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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

On our birthdays, my sister and I could each choose one friend to join us for a celebration family dinner at the Robota of Japan, in a northwestern suburb of St. Louis County.  The entrance of Robota of Japan (now Kobe of Japan, but it matters not), was reached by riding an outside glass elevator to the twelfth floor of the building, and then entering its samurai-painted doors.

Robata of Japan, and its better-known Benihana cousins, is a classic “Japanese steakhouse,” with its teppanyaki tables ruled by rowdy, joke-telling, egg-spinning chefs who use knife blades and shakers of salt as percussion instruments, and create mini-volcanoes out of onion slices, cooking oil, and soy sauce.  They aim pieces of shrimp into the open mouths of diners, and make jokes about fingers lost to meat cleavers that occasionally terrify small children.

Photo courtesy of Eric Kayne, who did not catch a shrimp, either.

Japanese steakhouses are the inscrutable East made scrutable.  Most fashionable in the age when sophisticated Japanese electronics and automobiles had taken over American markets, these steakhouses offer a comfortingly accessible Japanese experience. The most authentic and adventuresome ingredient in their line-up is fresh ginger in the house salad dressing (and ranch is available, if you prefer). The entrees are all high-status protein: beef tenderloin, shrimp, scallops.  An iceberg lettuce salad adorned with chow mein noodles, a broth of nothing but MSG and scallion slices, and a side of sautéed zucchini and onions have remained consistent over decades, coast to coast. Like McDonald’s, it’s exactly the same wherever you are.

The Japan of these restaurants is not solemn, formal, or bound to mysterious and invisible hierarchies.  Our chef, Rico, was from Central America, and, when questioned about his training, said,  “They teach you to cook beef, but the rest, bing, bing, you’re on your own!  Once he learned the difference between medium-rare and medium, his repartee, his rodeo-of-the-range tricks were up to him to devise. His favorite exhortation was “SLAP, son!”, used for everything from landing a shrimp in Ascher’s mouth to cracking an egg exactly down the middle of his spatula.

At Japanese steakhouses, even the chopsticks are engineered to be more American.  The waitresses used to configure them into tongs by folding the paper wrapper between them and securing it with a rubber band.  Now they offer a cellophane-wrapped plastic form into which diners inserts their chopsticks and pinch their protein up accordingly. The sake is watery.  At Robota of Japan, the “scenic” views from Westport Plaza’s glass elevator and the large windows look out onto a dreary brownish-green expanse of highways and low river plains. It would be very difficult to have a multicultural experience at Robota of Japan.

But all are welcome there, the very young, the very old, and everyone in between.  The tables seat up to a dozen, so all parties smaller than that end up sharing their meals with strangers.  Everyone is always congenial, because everyone is there to mark some happy occasion.   These steakhouses are too silly for business or romance, and too loud for intimate conversation.  They are the setting for birthdays, anniversaries observed in the company of the in-laws, family celebrations of Mom’s new job.

I’ve begun to return to Robata of Japan for my birthday, which conveniently falls during our summer visits to St. Louis.  My parents humor me in this whim, and fondly remember our best friends of childhood who would join us–Miriam, Ali, Julie—and dresses we would wear.  My children are enraptured by the chef’s performance and the tiny paper umbrellas in their Shirley Temples and Roy Rogers.  As if that weren’t enough to send Ascher to heaven, he can get Chinese-style fried rice there, too.

This year, Ken got to be the best friend who came along with me for dinner.  Now, we all know by now Ken and I like our Asian food authentic.  Japanese food is no exception: he seeks out Pocky sticks when he can find them, and I actually like natto.  The very idea of going to a Japanese steakhouse for my birthday made Ken laugh until tears rolled down his cheeks.  But he came, and ordered the beef tenderloin.

After we finished, the bus-boy came and cleared away my dishes, and then Ken’s.  Ken looked up at the young man, and thanked him in Thai.  The bus-boy and I were both startled, and then Ken said something else.  The bus-boy smiled widely, broke into Thai, and both of them began to talk. This young man is earning his business degree at the University of Missouri, and works at the restaurant to help support himself.  He and some of his fellow Kobe of Japan workers live among the small Thai community in St. Louis, all three thousand of them.

The hostess, a native of Chiang Mai with a Burmese name, came to see where the Thai conversation was coming from, and we had the children greet her properly.  Ascher was delighted that someone in the United States fully appreciated that he was born in Thailand.  We left with a hand-written invitation, in Thai and English, to celebrate the Buddhist Lent the next day at a wat off of North Lindbergh Road, in some other distant suburb.  The children danced as they rode the scenic elevator down to the shopping plaza below.

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