Brasserie Gus: Kagurazaka favorite

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

Brasserie gus confit 4


Whenever I have an idle moment I fantasize about confit de canard—the crisp savory skin, the dark flesh so tender it pulls from the bone with the slightest tug of the fork, and bones looking so tasty you want to crack them open with your molars and suck out the marrow. Whenever I need to satisfy this duck-flesh fantasy, I come to Brasserie Gus.

Once roughly the size of a subway car, Brasserie Gus (pronounced “goo”) expanded some years ago by taking over the neighboring subway car-sized space to accommodate more customers who know a great deal when they find it.  When Brasserie Gus first opened, the very reasonable prix-fixe dinner course was ¥2800. Now, more than ten years later, it costs only 50 yen more.Brasserie gus saumon

Chef Arai looks like he ought to be unloading a beer truck rather than turning out classic dishes of French country cooking. He’s a stalwart, friendly fellow with the sensibilities of a craftsman, producing in his still tiny kitchen meals he could easily charge twice as much for. For  ¥2,850 you choose from among 9 starter “entrees,“ 11 main dish “plats,“ and 9 desserts.

And keep in mind, Arai doesn’t skimp on portions.

B Gus interior 1This is food you want to tuck into with your sleeves rolled up—robust, clear flavors balanced with care. As starters, for example, a generous cut of pork Terrine Maison with mustard and lightly dressed seasonal greens, or a cool, silky ratatouille, or slices of marinated salmon dusted with fresh dill.

My main dish, the duck confit, paired with a dash of tangy mustard sauce, rested on a bed of mashed potato and mild cabbage  to offset the canard’s salty richness. Another “plat,” slices of succulent roast lamb, was crusted with herbs and drizzled with a parsley sauce. Each main dish is garnished with a small ensemble of mashed or scalloped potato, a floret of broccoli, a baby carrot, shimeji mushrooms, and bit of turnip or pumpkin. There is plenty of sliced baguette to mop up the sauces.

B Gus ExteriorThe long narrow dining room is a cheerful place with red-checked tablecloths, posters of Paris on white walls, knick knacks on red shelves, and French jazz on the stereo. It has the casual charm of a working-class establishment. All that’s missing is the smell of Gauloise cigarette smoke.

The wine list is modest, but well chosen. Good bottles, both white and red, start at ¥2800. A bottle of the excellent Haut Medoc Chateau Beaumont goes for ¥4900.

The lunch special is a steal at 1,050 yen.

Reservations recommended.

Brasserie Gus: 82 Yarai-cho, Shinjuku-ku

Open Monday–Saturday lunch and dinner. Closed Sundays.

Tel. 03.3268.7157

Torikatsu CHICKEN

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

chicken katsu teishoku

But back in the 1970s, when the Rolling Stones were yet unwrinkled, the master of CHICKEN decided to be different. He choose to sell chicken cutlets breaded and fried in the same manner as the ubiquitous pork tonkatsu joints all over the city.  He’s been toiling behind his small counter in his cramped kitchen off a narrow alleyway at the top of Shibuya’s Dogenzaka every since.

chicken menu 1Torikatsu CHICKEN is a workingman’s joint. And I know of no other place like it in Tokyo.

The customers are mostly students or salarymen with limited budgets and big appetites. The “dai-ninki” big seller is the “3-selection set menu” of chicken cutlet, ham cutlet, and croquette for 650 yen.

If you prefer more variety, opt for the regular set menu which allows a choice of any fried selection in combinations of two (650 yen), three (800 yen), or four (1000 yen). Peruse from the selections on the hand-painted butcher paper menu thumb-tacked to the wall: deep-fried slices of onion, eggplant, or beef; minced pork and beef; whitefish; cuttlefish; or ham, chicken, or pork.

As is the custom with teishoku set menus, your order comes with a mound of freshly shredded cabbage, a big bowl of rice, and a bowl of miso soup.

chicken entranceRegulars busy themselves, while waiting for their order to be prepared, by reading old manga, magazines, or newspapers stacked on a small bookshelf near the entrance.

The food is simple, tasty and filling. The vegetables are fresh. The meat tender. And the deep-fried chicken cutlets are a nice change from pork. Refills on rice or cabbage are available.

The joint is open for lunch Monday thru Friday 11am to 3pm. And for dinner from 5pm to 9pm. The master prefers to take his weekends off.

CHICKEN is located at the top of Dogenzaka, the underbelly of Shibuya.

Walk up the slope on the left side of 109 until you get to red archway of Hyakkendana and the garishly yellow-lit tonkotsu ramen shop.

chicken sign outside alleyTurn left into Hyakkendana, and just past the Adult Shop “Joyful” on the left, you’ll spot a sign in front of the narrow lane on the left leading up to CHICKEN.

Torikatsu CHICKEN: 2-16-19 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03.461.0298. Open M-F Lunch 11am-3pm. Dinner 5pm-9pm. Closed weekends.





Tokyo Tonkatsu Restaurants: My Favorite Five

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Sugita interior

A perfectly prepared tonkatsu—a thick, juicy pork cutlet enrobed in a golden crust of crisp breadcrumbs—is a thing of beauty. Achieving such perfection, though, is not easy. The cutlet must be properly sourced and sized. The oil must be fresh and kept at the exact scalding temperature. And the flake size of the crumb must be carefully considered.

The dredging in flour, beaten egg, and bread crumb must be done quickly and expertly. The chef must keep a wary eye and ear on the frying process watching the changing hue of the coating, the size and rate and sound of the rising steam-filled bubbles, and the buoyancy of the frying katsu.

Yamaichi picklesA tonkatsu meal will always include a small mound of finely shredded cabbage, and some type of tangy Worcestershire-based sauce handy on the table. If you order a teishoku set menu, you’ll get a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso or tonjiru (pork broth) soup, and a small dish of pickles.

In the restaurants that take pride in their work, the cabbage filaments are cut by hand, the pickles are house-made, and the soup is too.

If you’re looking for pork heaven, never mind that former bathhouse place that’s in all the guidebooks. Search out one or all of these establishments chosen from my favorite tonkatsu places across the city.

Yamaichi tonkatsuBairin in Ginza started serving tonkatsu in 1927. And their 200-gram kurobuta (Berkshire pig) cutlet is two centimeters of tender luscious goodness. This rosu cut includes a thin strip of tasty melt-in-your-mouth fat beneath the crisp breading. Unusually, and aesthetically pleasing, the mound of sweet cabbage includes dark green filaments from the outer leaves.

The handiwork at Bairin runs as smooth as a fine pocket watch. In a row behind the long counter stand four white uniformed cooks each precisely doing his appointed task: frying, cutting, preparing side orders, and ladling out soup and rice. Another cook in the kitchen provides a constant staccato of hocho knife chopping fresh cabbage.

Though a bit pricey, the 2,700-yen rosu katsu teishoku is very well worth it. The house-made sauce at Bairin is especially toothsome.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE A few minutes from JR Omori station, Maru-ichi is a tiny place with only a 7-seat counter and two tables each seating four. The menu is small too. All orders are teishoku sets. You can choose either the lean hire or the succulent rosu each at several weights: 170 grams (1300 yen), 250 grams (1700 yen), or for the genuine trencherman, the 300-gram plate.

All the ingredients at Maru-ichi are carefully sourced. The pearly pink cutlets come from Iwate. The red-orange carrots are grown in Chiba, and the surprisingly sweet cabbages are harvested in the Miura peninsula.

Compared to other tonkatsu joints, their rice is softer and more delicious; the carrots and cabbage sweeter; the meat more tender and flavorful. This is due to the great care that goes into everything at Maru-ichi. They go to the trouble, for example, of boiling the carrots, burdock, and onions separately to make sure they are evenly tender before adding them to pork-based miso soup to make their tonjiru.

Don’t mind the drab exterior of Maru-ichi. The interior is spotlessly clean and all efforts at beauty are focused on the plate.


marugo tonkatsuA few minutes walk from Akihabara station, Marugo is another tonkatsu connoisseur destination.

They feature sangenton pork from Yamagata prefecture. This crossbreed animal is a mix of Yorkshire, Landrace, and Duroc hogs which results in a fine balance of flavor and lacy marbling in the flesh.

The rosu is three centimeters thick, terrifically juicy and tender (1750 yen). They also boast a special dressing for the cabbage.

Sugita tonkatsuWorth a trip to Kuramae, one stop from Asakusa, is Sugita (pictured above). This nicely designed restaurant with its second-generation chef and gleaming copper pots serves a tonkatsu (2000 yen) with a bread crumb as fine as sand which makes an especially crispy crust. Of course, they also have their own specially blended sauce.

The folks at Yamaichi in Kanda Sudacho serve a tonkatsu that is thicker than at most other tonkatsu joints. It is expertly trimmed, weighed, and coated with a larger size of bread crumb too. The teishoku sets feature a reasonably-priced hire (1600 yen) or the rosu (1500 yen) with its strip of delicious fat nestled in unctuousness under the crust.

Yamaichi tonkatsuYamaichi believes in condiments. On the table are a panoply of 11 various additions to choose from such as Andes salt, yuzu kosho, shichimi, two kinds of shoyu, pickled scallions, mustard, two kinds of salad dressing, sesame, ponzu sauce, umeboshi, and bull-dog sauce.

Yamaichi is decorated with some style. The tables are dark, gleaming grainy wood. Framed modern lithographs hang on the wall. Don’t worry about the line that usually forms outside the restaurant. It moves quickly and you’ll soon be inside. Be sure to spot the little Shinto shrine tucked into corner near the ceiling.



Ginza Bairin: 7-8-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3571-0350. Open 7 days a week (except January 1.) 11:30 am – 8:45 pm. Cash only.

Maru-ichi: 1-7-2 Omori Kita, Ota-ku. Tel: 03-3762-2601. Lunch 11:30 to 1 pm. Dinner 5 pm to 7 pm. Closed Wednesdays, Sundays, and National Holidays. Maru-ichi is about a 2-minute walk from the East exit of Omori Station.

Yamaichi: 1-8-4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3253-3335. Open Monday to Friday 11am to 2:30pm. Dinner: 5pm to 8:30pm. Saturdays: 11am to 2pm (L.O. 1:30pm). Closed Sundays and holidays.

Marugo: 1-8-14 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3255-6595. Lunch 11:30am to 2:50pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:20pm. Closed Mondays and third Tuesdays. About 4 minute walk from Akihabara station.

Sugita: 3-8-3 Kotobuki, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3844-5529. Lunch 11:30am to 2pm. Dinner 5pm to 8:30pm. Closed Thursdays. About one-minute walk from subway exit A5 of Kuramae station.

Ten-yo-ne tempura: Under the tracks in Yurakucho

Tuesday, October 8th, 2013



I have a soft spot for these hard places under the tracks in Tokyo. They scratch out an unglamorous life in the shadows of this gargantuan city.

Tenyone close up tendonTen-yo-ne is a minute or two from Yurakucho station and a world away, in a few hundred meters, from the glamorous Ginza.

For decades, Ten-yo-ne tempura has been serving up Edo-style tempura, dark and savory, cheap and delicious.

It’s a tiny place, of course, with a pale blond counter of smooth hinoki seating six.

On the other side of the narrow kitchen are a few small tables filling an unadorned dining space illuminated with the thin timeless wash of fluorescence. Every once in awhile, you can make out the rumble of trains passing overhead.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREA rack of newspapers and manga are available for free reading while you wait for your tempura to fry.

The jo-tendon (¥1450) is the dish of choice here. Glistening in their burnished gold batter, atop a bowl of freshly prepared rice, are two large prawns, a kisu white fish, some mushrooms, a shishito green pepper, a shiso leaf, and a small kakiage “dumpling” of sliced, mixed veggies and tiny shrimp.

The teishoku set menu includes a small dish of well-made pickled vegetables, a bowl of miso soup, and a tiny dish of seasonal vegetables sprinkled with sesame seeds.

A counter seat over on the right side is the most interesting place to sit.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREPositioned there, you can see the crowd of fresh vegetables waiting in the wings for their turn on the tempura stage.

Plus you can observe the master while he cuts, batter-dips, fries and assembles your tendon bowl.

The lunch for about ¥1000 is a great deal at Ten-yo-ne.

You can sit elbow to elbow with salarymen, office women, and sales staff from the nearby department stores and shops.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIf you are up for an adventure, stroll down the underground passageway to the left of Ten-yo-ne. This narrow, tunnel-like alley is perhaps a kilometer or so long, filled with tiny restaurants, bicycles, and the ghosts of Tokyo past.


2-1-10 Yurakucho, Chiyoda Ward. Tel: 03.3591.0926. Open Monday to Saturday 11am to 9pm.




Yamaichi: Another tonkatsu joint worth knowing

Friday, July 19th, 2013

Yamaichi tonkatsu

Jack Sprat could eat no fat, and his wife could eat no lean. The couple, though, would both eat heartily at Yamaichi.

The folks here treat their pork with respect. Jack would be able to savor Yamaichi’s lean and luscious pork filet (1600 yen) carefully deep-fried in a crisp tonkatsu crust. His wife could order the Yamaichi “ros” (1500 yen) with its strip of delicious pork fat nestled in unctuousness under the crust.

Yamaichi condimentsYamaichi believes in condiments.

On the table are a panoply of 11 various additions to choose from such as Andes salt, yuzu kosho, shichimi, two kinds of shoyu, pickled scallions, mustard, two kinds of salad dressing, sesame, ponzu sauce, umeboshi, and bull-dog sauce.

The pork at Yamaichi is thicker that at most tonkatsu joints. It is expertly trimmed, weighed, and coated with a larger size of bread crumb.

Tonkatsu chefs sometimes use two kettles each of which heats the oil to a hotter or cooler temperatures depending on the thickness of the meat. Yamaichi uses a hotter oil resulting in a darker, golden brown crust.

Yamaichi counterThe small restaurant is decorated with some style. The tables are dark, gleaming grainy wood. Framed modern lithographs hang on the wall. One brush-stroke calligraphic print asks the question: “What is a voyage?

Only about a dozen or so lucky customers can dine at one time. A short counter seats four. A large 7-seat table fills the room with space for only one small 2- seat table.

Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to share the large table with other happy customers.

With the teishoku set-menu you’ll get a small dish of the house-made pickles, which besides being arranged in a picture-perfect cluster,  are lightly vinegared to add a bright counterpoint to the pork. A small wooden bowl of tonkotsu pork-flavored broth and a bowl of rice will round out the meal.

Yamaichi picklesDon’t worry about the line that usually forms outside the restaurant. It moves quickly and you’ll soon be inside.

Be sure to spot the little Shinto shrine tucked into corner near the ceiling.

Yamaichi: 1-8-4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3253-3335. Open Monday to Friday 11am to 2:30pm. Dinner: 5pm to 8:30pm. Saturdays: 11am to 2pm (L.O. 1:30pm). Closed Sundays and holidays.

The restaurant is about a one-minute walk from the A1 exit of the subway station which serves both the Ogawamachi stop of the Maronouchi Line, or the Awajicho stop of the Shinjuku Line.





Retro Kanda kissaten with “nori toast”: Ace

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Ace exterior new

The area around Kanda station is a hive of activity—crowded, jumbled, and thoroughly “shitamachi.” And Kanda’s Coffee shop Ace is my new favorite Tokyo kissaten. About 42 years ago, two brothers took over their father’s role as Ace master. And over the years, they’ve kept things pretty much the same. Coffee is crafted here using the siphon method, once a technique common in many kissa, but now as rare as an honest banker.

Ace interior1The brothers have put together a menu of over 40 straight bean coffees and “coffee variations,” some of which you’ll find nowhere else.

These are not Starbuck’s-like milk confections, but sturdy coffee-grounded originals. Consider: Mexican Butter Coffee with a dab of real butter afloat in the cup. Pontier Beruga Coffee with real whipped cream and meringue (550 yen). Café Alexsandra with thick cream, cocoa liqueur and brandy (550 yen).

Or my favorite Pontier de Café con Leche with whipped cream, sherry, and walnuts (550 yen).

The brothers also carefully brew a wide selection of teas, if you are so inclined. Ace coffee menu

The prices here haven’t changed much either over the decades. A cup of straight Blue Mountain bean coffee is 570 yen and Kilimanjaro is only 480 yen. These prices are almost half of comparable cups elsewhere. And if you’re an early bird, you can have a bottomless cup of “blendo” if you order between 7a.m. and noon.

Ace is probably most renowned for its innovative “Nori Toast.” They take a slice of white sandwich bread, split it down the middle into two very thin half-slices, butter them, slip in a large wafer of nori, dried seaweed, then toast the whole thing to perfection. At 140 yen, it’s a classic. And if you get lost, as I’ve done a few times trying to find Ace, ask a local where the “nori toast” place is.Ace nori toast

If seaweed on bread is not your style, try the “choco toast,” a whipped cream, chocolate sauce concoction that will satisfy any sweet tooth.

A small library of coffee-related books and magazines is on a shelf for browsing. Above that little library, hanging on the wall, is a portrait of the two brothers done entirely in glued coffee grounds.

The clientele at Ace have been regulars for decades. Salarymen and office ladies, old couples and youngish couples.

It is not unusual to lean one’s weary head back against the wall and sneak 4o winks.

Ace is open 7a.m. to 7p.m Monday to Friday. Saturdays the are open until only 2p.m. Ace: 3-10-6 Uchi-kanda, Chiyoda ward. Tel: 03.3256.3941. Ace can be found, if you are lucky, in a 2-minute walk from the west exit of Kanda JR station, or in a 3-minute stroll from the Kanda Ginza line subway station.

Tokyo horse flesh: Sakura nabe at two classic restaurants

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013


A recent poll conducted on myself revealed that the vast majority of me had no objection to hippophagy, horse-eating, something we carnivores have been sinking our teeth into since we first started banging two stones together and hurling spears.

If horseflesh was good enough for my Paleolithic ancestors, and still is for many modern Paleos following their primal diet, and is consumed with gusto by the Chinese, French, Italians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentinians, Mongolians, and by many other-ians, it ought to be good enough for me.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIn fact, it’s better than good enough. Despite pangs of Black Beauty-induced guilt from the minority of myself, the lean nutritious meat is deeply delicious.

So what’s up with those “shocked” customers of the British supermarket chain Tesco who learned that dabs of equine DNA were present in their so-called “beefburgers”? Just exactly what do they think was in those economy meat units selling 8 for £1?

Tesco’s own regulations state that such value pack patties need only contain 47% “meat.” Aren’t those customers put off by the “drind,” the dehydrated rind or skin that is boiled then used to bulk up cheap “meat” products? Maybe not, because it can be labeled as “seasoning.”

Photos of the “tainted” patties show them to be miserable pinkish slabs seemingly extruded from an industrial pipe, then guillotined into disks by a dull blade. The small percentage of horse DNA found in those meat units was probably the most nutritious part of the whole processed concoction.

Japan, though, has a long and respected history of equine cuisine. Two of my favorite horseflesh establishments, Nakae in Taito ward and Minowa in Koto ward, have both been serving sakura niku, (cherry meat) for over a century.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe sakura moniker comes from the bright red color of the flesh which has a fine, close texture and a faint underlying sweetness. It also has more protein, less fat, less sodium, less cholesterol, and fewer calories than beef or pork. The meat is usually sourced from horses, two to six years old, free ranged and grass fed in Kyushu.

One of the best ways to jumpstart your Paleo genes is with an order of niku sashi, thin slices of raw horsemeat sashimi from the senaka, or lower back of the beast, served with a dab of freshly-grated ginger and a shoyu dipping sauce. Another popular dish is the pale pink abura sashi, slices of sashimi from back of the neck. The tender flesh is also served as basashi zushi, (horsemeat sushi) or as steak tartare.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe main attraction, however, at both establishments is sakura nabe, a sukiyaki-style dish you cook yourself in a shallow iron pot at your table. The pot holds a rich warishita broth made of dashi, shoyu and mirin. Into this broth you place a mound of shirataki, thin noodles made from devil’s tongue root; a few slices of negi, welsh onion; a couple slices of fu, wheat gluten dumplings; and thin slices of bright red momo niku, from the thigh, moistened with a spoonful of sweet brown miso.

Once the stew starts bubbling, you remove each tidbit one by one, then dip it—just as in sukiyaki—into a cup of stirred raw egg as a sauce. Be sure to keep your eye on the meat, advised the kimono-clad waitress, for it quickly colors in the simmering sauce. Eat it when it still has a few pink blushes.

In both restaurants, sitting side by side up on a kamidana, the god’s shelf, are a seemingly discordant pair of dieties: Daikoku-sama, the god of business prosperity and Batou-sama, the god and protector of horses. Apparently, they’ve worked out an agreement.

Nakae:  1-9-2 Nihonzutsumi, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3872-5389. Monday to Friday: 5pm to 11pm. Saturday/Sundays/Holidays: 11:30am to 10pm (Last order one hour before closing).

Minowa: 2-19-9 Morishita, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-3631-8298. Lunch 12 noon to 2 pm. Dinner 4 pm to 9:30 pm (L.O. 9pm). Closed Thursdays. May thru October also closed on the 3rd Wednesday of the month.

Los Barbados: African/Turkish/Moroccan/French joint in Shibuya

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013


Joints like Los Barbados make living in Tokyo a privilege. Down an unattractive Shibuya side street and wedged into a nondescript building with six other tiny establishements, this African/Turkish/Moroccan/French eatery is run by one free-spirited Japanese dude in a T-shirt and jeans who back when reggae hit the Japanese shore decided to go to Jamaica, but instead ended up in the Congo.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHe’s been back to the Congo multiple times for additional cooking lessons.

But he’s also hung out in Paris with the African crowd picking up a French approach to cooking. And when the mood strikes, he says he might whip up a prune and olive chicken tagine.

His haven is hung with French vinyl LP covers such as “Franco L’Afrique Danse No. 6” or “Dynamite Verckys et l’Orchestre Veve” or “Docteur Nico” or “Johnny Bokelo et Son Orchestre L’Afrique Danse No. 1.”

The joint is basically just a cramped kitchen surrounded by a narrow counter, seating seven or eight, with the space above filled with bottles of rhum, African masks and colorful paintings of a zebra, giraffe, and hippo. Easing from the corner speakers is a constant Congolese groove of intricate guitar and infectious  drum work.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe 15–20 item menu varies from the Assorted Vegetable Starter (500 yen) featuring tabouleh, hummus with rose pepper, pickled red cabbage, and French carrot salad; to African Grilled Chicken with fufu cassava (1000 yen) or Turkish “springrolls” deep-fried tidbits filled with lamb and dabbed with hot sauce (650 yen).

The chef also serves up a tasty Senegalese Whitefish Stew with peanuts, tomatoes and okra (950 yen) or a Chickpea and Vegetable Couscous dish (950 yen).

Hot sauce is served with each dish, but for the brave, or the addled, a few bottles of habanero-based sauces are available for incendiary heat.

The chef has also selected several well-priced French rosé, white, and red wines by the glass.

And if you want to explore French Caribbean rhum, you’re in luck.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREHe’s got nearly 20 types of rhum from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, and a superb specimen from the Isle de Marie-Galante—the 50% strong La Guildive honoring Jean-Baptiste Labat, the Dominican monk and inventor of the distillation of sugar cane in the 17th century (900 yen the glass).

You can’t go wrong at Los Barbados. You’ll be well fed, and your wallet won’t be much lighter than when you went in. Reservations are usually not necessary, but call ahead if you like.

Los Barbados: 41-46 Udagawacho, Papier Biru 104, Shibuya-ku. Open Monday to Saturday 12 noon to midnight. Tel: 03.3496.7157. If you get lost trying to find the place, call. The chef will explain how to get there.

For a map, check out this link:



Tonpachi tei: another fine Tokyo tonkatsu joint

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Okachimachi Station near Ueno is a hive of activity. It sits at the tail end of the Ameyoko street market and seems to be under constant construction and reconstruction. Kasuga dori is the main thoroughfare perpendicular to the Yamanote tracks and after a short walk down that main street you’ll spot  the pit viper shop, Bunkyudo, the write-up of which you’ll find in the January 2009 archives of this blog. Next to Bunkyudo is a narrow passageway called “Tanuki Roji” which translates to Racoon Alley.

Down Racoon Alley on the left you’ll come upon Tonpachi, a fine tonkatsu joint. I first found Tonpachi a handful of years ago when it was still being run by the second-generation master. It was a narrow, dark, atmospheric eatery that despite its decrepitude turned out a tasty tonkastu. In my absence, the place has been gutted and rebuilt into a narrow bright, still somewhat atmospheric eatery run now by the third-generation master.

The master is a talkative fellow. He explains that his great grandfather started the tonkatsu shop nearly 70 years ago. The grandfather, though, wasn’t much interested in pigs or cooking so he opened a coffee shop instead which is now defunct. The master’s father took over the business and just recently retired. The old shop had to be remodeled, he adds, because things here and there were falling apart.

The thick pork cutlets at Tonpachi hail from Chiba. The filiment-cut cabbage is sourced wherever it is sweetest, says the master. The very narrow shop is mostly counter and kitchen with a small table for two and a less small table for four. A television set above the “oshibori” steamer seems permanently set to samurai dramas. His wife assists. Every so often she opens the oshibori heater and spritzes the heated towels with a fragrant mist. They have what could be Tokyo’s best smelling hot towels. I spent a long moment inhaling the fresh soap scent with the towel pressed to my nose.

The “ros” tonkatsu set (1700 yen) comes with a mound of that fine cabbage, a dollop of potato salad, a small bowl of very fine house-made pickles: turnip, carrot, cucumber and Chinese cabbage, and a bowl of miso soup loaded with tofu and bits of pork. The breading on the cutlet is flaky and crisp. The master prefers the slower, slightly cooler frying temperature that some other tonkastu joints use.

The more expensive “hire” or filet cutlet is also fine. Oysters and crab are in season now, and Tonpachi offers a set featuring either of those for 1400 yen. On the counter is an array of condiments: Worchestershire Sauce, the house-made tonkatsu sauce, and a tiny pot of mustard. Also is a cute little toothpick dispenser. Push the crow down and he’ll pick up a toothpick in his beak.

From my counter seat, we chat about Tokyo and how much it’s changed in 30 years. Raccoon Alley got its moniker from an old coffee shop named Raccoon,says the master, that used to be situated nearby. Not his grandfather’s place, though, he adds. Nor were ever any real raccoons about.

When I finish and am sipping a cup of green tea, the master points to a box of shop namecards at the end of the counter near the door.

“I’ll take one,” I say, “and I’ll recommend this place to my friends.”

“Please!” he says. “Take four or five or six.”


Tonpachi Tei: 4-3-4 Ueno, Taito-ku. 03.3831.4209

Closed Sundays.



Murugi: Old school curry joint on a Shibuya hilltop

Monday, November 5th, 2012

When the master of Murugi opened his curry shop in Showa 26 (1951) the surrounding neighborhood on the hilltop of Dogenzaka in Shibuya was alive with movies theaters, coffee shops, and bowling alleys—a center of family entertainment. Another type of entertainment now prevails—love hotels and sex clubs, but Murugi carries on preserving the feel of the old neighborhood, as does the iconic Lion coffeeshop just around the corner.

The master’s daughter now runs Murugi preparing the 62-year-old vintage menu of chicken curry, hayashi curry, saté, and the gado gado salad. Her father loved mountain climbing, says the daughter. And he created the mountain-shaped mound of rice towering above the dark, glistening curry to represent Mt. Everest. The curry is chicken-based, simmered until mahogany brown and redolent of its secret mix of spice. The signature dish is the tamago-iri curry (1050 yen) with the rice mountain girdled by slices of hard-boiled egg ribboned with a red line of ketchup.

The dish comes with a dollop of house-made chutney and two jars of condiments: bright red batons of tangy ginger and pale orange bits of pickled daikon radish.

For an extra 50 yen, you can modulate the standard spiciness of the curry sauce: milder, hotter, or super-hot. You can also add a mozzarella/gouda cheese topping for an extra 100 yen.

The Gado Gado salad (850 yen) is a large bowl of lettuce, tomato wedges, slices of hard-boiled egg, cucumber, and bean sprouts annointed with a house-made dressing. The Saté (1200 yen) are spicy bits of grilled chicken.

The brick exterior continues inside with a red brick fireplace. The dark wood tables are wide with plenty of space for elbow room. Last time I was there, the music was Motown from the 60s—the Four Tops, the Temptations, Wilson Pickett. But sometimes jazz is on the radio. A steady stream of customers come and go.

Nothing’s flashy here at Murugi. Just a few dishes that have over the decades proven themselves to be winners. The staff too are such.

Stop by for lunch should you be climbing the Dogenzaka slope.

Murugi, 2-19-2 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, 03.3461.8809. Open for lunch only: 11:30am to 3pm. Closed Fridays.