When you live in Shimokitazawa, you tend to become blind to the existence of a LOT of restaurants just simply because there are so many of them to choose from. And a lot of them are so good that it is human nature to go safe and keeping going to the same ones.
That's where comes the advantage of writing a blog. You do have to fuel it with new places and try some of those restaurants that have fallen out of your scope or you have simply ignored.
The Chinese eatery "Rairaiken" I chose today is not only one of those places I unfortunately overlooked for too many years, but it seems to be into everyone's oblivion, leading a life of its own in a different time pocket.
"Rairaiken", which is as typical of a name for an old Chinese restaurant in Japan as "Taj Mahal" would be for an Indian joint, was opened in 1945 by the father of the present owner, who according to what the "Tonsui" lady told me before, used to provide free food to starving people in the aftermath of the war. So it is an understatement to say that this eatery is hold in high-esteem among old folks in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, being respected by the older generation doesn't mean you will be flooded with customers, and accordingly, Rairaiken never seems to have anyone to serve food to...I'll be honest by telling you that the main reason I never entered this place is because I have rarely seen anyone in there since I moved here and that was obviously not a good sign... But boy was I wrong. It is no Michelin food, but I can assure you that they deserve WAY more customers!
The old-movie-set looking place was empty (as usual) when we got there. We were welcome by the restaurant lady who is 77 years old now, while her husband, who inherited of the place when his father passed away in early 1950, stayed in the kitchen. Upon Tonsui's lady recommendation, we ordered the "famous" Niku-Dango (Chinese-style meat balls), and otherwise opted for the Chahan (Chinese-style fried rice), a dish which is supposed to give you an idea of how good the joint is (as a lot of Japanese will tell you) and some Gomoku-Yakisoba (mixed Chao Mian)
The meat balls, which took a good twenty minutes to get to our table as they were unbelievably made from scratch, are the perfect bite-size at three to four centimers in diameter and seem to be a mix of pork and beef. They are slightly hard on the outside, giving a nice resistance to the teeth, and the syrupy Ankake glaze just sweet enough. They are a bit expensive at ¥1,100 but they are handmade from order, and I can imagine them going perfectly hand in hand with a good bowl of white rice.
The "Chahan" fried rice was definitely a proof of the owner's cooking skills and experience. Nothing extravagant, just a really nice and simple not sticky Chahan, sufficiently al dente to make you work on it and enjoy the taste of the Eggs, Chashu (chinese-style bbq pork) and Naruto (sliced fish cake). The rice was kept smooth from the lard used as cooking fat, which was very pleasant as I hate it when you end up choking on a Chahan that is too dry.
The last dish we went for is the Gomoku-Yakisoba, or sauteed noodles topped with vegetables and seafood cooked in thick glaze: another plate that did not disappoint at all. I don't know whether the noodles were quickly steamed before being sauteed but they had a nice consistency, not to mention that the low-salt thick shoyu-based sauce went greatly with the noodles and the numerous stirred ingredients (carrot, sprout, Chinese cabbage, pork, shrimp, bamboo shoot, jew's ear, naruto and mushroom)
Given the advanced age of the adorable folks managing this place, I really have no idea how long they will keep the place alive, so please do try and eat there if you have a chance as it will keep the restaurant from being (what I believe to be) unjustly empty, definitely give you a great idea of what an old local Chinese restaurant in Japan tastes like and last but not the least convince them what we have not forgotten them.
So let yourself welcomed by the white Beckoning Cat "Maneki-Neko" in the window and enjoy the time trip as well as the good food!
I forgot to check when they are closed, so I shall update the info as soon as I can.
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 3-26-3
Click here for a MAP