To celebrate my dad’s birthday last month, my family and I made our way to Mitsuba Japanese Cuisine for dinner. At first glance, Mitsuba might not seem like the ideal place for a celebratory meal. The small restaurant is tucked away next to Applebee’s and Tops on Triphammer Road, where another Japanese restaurant went out of business a few years ago.
However, despite the fake bamboo, floral wallpaper, and cheap-looking tables and chairs, Mitsuba is not your typical Japanese restaurant. In fact, to call it simply a Japanese restaurant does not do justice to the food offered there, which includes some of the best Szechuan dishes you can find in Ithaca. Mitsuba even serves some Korean and southeast-Asian style dishes.
Mitsuba has two menus. The first is the Japanese one that is featured on Mitsuba’s website and offers a wide variety of fairly standard Japanese dishes, including teriyaki, udon, and dozens of types of sushi. The second menu, which offers strongly-flavored Szechuan dishes like potatoes in vinegar sauce, frog legs, and spicy mapo tofu, is sometimes available only on request, even though it is what makes Mitsuba special.
We ordered enough dishes to make our meal into a feast. As we waited for our food to come, we ate complimentary peanuts and some kind of pickled vegetable. My parents also went to get free salad from the small salad bar identified by a makeshift sign of neon paper hanging in the back.
The first dish that came was our sweet potato roll sushi. The sweet potato had been dipped in tempura batter and fried, which made it wonderfully crispy. The sushi came in a good-sized portion that the four of us were able to share. My only complaint was that the sweet brown sauce drizzled over the sushi seemed unnecessary and distracting.
The next dish that came, the spicy cold Szechuan noodles, was my personal favorite. The soft noodles were covered in a spicy sesame sauce with plenty of crushed peanuts and chopped cilantro, which made the dish balanced and exciting.
My brother and my dad also ordered Korean-style chicken wings and twice-cooked pork. Upon sinking his teeth into one of the heavily battered, deeply golden-brown chicken wings, my dad loudly declared, “This is the best fried chicken I have ever eaten!” My dad and brother found the thick, fatty pieces of pork belly in the twice-cooked pork dish to be a little too decadent, though they were still glad that they had ordered it.
Finally, we had cabbage in vinegar sauce and a spicy tofu skin dish. The cabbage in vinegar sauce came as a steaming plate of sour, slightly spicy napa cabbage, and while a pile of soft cabbage might not sound like the most appealing thing to eat, I enjoyed the flavor of the vinegar sauce and the texture of the cabbage, which was cooked perfectly. The tofu skin seemed strange to me at first; the pieces were tan and flat with a rough surface from having been pressed, and they were cut into small parallelograms. However, I soon found their chewy texture to be deeply satisfying, and the perfect medium for the sauce, which carried the delicious, distinctive flavors of Szechuan peppercorns and a well-seasoned wok.
We left Mitsuba feeling very full, carrying plenty of leftovers, and congratulating ourselves on having chosen to go there for my dad’s birthday meal.
Despite its tacky decor and slightly depressing location, Mitsuba is a great place to go with friends and family when you want delicious, unique food. Mitsuba is an especially good option for people who live in the Northeast area who want to be able to get good food without going all the way downtown. I recommend going with other people so that you can try a variety of dishes, but the great thing about Mitsuba is that it has something for everyone, whether you prefer Chinese food or Japanese food, meat or vegetarian options, spicy or mild seasonings, or familiar or unusual dishes.