Call this place Omoide Yokocho or any other of the English names it is affectionately known as: Yakitori Lane, Piss Alley, or Memory Lane. Located next to the train tracks on the western side of Shinjuku station, the cramped alleyways of yakitori (skewered grilled meat) restaurants and bars bring us into a view of postwar Japan. Its inconspicuous location makes it a tad tricky to locate initially but once we are there it makes us temporarily forget that we are in Shinjuku, one of the busiest areas for business, entertainment, and shopping in Tokyo. Along Yakitori Lane are many hole-in-the-wall restaurants to choose from with each of them big enough to seat up to about 8 people at a time.
|Sign for Asadachi|
The most adventurously known restaurant along Yakitori Lane is Asadachi which in fact does not quite focus on yakitori alone but specializes in organs, pig testicles, and the infamous frog sashimi. We are the first customers for the night at Asadachi. We go in and seat ourselves on the bench along the very narrowly spaced restaurant that comfortably seats no more than 6 people. The chef stands behind the counter with his mother who helps out. One of their friends is there who appears just to be hanging out with them while chatting loudly in Japanese. That is when our hilarious evening begin mostly thanks to their friend who seems to be quite a funny lady herself. English is hardly spoken at Asadachi and there is a whole lot of hand gesture going on during our interactions.
|Grilled whole frog|
We each start with nama biru (draft beer) and then ask about the frog sashimi only to learn that it is not available at the time. The chef then says something in Japanese and his mother and lady friend then point to their own thighs. We figure they mean frog legs and then put in an order for that. It turns out to be a whole grilled frog. We've had frog legs before (it's popular in French cuisine) but this is our first in having the whole grilled frog. It is grilled just until cooked and when served, we drizzle some soy sauce over it and dig into the delicious first item of the night.
Right in front of me on the counter is a tray of unknown seafood and I point to it while asking Kore wa nan desu ka (What is this)? They show great surprise that I know how to say that in Japanese and giggle a little. The ladies proceed to raise both hands to face level, pretend their hands are claws, and make the action of opening and closing their fingers. The event becomes hilarious and each one of us is boisterously laughing at one another. The chef then lifts a crab that he takes from another plate and picks up that unknown seafood which I asked about earlier, and says "friend". Ahhh, so the unknown seafood is a type of crab. Got it.
|Rare pig's womb|
|Stirring hot water into remaining yolk and sweet soy sauce from above|
We ask about offal and they start to gesture at their stomachs. At the time we are already having a great time laughing at one another. Not quite getting what their gesture at the stomach means, we say hormone yaki (grilled organ)? Their lady friend (at the time we determine that she is quite a hilarious character) shakes her head, gestures again to her stomach, and says "Baby, baby. Pork". Does she mean cooked pig stomach? But how does baby relate to stomach? Sure, we've had plenty of pig stomach before in Chinese cuisine. Shortly after, the small plate arrives and the thinly sliced pieces are rare and served with raw egg yolk, negi (scallions), and sweet soy sauce. This is not pig stomach, no. Pig stomach doesn't look like this. Later we realize that it is pig's womb-- their earlier gesture now makes sense. They tell us to mix it up with the egg yolk. T is more enthusiastic than I in picking up the slippery pieces and putting them into our mouths but after awhile, I succumb to the idea of eating rare pig's womb. The entire experience is fascinatingly interesting. It definitely does not taste horrible and despite some initial hesitation on my part, I can see how the flavor and texture combine to make this a delicacy. After we are finished, the chef gives us a cup of hot water and gestures to us to pour the water into the plate of remaining raw yolk and sauce and to mix them up. His mother adds the gesture of drinking from the bowl and says "soup". A little later, a couple comes in and we see them getting two orders of the raw pig's womb.
|Ankimo (monkfish liver)|
|Grilled tofu cubes|
The chef says something in Japanese with the word "ankimo" in between and we very excitedly say "Ohhh, ankimo!" They burst into a surprise laughter again. We know that is monkfish liver, we've had it before, and we love it. We enjoy the small bowl of perfectly charred tofu cubes and slivers of negi (scallions) by lightly drizzling soy sauce over it. The Japanese potato salad is always a favorite of ours at any Japanese establishment. Lest you think potato salad is American, this Japanese version of comfort food can be found at many local bars and restaurants. What makes the potato salad special is Kewpie, the Japanese brand of mayonnaise that is used.
At one point during our meal, they ask how we are doing and we say to them "Daijobu desu" (we're ok/alright). The ladies laughed excited and their friend say "Ohhh? Daijobu", again giddily excited about the words we know how to say in Japanese. They ask where we are from and we tell them "America shusshin desu" (we are from America). Oh, what a memorable and hilarious night that we will remember.
We left Asadachi and walked a little more along Yakitori Lane. It is time for some skewered meats found ubiquitously along the alleyways here (Asadachi is the exception on Yakitori Lane that does not focus on yakitori). Many of the yakitori stalls are as tiny as each other and just able to fit the kitchen counter and about 8 seats. At each place is a similar scene: the chef stands behind the kitchen counter grilling while customers (many of them salarymen) sit along the counter enjoying sticks of meat and offal with nama biru (draft beer). No one is bothered by the smokey grill at the restaurants.
|Skewered meat, offal, and vegetable|
We randomly decide on one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and order a round of nama biru (draft beer) with sticks of chicken and onion, pork tongue, pork heart, intestine, and shishito peppers. There is a choice of how we'd like them grilled, either with shio (salt) or tare (sauce) and we decide on shio for all our sticks, just for the sake of wanting to be purists. A popular item at the yakitori restaurants in wintertime is motsu nabe (offal stew) that can often be seen simmering in a pot. Obviously not hungry anymore after coming from Asadachi and then having grilled meat sticks we just ate at this second restaurant, I convince T we have to try the stew while here. He obligingly agrees while stating that I'm responsible in finishing the most of it. Inside the incredibly flavorful and delicious motsu nabe are pieces of chopped up offal, daikon, konnyaku (root with jello texture), and carrots. T ends up eating more of it than expected and I want to tell him, I knew it would be good.
|Motsu nabe (offal stew)|