Monday, November 9, 2009

Mystery Sticks

We all have our favorite Tokyo haunts. A lot of us learned about them through friends or colleagues and discovered that these places provide great food in an environment that is expat friendly. While I don’t recommend relying exclusively on these places that fall within a comfort zone, there is always that evening when you just don’t feel like trying so hard. Sometimes, you just want to throw on jeans and shoes that you might actually be able to walk in after several hours and many beers, and go somewhere where there won’t be any awkward surprises.

My husband and I have two such places, both of which, by no coincidence are the comfort spots of most of our colleagues. These places are legendary in our circles, so much so that no one refers to them by their actual names. Instead, they are called the Stick Restaurant and The Mexican Place in Nishi-Ogikubo. I’ll explain why we love The Stick Restaurant now and save The Mexican Place in Nishi-Ogikubo for next time.

If you aren’t familiar with kushiage, and if your bad cholesterol isn’t too high, The Stick Restaurant, which is actually called Tatsukichi, is worth a visit or 10. For me, this is where I head when I want to be in very Japanese environment that is actually easy to negotiate. It’s laid back, it’s fairly dark, and it smells great. You can expect your coat to reek of fryer grease the next day, but while you’re there, it smells divine.

Kushiage is a way of eating in which you don’t have to order anything except your drink. How easy is that? Once you are seated and a large, semi-circle bar that surrounds a cooking station, you are handed a plate with compartments and a collection of vegetable sticks that pass as a salad. Order a drink and sit tight. Within a few minutes, the cook will pour different sauces in the plate compartments and soon will begin to place mysterious skewers of battered and deep fried food on your plate. From that point forward, all you have to do is order more drinks and see what shows up.

The people we know who are old pros or who have food allergies are really good at telling the cook what they won’t or can’t eat. We like to wait and see what we get. The salmon wrapped cheese, quail eggs, asparagus with bacon, and roast beef are all outstanding. When you get a favorite and find out what it is, you can get more by shouting out what you want and the cook will yell back to the kitchen to send some more his way. The rest of the time, it’s just fun to debate with your husband about what you think you might be eating. One time, we went with someone who could explain all of the food and it was almost less fun. I felt like he was sucking the mystery out of the room.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are inevitably some duds. Every time we go, I make myself take one bite from the bowl of oily green seaweed slime that comes out early in the meal. It’s gross every time, but I keep trying just to be sporting. I’m still perfecting how to say that I don’t want smelt, which is a little silver fish that gets skewered whole and served up that way, tail and head and all. It’s some pretty nasty business, so every time we’re leaving the house, I have our Japanese babysitter coach me how to ask the cook not to give me any. I’ve practiced. I’ve written it down. Nothing works. One of the last skewers of the night is always that wretched little fish. I think it’s the chef’s way of conveying that it’s time for us to go.

As you eat, you keep your empty sticks in a little cup by your plate. When you’ve eaten your fill, hold up the big X with your arms to signal that you don’t want any more. The cook will count your skewers and charge you per stick. I still have no idea whether or not we have to pay for the green slime, because really, they should pay us for that one.

There are other kushiage joints where you batter and fry your own skewers. We’ve tried this, but it seemed very lacking. Perusing a cooler of raw chicken and other bits doesn’t really do it for me. Also, if the pieces are too small, they just turn to little bricks in the oil. What was it Woody Allen said? I think it was something along the lines of “The food was terrible, and the portions were so small.” For me, that’s DIY kushiage, small portions of mediocre food served under fluorescent lights, which is whole other essay. I like the big portions of mystery food that are perfectly cooked every time.

To get to Tatsukichi, exit Shinjuku station by the Gap, take the ramp down and to the left. Take another left at the IDC building and continue to the Amos Style underwear store. Just beyond the underwear, there’s a little alcove with an elevator. Take it to the fourth floor. Unless you arrive really, really early, plan to wait about 45 minutes for a seat.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can try to make the wall of records for most sticks eaten in a single sitting. It is divided into men’s and women’s records, so everyone can give it a go. For a map, pictures, and a shot of the wall of records, go to

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