within ten minutes – on the second it took more like thirty – so if you are in a hurry, ask the server how long they will take before ordering. I brought a book with me the second time so it wasn’t a problem, but had I been on a tight schedule it would have been disastrous.
I was very happy with the product both times – the gyoza had been steamed and then fried on only one side so that it was half crisp and half soft, and the full-flavored pork and vegetable mix was delicious. The garlic was used in moderation and didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients, and we found them delightful.
On that first visit we also ordered seaweed salad and an appetizer of chashu meshi – a northern Japanese specialty of rice flavored with soy sauce and tossed with green onion and the Japanese version of Chinese chashu pork. This pork did not have the bright red glaze and candy sweetness of Chinese chashu; it was a more nuanced version and much more tender. We were to find that Japanese chashu is a mainstay in the soups and noodles at this restaurant, but we didn’t mind because it was delicious and served in different enough settings to bring out subtleties in each dish.
The seaweed salad wasn’t what we expected – instead of just marinated shredded seaweed we were served a lettuce leaf topped with artfully arranged cucumber, a small sliced tomato, and a pile of seaweed on top. It was a charming and tasty arrangement, though the portion was a bit small for the price.
Our main courses were a bowl of ramen noodle soup in miso-based broth and a tonkatsu set – a breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice, miso soup, a knot of shredded daikon radish, and a small cabbage salad. The set is a standard Japanese dish and judged on execution rather than innovation –BamBiBu gets an A for the crisp breading, pretty presentation, and overall good taste.
The noodle soup is what this restaurant has become famous for, and with good reason – they set a standard here that is hard to equal outside a Japanese neighborhood. The broth is intense and slightly oily as the Japanese like it, the noodles lightly done so they have some give when you chew them. The flavors were very well balanced, though I would have liked more chashu – there were three modest pieces, and the flavor was good enough that I wanted more.
We were quite sated when we finished our dinner, and the price was modest – under $50 for two, including tip. I enjoyed it enough to return a few days later for lunch, when I ordered ebi shiso gyozas and a bowl of the spicy miso ramen. The wait for gyozas was long but worth it – the minty shiso herb was delightful with the pork, shrimp, and vegetables. The presentation was unusual – instead of chopping the shrimp they were left whole with the tails outside, which I took as an invitation to regard them as finger food. I could have easily made a light meal of these and a salad, and enjoyed a great lunch for under twelve bucks.
The spicy ramen was a surprise because it was really spicy and multidimensional – most Japanese dishes aren’t very hot and have a simple red pepper hotness when they are. This had layers of flavor and assertive pepper blended with the miso – my forehead was sweating and my tongue was happy.
The prices at BamBiBu are modest, the service friendly if a bit slow. If you are willing to put up with some of the little annoyances of dining at an authentic ethnic establishment, like oblique menu descriptions and occasional service delays, it’s a delightful and completely authentic experience.
BamBiBu is at 1550 South PCH in Redondo, in the back of the parking lot. Open 11:30 – 2:30 and 5:30 – 9:30 Tue-Fri, 11:30 – 9:30 Sa-Su. No alcohol served, children welcome, wheelchair access good. Phone 310-540-5288.