How do I find a dish or restaurant to obsess over every week? Often, it’s just luck. But the most reliable way to find food I love is to follow my cravings.
And there are few stronger desires in my gustatory existence than for Japanese curry. Part of the appeal is the dish’s circuitous story. We all know that the British became enchanted with curry in India, but the part of the tale that’s less well-known is that curry had to travel from Asia to England, back to Asia to get to Japan. According to this Vice story, British sailors brought their thick, Euro-style curry to Japan in the late 19th century. The Japanese Imperial Navy made it a part of its diet too, and eventually it made its way to civilians.
Then, as a child who frequented a Japanese supermarket with my family, the tradition spread to me. Japanese curry is one of my ultimate comfort foods. But it’s not easy to find in NoVA. Luckily, I traced a version to Umai Ramen & Rice Bowl in Herndon.
Right now, Umai is doing mostly takeout business, but has a few outdoor tables at which diners can sit and enjoy their food without a wait in the car. I went inside to order, then sat outside with a bottle of Ramune, the Japanese soda famous for being sealed with a marble.
My curry came to the table in its own cup, not on top of the fried pork cutlet. The pork itself was crisp outside and enviably adipose within. Good katsu is important, but when tasting katsu kare, it’s all about the curry. This one, speckled with soft carrots and onions, had the right texture of rich gravy (after all, Japanese curry is a roux-based sauce), but even better, the spice level hit the right mark. Often, restaurant curries have little spice at all. When I make my curry at home, I always use the extra-hot package, and the recipe at Umai matches the (still pretty light) burn.
Umai specializes in noodles bowls, from Japanese ramen to Thai khao soi and tom yum. There’s a part of me that very much wants to sip a broth at the restaurant. But I don’t know if I ever will, when there’s curry to be eaten. // 482 Elden St., Herndon
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