Cheap Eats - Tempura lunch box

Japanese comfort food at Harada

A steaming bowl of soba and the sweet, salty taste of seaweed are two of my adolescent memories. Growing up in Okinawa, Japan, I would leave the safe confines of the military base and venture out to the rotating sushi bars, order a large bowl of udon noodles and begin to slurp and suck with abandon.

Those memories of cheap and easy noodles and sushi passing by on a conveyor belt are to me what a big bowl of grits and a side of scrambled eggs are to my friends. A few hundred yen and we were satiated with warm broth, sticky white rice and our choice of raw tuna, squid or quail eggs. So, to walk in the doorway of Harada gave me a tinge of nostalgia for those gaudy little shops of Japanese comfort food.

Harada doesn't really have that Japanese diner feel, but it still has the familiar smells and welcoming "Yasumemasen!" booming as a greeting when you walk in the door. The thick, wooden doors are the only sign of what lies inside. From the outside, it's just another restaurant in a shopping center in Brookhaven sandwiched between a Kroger and a post office. Inside, the wood paneling, screens and cool lighting evoke another feeling altogether. The woman welcoming you at the door, the bright lights focused on the sushi bar and the soft coloring of the walls — this is a little bit of serenity in the middle of the business lunch hustle and bustle.

The menu is fairly simple but will surprise diners used to only teppanyaki and the fancy handiwork of Benihana chefs. Tempura, teriyaki, soba and sushi, with their somewhat bland yet entirely satisfying tastes and textures, are the mainstays of the establishment.

Sitting down at the table we began with piping hot green tea. The friendly server filled a chunky ceramic cup with the gritty, green concoction that is much more palatable than the traditional, ceremonial green tea that I can't stomach. Despite the summer heat, tea is a warm and pleasant accompaniment to any Japanese meal.

There are few places where you can get a good bowl of traditionally prepared udon soba in Atlanta. Our city seems chock-full of Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, but the lack of quality Japanese is a constant thorn. I ordered the tempura zaru udon ($6.50) with memories of my bowls of yore.

The bowl is large, filled to the brim with the soft, chewy flour noodles, strips of seaweed, sliced fishball and two large pieces of breaded and fried shrimp, as well as a tempura fried sweet potato slice.

The broth is exactly as it should be, slightly salty and sweet with an earthy taste from the combination of ingredients added to the soba. I waited too long to begin eating the tempura — my friend's entree arrived 10 minutes after mine — and the batter, which had been light and flaky, had disintegrated and mixed with the broth. The sweet potato remained sturdy. I took in hand my ladling spoon and chopsticks and scarfed down the noodles, broth and seaweed.

The neat and tidy compartmentalization of Japanese cuisine finds its essence in simplicity, and the traditional "brown bag" lunch of a bento box is one of my favorite examples. My friend ordered the tempura and chicken teriyaki "lunch box" ($8.50) and it arrived looking spare and beautiful but ultimately more food than feasibly handled by most in one sitting.

An order comes with miso soup and a house salad. Luckily the miso soup is a small serving since a little goes a long way. The salty, gritty soup doesn't have much substance, but it was a nice start for the palate, followed by the salad of lettuce, tomato and a sweet, ginger-based dressing.

The bento box is large with several compartments, all filled with something interesting to try. The side items change daily with the main compartment of teriyaki and tempura remaining the same. When I visited, one of the side items was a version of mashed potatoes made with chopped carrots and green onions placed atop purple cabbage for color.

Another compartment contained stuffed mushrooms that had been fried and tossed with onions and assorted vegetables. The mushrooms were less Asian and more corporate hors d'oeuvres cart but fine just the same.

Chicken teriyaki was sweet and better than most varieties, but the real star of the show was the tempura shrimp, which were large and light. Oftentimes tempura is ruined by being heavily coated and drenched in grease. This tempura remained light and airy allowing the taste of the shrimp to be savored. Along with the shrimp were slices of tempura zucchini and sweet potato.

Diners also can experiment with fresh sushi selections. The chef's choice sushi and sashimi lunch ($8.50) is a good way to get a little taste of everything. The chef prepares three pieces of nigiri and four pieces of California roll as well as sashimi. Diners sample and learn the names of what they like. "No mackerel next time, please," one diner told the chef.

It seems we all have our own memories and favorite tastes.??