Zakoya (Izakaya), Shimokitazawa

"Zakoya" is a restaurant we've been passing by for quite some time now always thinking it looked really good with its bricks and black wood structure, but without ever visiting. We finally entered the izakaya (food serving pub) yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Osozai on the counter

The restaurant consists of a big counter circling the kitchen, some tables at the end, and a second floor where you can fit 20 people. We sat at the only two seats available at the counter (the place is popular) and after ordering two beers (quite cheap at ¥450), the man in the counter started explaining to us in a perfect English what the recommendations of the day were. As it turned out, pursuing his passion for rock guitar, he had spent 10 years in California when he was 18, hence the perfect English. He also happened to be the eatery's boss as well as the son of the lady who brought us the beers, and he is now back to Shimokitazawa where he was born and raised. Local family business.

Nasu No Agedashi

There was an amazing choice of what looked like excellent Osozai (Japanese "deli") on the counter, but we rather opted for some of the recommended stuff as well as some of our favorite dishes, starting with the cold "Nasu No Agedashi" (deep-fried eggplant). Though dubbed "deep-fried", it is cooked without batter and seasoned with a dashi broth (mix of bonito sauce, soy sauce and mirin), thus the rather boiled or simmered look of the vegetable (or fruit, whichever you want...). The beautifully purple eggplant topped with sesame and grated ginger was nicely tender and the dashi well done. Good stuff.


Then came the "Reba-Katsu" (deep-fried liver), one of the strongly recommended dish. The liver was slightly too creamy for my liking but it did work well with the crunchy breadcrumbs, letting you enjoy two opposite consistencies at the same time. The mayonnaise and the Japanese style Worcestershire sauce added on top of the fries were the perfect seasoning, the sauce adding some kick to the rather low-salt liver, and the light mayonnaise sort of smoothing the oiliness. I do not need to tell you that the beer disappeared quickly with that recipe. Which led me to try a glass of sake "Inokashira" (¥450). Good drink but I would choose something else if you're into dry sake, as this one is pretty sweet.

By that time, they were done cooking the "Kabestu No Obun Yaki" (oven grilled Cabbage), which was brought to us very hot in a small casserole. The half-cabbage was topped with sliced carrots, bits of beacon, powdered cheese and parsley. The cabbage was juicy and sitting in a broth which reminded me of a pot-au-feu bouillon. The sauce is surprisingly peppered so beware if you're not into spicy stuff.

Aburi Shime-Saba

Wanting something more appropriate for my sake, we ordered a plate of "Aburi Shime-Saba" (quickly roasted marinated mackerel) which I jumped on for its relatively cheap price at ¥580. I had been tempted for already a good fifteen minutes as our neighbors had ordered it and it looked quite good, not to mention that I always love the mise en scene often put by chefs of quickly spot-roasting the fish in front of you with a kitchen torch. After once again witnessing the boss' burner abilities on our fish, I quickly tried a slice as I like it when the flesh is still slightly warm from the fire. Very glad I chose this item as the fish was fatty (melting like butter...) and nicely sour from the vinegar. Not bad at ¥580: by the way, there were more slices of fish than on the above photo, when it was brought to us. With the sake working on me, I had neglected my journalistic duties and forgotten to immediately shoot the plate when it reached us. Apologies.

More pushed by curiosity than appetite, we finally ordered the Nazo No Corokke (the mysterious croquettes) at ¥100 a piece. You just need to know that in Japan, Korokke are usually stuffed with mashed potatoes and bits of beef. I will let you try these without telling you what's in it to keep the mystery alive. Don't worry, they were good and there was no weird ingredients in it.

Once again, we overall enjoyed the meal and the place looks good with its authentic Izakaya decor, hand-written menus hanging from the roof and osozai displayed on the counter. Do ask the boss what the deli items are, as they all seemed excellent, and you sure won't be lost in translation there.
Couple of minor complains would be 1) the ¥300 per head seating charge (probably for the Edamame appetizer they gave us) and 2) the slightly small size of the drinks (but probably compensated by their cheap price)

Before I forget, the boss was wearing a Judas Priest T-shirt, so who knows, you might get a free dish if you're from Birmingham or a metal fan...

Zakoya is closed on Tuesdays and open the rest of the week from 17:30pm to 24:00pm.
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-9-21
Click here for a MAP

Karate Chop (Vietnamese), Shimokitazawa

We just visited Vietnam in March, and having overdosed on the local food at the time, we since hadn't been too much in a mood for that cuisine. However, after a couple of months, the crave for exoticism finally got the upperhand, and the weather being nice, we visited the cute "Karate Chop", a tiny and airy Vietnamese restaurant with a nice little semi-terrasse.

After getting a seat in the small but charming shop, I ordered what seemed the most filling Buta To Tamago No Nitsuke Don (¥840) which I oversized (+¥100). I am not sure what the most appropriate translation would be but let me go with Simmered Pork Bowl with a soft boiled egg.
After about 10 to 15mn, the chef brought us with our orders, the aforementioned bowl and the Zenbu-Iri Curry (curry with bunch of ingredients) (¥1,200).

The simmered pork was quite fibrous but managed to be very juicy when chewed on. It tasted like it had been simmered in a mix of Shoyu and Vietnamese fish sauce Nuoc Mam but Mea Culpa if I'm wrong on this. It was a shame it was not soft enough though to be easily mixed with the rice as it would have made a nice mix.
The egg was nicely half-boiled, which I love, with a nice flavor to it. The juicy and sour thin-tripped pickles added a nice consistence and aroma to the whole.
My only problem was the rice: it's my fault I oversized the bowl, but I got really bored towards the end as it's an unseasoned rice and there clearly was too much of it. I had to add quite a lot of Nuoc Mam to finish the dish. I strongly recommend that you order the regular size of this dish.
The bowl also came with a very good milk pudding that really nicely melted in my mouth and a cup of slightly too light cold lotus tea.

My wife seemed to enjoy the more Thai-tasting Zenbu-Iri Curry but it seemed to me a little expensive for lunch, even with that paper peacock on top...

They also had bunch of other Vietnamese fares such as the baguette sandwhiches "Bahn Mi" or a variety of Pho, so I will definitely try it again to have a better idea of the place...

Karate Chop is open everyday from noon to 23:00pm.
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-7-3
Click here for a MAP

Sanuki Udon Sawa (Udon), Shimokitazawa

After slurping some Tempura Udon at "Hoteiya" for dinner two days ago, downing a large size of Tom Yam Kung Ramen at "Tinun" for lunch and a bowl of Tonkotsu-Shoyu Ramen at "Tsukumo Ramen" in Ebisu yesterday after clubbing hard, I ate my fourth noodle dish in 36 hours at "Sanuki Udon Sawa" yesterday.
For your information, UDONs are wheat flour noodles usually eaten in a hot broth, or served cold and dipped in a Tsuyu sauce before slurped.
Sanuki is the old name for what is the actual Kagawa prefecture in the southern island of Shikoku, and the Sanuki Udon designates a particular way of serving the Udon in Kagawa. I still don't know exactly what a Sanuki Udon is, except that when served in a broth, it is a clear one (whereas the Kanto, northern-central region of the main Honshu Island, one is darker and saltier), and it is considered good manner to swallow the whole broth.

"Sanuki Udon Sawa" seems to take this Udon business quite seriously and manufacture its own Udons in the shop. A wooden placard in the shop says "一日一麺" (Ichinichi Ichichimen, meaning Eat a bowl of noodles everyday) which is an obvious pun on the famous expression "一日一善" (Ichinichi Ichizen, signifying Do a good deed everyday), so it still manages to do that with humor.

When we got in, we were welcomed by a smily tall chef in his 50s who seated us at the counter. After being told that the items with a red dot on the menu were the recommendations, I went for the Curry Udon which was one of them. A Curry Udon is boiled Udon served in a bowl of thick and hot curry soup. I'm not an adept of that dish as I usually find the curry taste to be a little boring at the end, but I got curious.

The curry, a typical Japanese sweet-flavored one, was thick and rather spicy. Some people might even find it too hot, but I quite liked it as the spice allowed to fight off the sweetness and give a kick to the whole. As in a lot of Sanuki Udon recipe, the chef uses some Iriko-Dashi (dry little sardines broth) in its bouillon which adds that typical southern Japan Udon flavor to the sauce.

It is a little difficult for me give you a review on how the noodles tasted because of the strong curry aroma, but they had what I would assume is low to medium firmness. They were easy to swallow, though maybe a little too tender. Despite the menu saying it may take up to 15 to 20mn to serve the Udon which they boil from order, I think they got to us in less time, so maybe the chef just heated some pre-boiled Udon? Which would explain the tenderness, but these are just assumptions...

The bowl was topped with very good Atsuage (deep-fried Tofu), chopped leek, sesame and a raw egg. I recommend that you mix the yolk as soon as you get the noodles as it will smoothen the spicy broth. I ended up drinking the whole soup, so I guess I liked it.

At ¥800, it's neither cheap nor expensive. By the way, supersizing the bowl is free so definitely do it as it's not that big anyway.
Last but not the least, if you're not into an Indian remix of the Udon, they do have more traditional Udon dishes as well.
And at dinner time, you can also order some food from the Okinawa restaurant on the 2nd floor.

Sanuki Udon Sawa is open everyday from 11:30am to 23:00pm, but close for an hour from 16:00pm.
Setagaya-ku, Daizawa 5-32-7
Click here for a MAP

Hoteiya (Soba), Taishido

I wasn't sure whether I should feature "Hoteiya" as it's one of my best well-kept secret and it's a little out of the way from Shimokitazawa, but what's the use of keeping a blog for visitors if not to divulge the best stuff?

Hoteiya is a family-run Sobaya (Soba noodles restaurant) located in the residential Taishido area, between Shimokitazawa and cool Sangenjaya, though way closer to the latter. The restaurant is the oldest Sobaya in business in the huge Setagaya ward (as big as Manhattan NY), and has been open since 1925. This local's favorite is kept vibrant and lively by an incredibly friendly old couple, their three daughters and an always smily charming grand-daughter.
It is a little difficult to find, but if you're willing to enjoy potentially getting lost before reaching the place (or even not get there....), soak up in an authentic local atmosphere, eat good food at VERY reasonable price, try real Japanese hospitality and get comfortably numb with the very rare and excellent Sobayu-Wari (distilled barley alcohol mixed with boiled water diluted buckwheat flour), then go for it!

Though Hoteiya is a Soba restaurant, the sisters will be the first ones to laugh that they've become over the years more of an izakaya (food serving pub) than a noodle eatery. The best thing to do when you get there is definitely sampling some of their extensive non soba/udon food menu before finally attacking the specialties.
That's exactly what we did the other day when we ordered some Itawasa (fresh slices of fish cake Kamaboko eaten with wasabi and shoyu) to accompany our opening beers, before working on the chewy Konyaku (block of boiled konjak) Miso-Dengaku style (seasoned with hot sweet miso sauce). Both dishes are healthy low-calories typical Japanese appetizers and very pleasant to munch on to while your appetite grows, so try them if you can.

Miso Dengaku

We then moved on to the amazing and even healthier Yon-Shoku-Mori (literally Mixed Four Colors) which is a combination of four gooey ingredients, Nato (fermented beans), Tororo (grated Japanese yam potato), Mekabu (Wakame seaweed root) and Okura. You add a little soy sauce, mix the whole thing until it becomes slimy and eat it. Though it's rather poor in taste, but interesting in consistence, it has become one of my favorite dish at Hoteiya because of the rather big portion they give you and its affordable ¥500.

Yon-Shoku Mori

In the meantime, we ordered the incredibly rare (I have NEVER seen this anywhere else) SOBAYU-WARI to follow our empty beers. SOBAYU is the (once again very healthy) water in which the soba noodles have been boiled. Soba shops usually bring you the translucid and whitish liquid at the end of your meal, so you may add it in your Tsuyu dipping broth and drink the delicious solution. That's how Sobayu is used in Japan 99,99% of the time but not in Hoteiya. They go through the process of mixing buckwheat flour with boiled water to make a thick (and obviously much more flavored than the usual Sobayu, which is after all just remaining cooking water) soup that you mix with Mugi-Shochu (distilled barley alcohol which tastes like vodka) to make an interesting drink. It's got that undeniable Sobayu taste but it's a quite lethal one! You'll see a lot of repeaters ordering this for its good taste, its rarity and for the nice buzz that follows....

Soba-Yu Wari

It's unfortunate I have a limit of 5 pictures per thread because we also ordered a "Tako-Butsu" (raw octopus cut in chunks) which comes in rather big proportions. By the way, you will quickly find out that this family always seems to be in a mission of stuffing you until you give up. That's a least how it's been every single time for us, though we are increasingly careful about the amount we order each time. Whether it's due to the fact that they sometimes bring repeaters a little "extra" dish to thank you for patronizing them or because everything is so cheap, I'm not sure yet but we still haven't managed to order less than we should.
So it almost came as no surprise (if not for our belly) when they brought us a free Ume (marinated salty plum) seasoned Tofu salad, after we had already ordered a final Udon dish each.

I chose the "TenZaru Udon" (cold udon with a separate plate of Tempura). After so much to eat and one too many cup of Sobayu-Wari, it's difficult to keep track of what you're gobbling, but if I remember well, the good Tempura consisted of deep-fried Carrot, Shiso leaf, whole Shrimp, Eggplant, Green Pepper, Zenmai fern and Okura. And yes, I haven't forgotten Hoteiya is a noddle restaurant: well, their cold udon (thick wheat flour noodles) had a nice Koshi (firmness) and were the perfect finish to this orgy.

Udon (with Nori seaweed on top)

If you're wondering how much we paid for all that food and drinks, it cost less than ¥5,000 for the two of us. Not bad huh?

Hoteiya is (unfortunately) closed on Tuesdays and open the rest of the week from 11:45am to 15:00pm and from 17:30pm to 20:30pm in the evening
Setagaya-ku, Taishido 2-32-3
Click here for a much needed MAP

Frisco (Burgers), Shimokitazawa

UPDATE: Frisco just closed end of July 2010 as the building it was in will be destroyed. It will reopen one day, so stay tuned!

The hole-in-the-wall...

I chose today another wonderful place that I have unfortunately neglected far too long, which I visited the other day for the first time in probably five years.
The first time I ate at "Frisco" (which was right after it opened), literally a burger hole-in-the-wall, the chatty English-speaking owner gave me a brief and honest introduction on why he got to open this joint. I remember being rather surprised as he did not seem too sure whether that even was a good idea or not, being new in the business and new in Japan after spending a great part of his life in the US. He did not know Shimokitazawa very well either (except that potential-burger-eating youths hang around a lot in the area), so you will appreciate why I got a little worried for the guy. The burger was good, that's for sure, but the place is so VERY hard to find that I thought word-of-mouth would not be enough to sustain decent business. Thus, fearing the disappointment and the bad feeling of visiting an ever empty store, I simply never went there again. As usual, too bad for me, and I hope I can catch up as soon as possible with the lost time. Please try it for yourself if you like nicely barbecued burgers. You won't be disappointed.

When we got in the shop, I was first impressed by the several quality press clips on the wall, all praising the state-of-the-art burger. Also, five minutes after we got there, few regulars-looking customers got in, clearly meaning I had been wrong all the way on selfishly predicting the future of this burger business.

The charcoal, the grill and the buns toasting

The reason this shop got so much word-of-mouth certainly relies on the charcoal grill that gives the meat and the buns such distinctive smoky aroma. Not sure whether that was a way to avoid heating the grill to a temperature too high, but the owner placed the metal grid over the red charcoal after we placed our order. We opted for the filling Cheeseburger set (¥1,200), that comes with a drink and some french fries.

Owner bbqing the patty

The cheese burger consists of the grill-toasted hard-on-the-outside but soft-on-the-inside buns, a well-done and wonderfully smoky 150g beef patty, the guilty-pleasuresque slice of cheddar cheese with its undefinable umami, some VERY fresh onion, tomato, lettuce and a little pickle. You guessed it right: it's a simple and classic burger like you'll see barbecued everywhere in the US.

The Cheeseburger

The crinkle-cut french fries are heavenly crispy and salted enough to match the salt-and-pepper-only-seasoned patty. I think there was a very thin layer of mustard and mayonnaise on the buns, but nothing else that came in the way. In other words, the cooking is really designed to make you enjoy the flavor of the juicy beef and the smoke aroma.
The vegetables are super fresh and provide a very nice crunchiness and freshness to the whole.

The Cheeseburger set

I am sure there are plenty of good places among those new burger joints popping out in Tokyo, but I would assume that "Frisco" has to be ranking among the best ones, especially in the "authentic", "sunday barbecue style" category.
It is expensive at ¥1,200, but if you're ready to pay the price, you will most probably enjoy it, with the additional fun of actually having to find this incredibly tiny joint in the Shimokitazawa maze.

"Frisco" is closed on Tuesdays, and open the rest of the week everyday from 11:30am to 21:00pm
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-34-11
click here for a very needed MAP