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Japanese Tea Pavilion

2215 Pan American Way, Balboa Park

"Hey!" says Hank. "No touching it." "I'm just trying to see how full it is." "Stay away. There's a lunch on this."

Heck, watching this damned piece of bamboo fill is like waiting for water to boil. Drip drip drip. I check my watch. Three minutes. I'm screwed.

What we're staring at is the shishiodoshi, a piece of bamboo blocked at one end and angle-cut at the other. Water drips into it till it gets so heavy it tips and spills into the tsukubai, the rock-filled water basin. This is at the entrance to the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. I bet Hank it would take three minutes to fill. He said six. Nearest one gets a free lunch. At the Japanese Tea Pavilion next door.

We came back after I'd been to the tea ceremony here for my friend Naomi (see "tea" review 5/3/2007). But this time it's about more than tea. Hank's actually recommended it. And Hank's the resident Japanese foodie.

"Hope this is worth it," I say. "How do you know it has decent food? Balboa is all tourism, right? I don't want no soggy sushi. I ain't into yucky teriyaki..."

"Dude, they have been serving Japanese food here since 1915, since they built Balboa Park. Trust me, okay?"

"Whatever," I say. "You're the shogun."

"Shishiodoshi!" It finally spills its guts, at almost seven minutes.

"Free lunch!" Hank gives a victory shake of his fists.

"Don't invite the whole world, dude," I say.

But a deal's a deal. We're standing beside the booth at the entrance to the Friendship Garden.

"Uh, what's the cheapest, most popular food item at the Pavilion?" I ask the gal in the pay booth.

"Well, I like the soups," she says. " 'Specially the tofu kitsune."

"I know what I want," says Hank. "So let's not wait through another shishiodoshi, please."

We walk around Chinese flame trees and golden goddess bamboo to this deck cantilevering over the canyon, and a low, very Japanese building painted brown and cream with a green tile roof. Inside, we line up. I was right about the tourist thing. It's crowded. Half a dozen languages. Everybody's in a hurry.

"Better decide quick, son," says Hank. "Japanese aren't into goofing off."

The menu divides into soups and sides, sushi, salads, noodle soups, rice bowls, and sandwiches. All the folks ahead of us seem to be ordering the same item: a teriyaki rice bowl with beef skewers ($6.95). Guess it's just the most familiar thing. Looks pretty good, though. Big chunks of dark beef straddling a decorated Japanese bowl. Takes a moment to realize the bowl's cardboard, not ceramic.

I ask around about the teriyaki beef rice bowl. "Don't," mumbles a customer coming back with her used tray. "The beef was pretty tough."

The order-taker, Robbie, is dressed in a black Japanese tunic. "We've just run out of sushi," he says.

Hank's on the ball. "I'll have a friendship green salad, and the California sandwich."

Huh. So much for Mr. Japanese.

Mind you, his salad is listed as "mixed greens and vegetables with miso ginger vinaigrette." It's $4.95. With chicken, $2.00 more. And the California sandwich is stuffed with shredded imitation crab plus cucumber, avocado, lettuce, and wasabi mayo ($6.50).

So, duh, I'm still thinking teriyaki rice bowl, only with chicken or grilled salmon for $6.95, or with a skewer of veggies ($5.95). Or I see a curry rice bowl, same choices and prices. Hmm. Curry. Japanese? They also do a curry chicken salad for $5.95.

"Sir?" says Robbie.

Decision time. Okay, what did the booth lady advise? "I'll have that udon soba noodle soup with the tofu kitsune," I say. It's $5.95. "Uh, and what's the most Japanese tea, like the tea they'd use in the Japanese tea ceremony?"

"Well, the nearest is the Kona chai. Green tea, from Hawaii."

I pay, and we head out to the deck. All you hear is the burble of chatter and the beautifully mournful sounds of a Japanese flute on the sound system.

We set to. Hank gouges through his California sandwich. It's positively pregnant with two-inches-thick "krab" meat. And his friendship salad has a pile of candied walnuts, plus that ginger vinaigrette. Me, I'm surprised. My soup looks thin but is pretty interesting. Kitsune means "fox" in Japanese, and this is called "fox" because of the light brown color of its abura-age -- deep-fried tofu. Plus, it has a sweet taste to it. Is that because it has mirin, sweet rice wine, in it? The sweetness is tempered by the seaweed floating around, along with scallions and mushrooms and slices of tasty red and white fishcake, and those miles of noodles.

The Kona chai green tea ($2.25) is...interesting. Tastes kinda like lawn, but I glug it down 'cause I know all that chlorophyll's good for you.

Hank suddenly sighs. "Ah, l'amour, l'amour."

I see where he's looking, a couple of tables over, this gal kissing this guy. She's beautiful, all right.

But I'm more interested in what's in that beautiful-looking bowl she's eating from.

Oh, Lord. Hank's heading back to the counter. "Still hungry," he says. I'll have to follow. Confess. Still a trifle peckish. But on the way I stop at the couple's table. Tiffanie. With Cory. "It's the teriyaki bowl with salmon," she says. Man. Her smile could immobilize a victim at 20 paces.

Then, horror. Hank's already ordered a curry rice bowl with chicken ($6.95). "Uh, dude," I say, "I'm tapped out. But if you could spot me, hey, I'll join you! Teriyaki bowl with salmon. And don't worry. We'll go right back out to the shi-shiodoshi, bet again on the tipping point! I lose? I pay, double, uh, payday."

"Oh, for Chrissakes," says Hank. "Why don't we just bet on my tipping point now? That won't take so long...."

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