I guess I like yoshoku joints because they are the closest Japan has to the American diners I remember as a kid. Back in Illinois on a Saturday afternoon after cutting grass or raking leaves for pocket change, I’d go to the local diner for a greasy burger, a malted milk, and an order of fries. Next to me at the counter perhaps were a talkative salesman, a housewife out on errands, or other locals in for a cup of coffee and a slice of apple pie. Rengatei in Ginza had the same working-class feel to it.
A yoshoku restaurant serves classic “western” food like omelettes, fried cutlets, pork ginger, chicken sauté, and mixed “fry” specials with combinations of deep-fried shrimp, oysters, and a croquette of crab-cream or potato. The plates almost always include a few strands of oiled pasta colored with ketchup, some shredded cabbage, and a dollop of potato salad. Hundreds of thousands of Tokyo salarymen and office women fuel their working days with dishes like this.
The Ginza branch of Rengatei, an archtype joint with a narrow counter seating only five, sadly closed a couple months ago after a run of some 40 years. But its older sister, Rengatei Yoshoku Ganso, a few blocks away in Shintomi, is doing just fine—still slinging hash, so to speak, since 1965. The Shintomi customers are of a type you rarely see in other eating establishments—not much different from those hard-working folks I remember back in Illinois. Some are dressed in knitwear outfits they’ve had for decades. Others still wear outdoor slippers because they’ve left their shoes at the office. An elderly grandmother, with a hastily tugged on wig, sits at a table with her young granddaughter.
Rengatei gets its name from the blood-red brick (renga) interior. And when you enter, you’ll be greeted with a hearty “Irrashai!” Then when you sit down at the counter, no matter what you order, you’ll be served a cup of creamy tomato soup to whet the appetite.
The “om raisu” is a delectable classic yoshoku dish. Fried rice, reddened and flavored with ketchup, is given a glistening yellow robe of egg, then baptized with a scoopful of brown-black demi-glaze sauce and a squirt of ketchup. Cheap. Filling. Delicious.
The curry rice order comes with a carefully composed green salad, a few strands of pasta flavored with oil and pepper, three green beans, a deep-fried prawn and a potato croquette. The honest grub is prepared with speed, skill, and finesse. Most customers eat and run, but after your meal you can linger over a cup of coffee, read through all sections of the newspaper, or sneak in a short snooze, if you prefer.
When you finally wander out the door, you’ll be followed by a friendly call, “Domo desu!”
Rengatei Yoshoku Ganso. 1-5-5-104 Shintomi. Chuo-ku. Tel: 03.3551.3218. Open for lunch 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:30pm.