'Real, whole food'
She grew up eating mostly "meat-and-potatoes" meals, but Liz Takeda's food sensibilities were surprisingly similar to her Japanese husband's.
"Things didn't come out of boxes and packages," she says. "Our moms always had dinner on the table; we took lunch to school."
Kazu Takeda is the mom whose recipes inspired the first Mihama Teriyaki Grill decades ago in Torrance, Calif. Her from-scratch methods still define Ashland's Mihama, where son Denny and his wife, Liz, have steadily expanded the menu since opening 1989, with many concessions to customers' healthful eating habits.
"It's pretty much everyday food," says Liz Takeda, 50. "We don't do organic, but we do do real, whole food."
Denny Takeda, now 63, prepared the staple fish, noodle and curry dishes of his native Japan in the family restaurant before striking out on his own to cook in Seattle. After he and Liz met, his family fingered them for taking over the eatery and fish market named for the Takedas' Japanese hometown. But the new couple didn't want to reside in Southern California and decided that Ashland, where Liz's aunt and uncle lived, would be receptive to Mihama's grilled fish, beef and chicken teriyaki.
"The fish has always sold well," says Liz Takeda, explaining that when the couple founded Mihama a year after moving to Ashland, it was the town's only Japanese restaurant.
From the beginning, the younger Takedas lightened plates of meat and rice with green salad, which the original Mihama did not serve. The salad's signature sesame vinaigrette was invented just hours before Mihama first opened its doors across Siskiyou Boulevard from Southern Oregon University.
"We didn't want to do the heavy stuff," says Liz Takeda. "I think of our menu as being really healthy."
Fried foods — including Mihama's tempura and popular, panko-breaded chicken katsu — have their place. But customers' desire for healthful choices, says Takeda, has driven changes to the original menu. After about a decade in business, Mihama added brown rice and steamed vegetables to the side-dish lineup.
"It's not as easy as people think," says Takeda of Mihama's modifications.
Precut vegetables widely available through restaurant suppliers either are treated with preservative solutions or don't cook up consistently, says Takeda. So Mihama cuts up whole broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and zucchini and steams the pieces to order.
Similarly, meats never come into the kitchen presliced, she says. Mihama purchases steaks, chicken breasts and thighs and whole salmon. The fish is farmed to ensure consistent quality, she explains, but Mihama does offer a patty of wild-caught salmon, and its "snapper" is wild Pacific rockfish. Mahi-mahi was dropped from the menu when the Takedas realized that most were unsustainably fished using drift nets.
Vegetarian dishes with tofu — Mihama's sole organic product — always have enjoyed a loyal following, says Takeda. The bean curd can come flame-grilled, on a salad, bobbing in broth, simmering in curry or on a burger with whole-wheat bun. Mihama staff segregate meat and vegetarian items with separate deep-fryers, which use only canola oil, billed as heart-healthy.
Special condiments are available to gluten-free diners for 50 cents extra, which covers the higher price of tamari over mainstream soy sauce, says Takeda. Substituting gluten-free green bean/pea noodles for wheat-based udon comes at no added charge.
Although Mihama doesn't dedicate equipment exclusively to gluten-free meals, says Takeda, its flame grill exceeds 500 degrees and gets scraped clean throughout the day. Those factors should minimize gluten exposure for all but the most sensitive diners, she says.
Many foods, namely rice and vegetables, are naturally free of gluten, a protein increasingly blamed for allergies and the autoimmune response known as celiac disease. Mihama has been catering to customers' demand for gluten-free for the past three years, says Takeda, even offering ginger-chicken lettuce wraps among its newest options.
"Don't eat the same things over and over," she says of staying healthy. "Mix things up."
One request the Takedas can't bring themselves to accommodate, though, is for "bento," practically ubiquitous to the Rogue Valley's other, newer Japanese restaurants. Named for the partitioned lunchbox in which it's usually packed, restaurant-style bento often contains teriyaki-sauced meats with the requisite rice, along with pot stickers and a sushi roll.
While the original Mihama in California served sushi — and she and her husband have gone back and forth for years on the issue — it ultimately is too labor-intensive, says Takeda.
"We're Mihama; we do our own thing."