Sakura Cha Ya
2810 Harbor Boulevard, suite B9
Ventura County is not short on unique culinary options, but when it comes to international cuisine, there are few that are authentic down to the ethnic ancestry. Mind you, that attribute isn’t a necessity in restaurants, but at such places the offerings seem to reflect a certain understanding of the cuisine that may be lost in U.S. translation. And so, my companion and I ventured to an eatery off the beaten path, to Sakura Cha Ya.
It was a Saturday afternoon when we wandered into Harbor Landing at the corner of Harbor and Channel Islands Boulevards at Channel Islands Harbor. The outside seems like any casual food court, but on the inside, it needs some clear TLC. In one corner is a gutted stall of a former eatery and the seating area is ordinary and lackluster, but these issues really don’t matter. Catty-corner at the Fisherman’s House is a curious and wondrous display of fresh seafood — alive and swimming around in saltwater tanks, including sheepshead, spot prawns and rock crabs. Fisherman’s House offered most of its dishes battered and deep fried. What was seemingly low in quality for ambience, however, is made up in the quality of the food and the relatively low cost of it.
There are three menus at Sakura Cha Ya; one is posted overhead and the others are in two binders on the counter. As we perused the menus, there were some familiar dishes, including ramen and udon noodle dishes. Others, less familiar, included sukiyaki, oyakodon and takoyaki, plus several more enticing exotic options that made me rather indecisive, given my propensity to explore the unusual.
For our orders, we chose the octopus takoyaki, nabeyaki udon and katsudonburi, the last two dishes came out first and the latter, which I presumed was an appetizer, came out last, which was all fine anyhow.
The katsudoburi is a sweeter dish with pork cutlets battered and fried similar to crispy fried chicken. The batter was a bit salty but not overly so, the fried cutlets then tossed and fried in an egg. It came served atop soft sticky white rice and grilled onions, accompanied with a small side salad with a rice wine vinaigrette and a small bowl of miso. For my companion, it was a heap of food that he couldn’t get to the bottom of regardless of how fast he ate it. Searching for a less meaty option, I chose the nabeyaki udon, though after receiving it, I realized it is served regularly in Japanese restaurants. Nevertheless, the dish was simply heartwarming and satisfying, served in a hot clay pot with rich savory broth, slippery and soft udon noodles, a slice of fish cake, a tempura-fried prawn soaking up the broth, sautéed spinach that needed several minutes to cool, a decent helping of slivers of green onions and thick slices of marinated shiitaki mushroom with a sweet kick.
My companion also ordered the onigri, a sticky rice ball, with smoked salmon. That was gobbled up in about two bites, with no complaints.
As our cashier multitasked taking a steady stream of customers’ orders while dressing the dishes before serving, we were still waiting for the takoyaki. But the cashier running the operation was simply so friendly and sincere, I couldn’t bring myself to complain about the poor timing, but rather, will that order be coming … anytime soon?
The apparent matriarch of the family-run business — around eight years at the Landing — stood in the hot kitchen over the pan — a cast-iron skillet? — quietly tending to the takoyaki. When we finally received our order, these fluffy pieces of dough, similar to doughnut holes, it was clear that she cooked with care. And it was certainly reflected in the precision of the cooking — soft, fluffy, not greasy, with a small chunk of mild octopus tentacle, the puffs lightly covered in mayonnaise and barbecue sauce — and I even fooled my companion into believing it was dessert after he tried it.
To round off this review, the cashier told me that her family is Japanese, which made me wonder about the importance of heritage when it comes to cooking the same dishes. Whatever the case, and really, at many places, it doesn’t matter, but it at least reflected a certain personal touch. One that I will definitely revisit.