Dec 30

Japan Fix: Tampa (Part 2)

By Steven Horowitz (Aichi-ken, 1992-94) and Lily Lam (Kagawa-ken, 2004-09)

If you read the previous Japan Fix:  Tampa post, then you know of some quality JET-recommended places in Tampa to get your Japan Fix on.   It turns out, however, there’s more to tell and Tampa is even Japanese-ier than previously thought.  You just have to know where to look.  (In our case, we were forced to look because the places listed in the previous Japan Fix:  Tampa post happened to be closed this past Monday thanks to the holidays.)

So read on for Japan Fix:  Tampa (Part 2):

Japanese Food

I Ai Sushi (as in, “I love sushi”) is a cozy Japanese restaurant with an izakaya section on their menu tucked away in a shopping mall on 33614 W. Waters Ave. that also features a Marshalls (aka America’s “Ito Yokado”) and an Albertsons.  Perhaps the Japanese-iest touch of all is their business card which, in true Japanese fashion, includes a crude yet cute map of the mall with an arrow pointing to where the restaurant is located. 

I had the good fortune to go with St. Petersburg native, uber-foodie and fellow alum Lily Lam (Kagawa-ken, 2004-09) who heard about the place from a friend whose mother happens to be Japanese.  (Notably, Lily actually lives and works in San Francisco these days.  We only got in touch when she responded for the JET-Sister City List Project and, in the course of e-mailing, we realized we would both be in the Tampa-St. Pete area for Christmas.)

I Ai Sushi is owned by a Japanese couple who hail from Osaka and opened the restaurant about 3 years ago.  Tasteful Japanese art on the walls is accented with a Hello Kitty clock as well as autographed photos of several Japanese ballplayers who have eaten there. 

We started with a bottle of warm sake.  And perhaps the nicest thing about the sake was that rather than present us with a long list of detailed descriptions of sakes from all over Japan, they just brought us some decent sake.  Somehow I found this lack of choice to be reassuringly natsukashii.  (Remember lunch in your junior high schools?)

From the izakaya menu we ordered gyoza (savory and yummy), kinpira gobo (which had a surprising and tasty kick to it), maguro yama kake (mountain potato with tuna sashimi–not commonly found in most U.S. Japanese restaurants) and, from the specials menu that night, shishamo, which are small, batter-fried and very pregnant fish.  According to Lily, this was a common feature of her school lunches.  Somehow I made it all this time without ever being aware of their existence, due most likely to the fact that I’ve spent most of my life avoiding fish.  However, given my vow this year to make efforts to expand my palate, I took a couple bites.  Right in the belly.  And you know, it wasn’t so bad.  Especially with a little lemon on it.  (Lily noted that in her school lunches, there was no fried batter and no lemon.  Just rubbery pregnant fish.)

These, of course, were just the warmup dishes, the mood setters.  Because in the chilly (by Florida standards) 40 degree evening, we quickly discovered that the menu also featured various forms of nabe including sukiyaki, which we both ordered.  They let us cook it right at our table.  The beef was Japanese-thin and nicely marbled.  The veggies were exactly what they were supposed to be.  And the broth had that sweet-salty flavor that brought back memories of my first sukiyaki experience on a cold day in a friend’s unheated home gathered round a kotatsu with school colleagues.

I knew enough to request a couple raw eggs (since American health codes prohibit restaurants from offering raw eggs on their menu).  And we were in business chowing down and exchanging stories of JET days past. 

And for a final Japanese touch, they brought us (un-ordered) a dessert of grapes, hand-whipped cream and choux creme/シュークリームfilled with vanilla ice cream all on a plate.  A very nice finish to the meal.

With our bellies full of washoku and a bit of nihonshu, it was of course time for….


After searching Google Maps and Yelp on our iPhones, it was determined that the best karaoke options would be Korean noreban (i.e., karaoke box)  joints.  Tampa Karaoke was the obvious choice, but one Yelp review mentioned something about gero in one of the rooms.  So first we checked out One Family Korean Restaurant and Karaoke on 7030 West Hillsborough Ave.  It was a bit hard to find at first along the commercial strip, but sure enough there was a Korean market, restaurant and karaoke place all in one warehouse-like looking building.  Unfortunately for us they were all closed.

Tampa Karaoke it would be.  And it was actually not so bad.  Slick, chi-chi, high class and newly renovated are all words I would not use to describe the establishment.  But the young Korean-American guy at the desk was very friendly.  And the price was right at $25 per hour for a room.  It’s also worth noting that this is a BYOB place (like Bar Toto in Korea Town in NYC), which is great if you happen to know about it in advance (which we didn’t).

We asked if there were Japanese songs in the books and were told that indeed there were.  We eventually found them, however they were organized by song title only which made it a bit hard to search.  That inconvenience, however, was mooted by the fact that we could only find 2 or 3 songs that we actually knew.  And we decided to fault that partly to our own limited J-Pop knowledge and partly to Tampa Karaoke’s limited selection.

Getting into specifics, I was able to find “Kampai” (Nagabuchi Tsuyoshi) and “Kimi Ga Iru Dake” (Kome Kome Club).  But no “Ashita Ga Aru” or “Banzai” or any other songs by Ulfuls (aka Japan’s answer to Hootie and the Blowfish).  Lily, meanwhile, found “Sakura” (Kobukuro), a well-known sappy graduation song as well as “Life is a Boat” (Rie Fu).  (Though she regretted not finding “Tegami” by Angela Aki.)  Sore demo, we ended on a good note with that Japanese standard, “Take Me Home Country Road” (Jo-n Den-ba).

We realize there is more Japan to explore in the Tampa-St. Pete’s area.  But it may just have to wait until next Christmas.  However, given that I’m currently “stuck” in Florida due to the Blizzard of 2010 and can’t get a flight back to NYC until Sunday, January 2, I’ve decided to head east in search of more JET-ventures.  So stay tuned for….

Japan Fix:  Del Ray Beach & Miami!

Tell us where JETs should go in your area to get their Japan Fix. E-mail jetwit [at]

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