Authentic Japanese Eats at Temari Cafe in Rockville

Temari Cafe at the Talbott Center in Rockville, Md., is a small, locally owned restaurant that serves a variety of home-style Japanese dishes, including: sushi and sashimi, ramen, rice bowls, Japanese curry and street snacks. I’m writing about it because it has become one of my favourite food places of late.

Ironically, I was less than impressed during my first visit here. Not knowing what to order, buddy Will had suggested the omelette (with some kind of meat) and ketchup over rice dish. It seemed too basic, un-Japanese and far too pricey for eggs, meat, ketchup and rice. Will insisted repeatedly that this is “authentic,” the kind of food that people living in Japan ate regularly. Really? I hadn’t been to Japan yet. I couldn’t help thinking, if this is so, then their nutritional balance is way off. No greens at all, heavy on the overly processed carbs (white rice,) and of all things, ketchup??? Yuck. I did go back a second time months later and had a sushi bento box. It was much better than the first meal, but not enough for me to be a regular. In fact, I didn’t eat at Temari again for a couple of years.

What drew me back there recently is the fact that every time I drive past at meal times, there’s ALWAYS a crowd waiting for seats. And they’ve survived the economy despite their high menu prices and Japanese dishes that are “too authentic,” as Tyler Cowen would describe it. I just had to give it another whirl. This time, I found dishes that I DID like. Hurray!

Temari’s takoyaki is absolutely delicious when it’s fresh and hot. It’s a popular street snack in Japan. Think of it as a savoury pancake ball filled with small chunks of octopus. The outside is slightly crispy, and inside is soft and doughy until you bite into some chewy octopus pieces. The sauce they drizzle over it hints of vinegar, giving an extra kick; salty bonito flakes take the flavour level up another notch. At $5.95 for an order of four takoyaki, you’ll forgive me for not ever wanting to share.

Grilled mackerel is another personal favourite at Temari. So juicy and tasty! A slight sear on the outside adds a crispiness to the texture. However, there could be a tendency for this appetizer to be inconsistent. It didn’t seem quite as fresh (was a bit fishy) the second time I ordered this. Or maybe it wasn’t the best cut of the mackerel, as I had to fish out (pun unintended) small bones. Consider yourself warned!

Tonkatsu ramen — I was excited to see this on their menu. Ramen shops are rare in this area. It was good, but not the greatest. The broth is mild, pork slices a little too small and too fatty. But because I’m partial towards noodle soup dishes, the bowl was emptied.

I liken Japanese curry to a very thick stew. It’s not spicy at all, so for me, I’d order it if I wanted a hearty comfort meal. My friends who ordered the dish thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the fried pork cutlet, carrots and potatoes in curry gravy. It came on a giant white plate with a side of rice and pickled red radish.

It’s not just the food that draws crowds to this little cafe. Wood-panelled floors, a shelf filled primarily with anime books, kitschy toy decor and a wall clock with an octagonal face and a pendulum makes you feel like you’re sitting in someone’s dining room, eating a home-cooked meal. Not everyone will be charmed by this, especially with the prices they charge.

It’s refreshing to eat at a no-frills restaurant that serves up good, Japanese comfort eats. There are way too many fancy sushi bars that overload on fancy corporate gimmicks. Temari has none of that. They offer no coupons or Groupons. There are no seasonal menus with silly names, just an old-fashioned white board and a handful of specials handwritten on copy paper and posted along the interior walls. It doesn’t even have a website or Facebook page. You just have to know this place and come here often to enjoy their specials.
Authentic, sticks to what they’re good at and gimmick-free, allowing patrons to focus on the food itself. That’s just how I like my eating out experiences. Note that they are CLOSED on Tuesdays!

Temari Japanese Cafe
1043 Rockville Pike
Rockville, MD 20852
(301) 340-7720
Hours: Mon, Wed-Fri 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.; Mon, Wed-Fri 5 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.; Sat-Sun 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.

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