Mintei (Chinese), Shimokitazawa

"Mintei", the epitome of a cheap eatery in rocking Shimokitazawa, is one of the, if not the most famous joint in the neighborhood. It is not the oldest establishment (if you're looking for an old one, check out the Japanese-Chinese "Rairaiken"), but it has been open for more than 40 years, which is quite old for Japanese standards.

the worn-down old menu plates on the wall

I first went to "Mintei" when I was a teenager, which is a LONG time ago, and the place has not changed at all since. The only thing that has changed is probably the color of the several celebrity autographs on the walls, that have yellowed over the decades. One autograph that is worth mentioning is the one on top of the counter by the entrance, signed in 1989 by the vocalist from legendary punk rock band "The Blue Hearts", Hiroto Komoto.
Shimokitazawa being the THE indie/rock town of Japan, a lot of kids aspiring to be future stars, work part-time in some of the restaurants in the area before or after rehearsing at studios. Hiroto Komoto, one of them, used to work in Mintei in the 80s. The tradition is still holding strong, and if you ever visit this joint, you will probably see musician-looking-kids in the kitchen.
The customers are a mix of young couples, students, musicians, and middle-aged people from the neighborhood looking for a cheap meal.

the old autographs above the counter

Another thing worth noting is the rather "punk" catch-phrase outside the restaurant amusingly citing the joint as "serving the 3rd best food in the world". The reason why it's not the best or second best is, according to Mintei, because:
1. the best food in the world is the "Ofukuro No Aji", that is your mum's cooking (check out 2nd paragraph of this post for a little explanation)
2. the second best is your dad's shin taste when you bite on it (a Japanese expression saying "bite on your parent's shin" means to sponge off one's parents)
3, the third best food in the world is their Ramen

As you can see, one thing they do not lack is a good sense of humor. Now, is the food as good as the humor?

Well, I'd have to say it's not as great as what the joint's reputation would make you believe. I have never tried anything other than the "Edokko Ramen" (Edokko, literally kid from Edo, relates to a person born in Edo, the old Tokyo; such person is often perceived as being cheerful, in your face and straightforward), which consists of a big bowl of Shoyu Ramen with homemade Kimchi (Korean-style fermented cabbage with chili) on top and the "Wantan Men" (ramen with Chinese dumplings Won Ton), making it difficult to give you a constructive review of the place, but the house specialty "Edokko Ramen" is rather mediocre.

Edokko Ramen

The soup tastes like a lightly salted Torigara (chicken bones) and shoyu-based broth. It is relatively clear and not too oily. The soup tastes actually much better than the rest of the ingredients: the boiled Aona greens are very plain in taste and a bit too flabby, the large pieces of Chashu (Chinese style bbq pork) are fibrous and too low in salt.
The Kimchi is a little too strong in garlic for me, when I would have loved it slightly more sour and chilihot. It seems by the way quite unusual to name a Ramen "Edokko" when its particularity is the topped Korean item.
Last but not the least: the noodles, though ok in taste, are way lacking in Koshi, or firmness. I usually don't put much emphasis on the Koshi, but when the rest is average, you want at least your noodles to have some sort of character.

The Wantan Men's broth is on the other hand quite salty (even too salty I think), so only order it if you're ready for it.

As you can see, I'm not a big fan of their food. Once again, I've only tried a couple of Ramen dish, so that's not enough to give you a fair review, but so far, it's been mediocre. It will definitely give you an idea of what a lot of Ramen used to taste like all over Japan back in the good ol' days...

What's more interesting is definitely the Showa-era feel that the place resonates.

"Mintei" is closed on Mondays, and open the rest of the week from 11:30am to 23:20pm.
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-8-8
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City Country City (Cafe Restaurant), Shimokitazawa

I made a quick reference about "City Country City" in a previous post about the South Indian restaurant "Spice Kitchen Moona" as both joints hold business in the same building. Moona is on the 5th and "CCC" is one floor below.

This cafe/restaurant is owned and managed by Keiichi Sokabe, the leader of the 90s cult indie rock band "Sunny Day Service". The band broke up in 2000 and Keiichi has had a good solo career since, while simultaneously heading the label Rose Records and being a key figure in the indie scene.

His cafe is a hang-out place for his fans, indie kids roaming the streets of Shimokitazawa and people just wanting to chill out.
As per any musician-owned place, few signatures adorn the walls of the cafe (among which my very good buddy Alex From Tokyo's) as well as several hundred used vinyl records from Chicago House to indie Rock, which you can select from the racks and listen to before buying.

The place is overall very charming and clean, with a nice and relaxing feel. They do not blast the music, which is comforting, and a nice smell of incense floats in the air. I love the old upright piano by the window.

You can obviously go there for a cafe, but I went there for lunch the other day. The menu is very simple, with a set comprising of a limited choices of pasta, hot or cold coffee/jasmine tea or apple juice, all for little south of ¥1,000.

I chose the popular Spaghetti Carbonara (egg, grated cheese, bacon and black pepper). If you feel like it, have a quick look at the wiki article on this dish: it seems to be dating from the later half of the 20th century, making it a surprisingly very contemporary recipe. It is interesting to see that "It was first recorded after the war as a Roman dish, when many Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by troops from the United States".

The fettuccine used as pasti are quite firm, not to the al dente point though, and are good to chew on. The very delicately crispy bacon and the relatively thick sauce are well balanced in terms of saltiness and combine very well with the pasta.
it might be just a cafe, as well as a used record store, but they do know how to cook a good Carbonara. With a complimentary piece of quickly toasted sliced baguette bread (which I'm not sure is necessary with a plate of noodles), the whole meal cost me ¥950. Not too bad considering the nice service, the chill-out atmosphere and the taste of the food.

City Country City is open everyday from noon to 01:00am. Lunch is served from noon to 16:00pm
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-12-13, 4F
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Little Saigon (Vietnamese), Shimokitazawa

UPDATE: the restaurant has closed during the summer 2010. The chef is now working at the tiny Vietnamese restaurant Karate Chop

We went to Vietnam on vacations the past March and we overall loved it (click the below photo if you're interested in plenty of pictures from daily life there), though we were slightly disappointed at the pace with which the country is turning into a huge construction site for resorts and exponential-growth-rate-supporting manufactories.
Vietnam - March 2010

What did not let us down though was the food, which we sampled everyday from morning to late in the evening (mention for best food goes to the underdog provincial town of Hoi An). Besides the unavoidable bowl of Pho and the numerous dishes I had researched on various blogs before leaving for Vietnam, I was very much looking forward to eat the real "Cha Ca", a specialty served in Hanoi, which I first got introduced to in this Shimokitazawa Vietnamese restaurant "Little Saigon".

"Little Saigon" is managed by two friendly Vietnamese food fanatic. The cuisine is good, affordable and relatively authentic. The restaurant is in a basement but they keep it from feeling claustrophobic with a pseudo bamboo hut south-east asian decor. If you're interested in Uncle Ho's country, they have bunch of photo albums that they will be more than pleased to show you, so don't hesitate to ask for them.
I strongly recommend the "Com Chien Xa" (lemongrass fried rice), "Ca Kho To" (fish simmered in coconut caramel sauce) and the "Rau Muong Xao Cam" (stirred morning glory).

What we went for the other night were the "Banh Beo" (savory rice pancake), the "Cha Ca" (literally Grilled Fish in Vietnamese) and some Stirred Eggplant.

The stirred eggplant was simple and fresh, with a nice touch of garlic. It is quickly sauteed, leaving the eggplants fleshy and juicy. Excellent appetizers for sure.

Then came Vietnam's old capital Hue specialty "Banh Beo", which, for some reason we did not eat while in Hue.

The Banh Beo are sticky, almost jelly-like rice cakes which you scoop with a spoon. They are topped with leek, dry shrimp and crispy fried shallot. You can add some fish sauce Nuoc Mam, which supplies a nice sour flavor to the otherwise rather plain dish (despite the topped condiments). The look of the dish was exotic and pretty, the texture fun, as well as the scooping process, but it did not provide the aroma explosion that you always expect from Vietnamese fares.

When we finished the rice cakes, the young lady in the kitchen brought us all the stuff needed for their Cha Ca: some Pho noodles in the red plate, some Nuoc Mam in the larger blue bowl, a bit of Mam Tom (very strong fermented shrimp sauce with a pungent smell that reminded me of markets in Vietnam), a large plate of copped dill, spring onion (some fresh, some quickly marinated in vinegar) and some peanuts. The large pan put over some red-hot charcoal contains some vegetable oil and cuts of fleshy white meat fish powdered with turmeric.

Once everything is brought to you, just put everything on the pan, and stir until the greens start to diminish in size (shouldn't take more than 3-4mn). Once you've got to that stage, have some Pho ready in a bowl and top it with some of that excellent sauteed food. Add some Nuoc Mam and a little bit of that shrimp sauce and go nuts! It's a really good dish, and it's fun to make.

The dish costs ¥1,800 but the taste and fun factor do make for the price. It's not as "exotic" and powerful as it was in Hanoi, but it's a must if you ever visit "Little Saigon".

Attaching below for your reference what the "Cha Ca" looked like at the famous restaurant "Cha Ca La Vong" in Hanoi. It was good, but WAY TOO EXPENSIVE so keep that money for some other joint that will not rip you off. "Little Saigon" is open everyday from noon to midnight, last order at 23:00pm
Setagaya-ku, Kitazawa 2-19-17
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