Tokyo by Night, a Foodie Fantasy

Tokyo is a city of fantasies, from the current cosplay rage (dressing up in costume, in public, mostly anime characters) to hyper-sexualized maid cafes. When I called the “Tokyo Fixer” Shinji Nohara, I had my own specific fantasy in mind (albeit a foodie fantasy): a wild night of izakaya-hopping. An izakaya is a Japanese gastropub, churning out a variety of small plates with an endless supply of drink. They come to life after dark, when the salarymen hit the town. Picture that scene in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”, you know the one – the restaurant slaughter… THAT is an izakaya (although the actual izakaya that inspired the film is now overrun with tourists, overpriced and allegedly serving subpar food.) I wanted an entire evening dedicated to eating and drinking my way through the real Tokyo-by-night.

I did my research, and soon realized that if I wanted to get off the tourist grid and into Tokyo’s gritty izakaya scene, I couldn’t do it alone. Not only would I need someone to translate and “vouch” for me in some fervently local eateries, being as female and blonde as I am, I would need someone who knew Tokyo’s sprawling foodie underground like the back of their hand, leading me to the most delicious tables in the city. Enter: Shinji Nohara, the Tokyo Fixer.

We began our night at Shomben Yokocho, translation: “Piss Alley” (though Tokyo wants you to call it “Memory Lane.”) Imagine a bustling, narrow strip in the heart of the city’s Shinjuku district. The air is thickened by the charcoal smoke billowing out from dozens of tiny yakitori joints. The nickname originates from the lack of facilities in this drinker’s paradise.

Shinji chose our first stop, a tiny, unidenitified yakitori bar, specializing in char-grilled skewers of meat. Note: at Shomben Yokocho not all establishments use real charcoal. Skip the electric grills and go for the real deal, even if it means waiting for a table.

We sampled edamame, skewers of grilled chicken and pork with scallions. Of course we washed it all down with a giant Japanese beer. I could have stayed on the alley for the whole night, bouncing from one tiny locale to the next, devouring everything in sight, but Shinji had other (better) plans in store for us.

Our second stop was at Udatsu, an upscale, restaurant-like izakaya. We slid into the dark wooden booths and ordered up mugs of beer. This dimly lit gastropub is known for serving culinary delicacies. We tried the jellyfish and squid salad, furry salmon, and the most tender grilled scallion I’d ever tasted. Though the small bites are meant to accompany beer or sake, the quality and inventiveness of the dishes make this izakaya a standout for the serious eater.

Above: tender jellyfish and squid salad. Below: furry salmon.

Our next stop, Toriyoshi, is currently one of Tokyo’s trendiest izakayas. This all-organic eatery is famous for its chicken specialties, including the chicken wings and chicken meatballs we put down between ceramic mug-fulls of local beer. Sitting at the blonde bamboo counter gave us a prime view of the izakaya’s talented grill-master, fanning his glowing coals. We ordered plates of grilled tender, white bamboo shoots, bowls of crispy pickled vegetables and soy-soaked daikon topped with a glistening, golden quail’s egg.

Above: chicken meatballs. Below: daikon with a quail’s egg.

Our final stop of the night landed us at Nenohi, a loud, packed-to-the-gills izakaya specializing in some of Tokyo’s best yakitori. A little bit of culinary history: Shinji brought Anthony Bourdain here on his trip to Tokyo while researching for “A Cook’s Tour.” I don’t believe there could be anywhere in Tokyo better suited to wrapping up a long night of drinking than Nenohi. Hot, smoky, and crowded – a bit like being at the center of the foodie universe.

You can try this at home… When we finally scored seats, a waiter brought the most ingenious snack food to our table: crisp, green cabbage served with miso paste. So much better than chips and salsa!

Because our stomachs were beyond stuffed, it was all we could do to order one last round of beer with a few final yakitori skewers. I chose my absolute favorite bites: chicken skin yakitori, along with more chicken meatballs and grilled pork skewers. This was the perfect ending to a perfectly executed foodie fantasy.

Contact Shinji Nohara for your own personalized Japanese culinary adventure at: http://www.tokyofixer.com/

2010 Mileage Total: 98981

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