Food for Thought: How to Spot Hidden Gems – Japanese Edition

How to find your Own
Hidden Gems like Small Tetsu
Tasty West End Food
There are hundreds of Sushi / Japanese eateries in Vancouver, and not all of them are winners.  Even more elusive are restaurants that serve food that follows Japanese tradition more closely. 
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fusion-y and fast food sushi in Japan.  However nigiri is still king in the Land of the Rising Sun, and enormous maki rolls stuffed with cooked food and heaped with kewpie mayo is definitely a North American phenomenon. 
After a great meal at newly opened Tetsu in the West End, I began to wonder why this small eatery stood out to me in a sea of sushi slingers that saturate Vancouver. 

Dennis the Foodie has a very detailed review of the food we tried at Tetsu here.  For me, what’s more interesting is how we arrived at Tetsu in the first place. 
How to Spot A Hidden Gem | A small review of Tetsu
After reviewing the little information there was online about Tetsu, something just screamed good, traditional and potentially awesome Japanese food.  Here are some of the things that triggered my spidey senses, which maybe can help you out in spotting your own hidden gems.
1. Know your Sources:  There are those on the Internet who can take amazing pictures but are just annoyingly optimistic to the point where they are actually not giving an opinion (thanks for coming out).
However there are a few on IG, Twitter, FB, etc who actually know their stuff when it comes to food.  When you find these people, follow them and never let go (in a non-stalker way).  

Usually these people are knowledgeable about cooking techniques, ingredients, and cuisine.  As a result, they are not afraid to give an honest opinion, good or bad, because they can back up their thoughts.  In the case of Tetsu, the trusted source was @foodbysamson.

2. Serving traditional dishes not really seen in Vancouver: One of the posts by Samson that caught my eye was the Tamago with eel in the centre of it. 
A lot places in the city use the hyper yellow pre-made rubbery tamago purchased from a food whole seller.  Any restaurant that makes its own Japanese egg omelette should be denoted as special in general.  However, when they add an eel centre, I’m grabbing my wallet, and getting the Google map directions to the place.


The item itself isn’t high end as I had it as a street food snack in Nishiki market in Kyoto. If anyone can come up with another place in YVR that does eel tamago let me know because that’s really unique.  Tetsu’ version was warm, sweet, savoury and you can feel the layers within the egg.


Another dish that is rare in Vancouver is the Inaniwa Udon, a specialty of the Akita prefecture in Japan.  The noodles are thinner and squared – different than the fat round chubby version that’s everyone is familiar with.   The process to make these noodles sounds very involved. 
The light, slightly sweet, and umami rich broth was piping hot which probably sped up the softening of the noodles.  Plus I was messing around to trying to get the perfect noodle pull shot.  As a result I don’t blame the kitchen for soft noodles, next time I would eat the dish right away.
3. Ingredients from Japan: Along with the imported Akita based udon, Tetsu is bringing in seafood from Japan.  I know there are concerns with the carbon footprint by flying in foodstuffs aboard over using local ingredients, which are perfectly tasty in their own right.  In addition with the Blue Fin tuna there are moral issues as it’s an endangered species. 


In context of a discovering an all star Japanese neighbourhood joint, bringing in ingredients speaks to a chef that has a vision for their food.  To be honest with Vancouverites thirst for sushi, all a business needs is a good supply of local fish and a bottle of mayo to be successful.


Four of the five pieces I received in my omakase meal were from Japan (the scallops, shimaji, blue fin chu toro and uni).  The uni was not Barfun as it did have a slight astringent kick at the end interrupting the initial hit of creamy sweetness. 
4. Sushi that’s Actually Bite Sized:I’ll let you in a on a secret, a piece of good sushi, regardless of fusion quotient, should not be bigger than a tennis ball or a child’s fist.  There should be a balance between rice and fish. 


Tetsu’s nigiri were bite size and easily picked up with a pair of chopsticks.  The rice is not seasoned and is formed into a smaller base than the lauded Sushi Bar Maumi.  There was still a nice harmony between the rice and fish.  It’s nice to see another chef stay true to traditional techniques when it comes to sushi preparation. 
5.Little Details & In House Prep:I already mentioned homemade Tamago as indicator of quality for a Japanese eatery.  Tetsu’s version via nigiri is served cold, sweet but it’s the soft quality that makes it great.  The Blue Fin chu toro was aged by the chef giving the already fatty delicious piece of tuna another dimension of flavour.


Lastly in the category of the little details, even the spoon for the ice cream was different and whimsical.  The spoon given for the sweet (a bit too much for me), nutty and aromatic black sesame ice cream was shaped like a canoe paddle. Very Kawaii!


Of course above all else, an eatery needs to execute their food well in order to even be considered a hidden gem.  Tetsu definitely crafts dish that are above average.  In combination with checking off all the five points I listed, this tiny little shop is a true find in the West End.  Although I wonder how long this place will stay under the radar before MSM (Globe and Mail, West Ender, Sun) find it.  I recommend getting to Tetsu soon and going out on your own food adventures to find your own Japanese hidden gems.
Tetsu Sushi Bar
775 Denman Street
Vancouver, BC V6G 2L6
Tel: (604) 428-5775

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