Tokyo is a city that has more Michelin stars than anywhere else on the planet, and its restaurants are known for using the best quality ingredients and having an almost insane dedication to perfection, both in terms of flavour, presentation, and service.
However, when given the opportunity to leave The Child with her doting grandmother for a night to go out on the town with The Husband, we don’t go to one of the three-star establishments that have made Tokyo the capital of gastronomy.
Instead we head to a tiny little hole in the wall in Ueno, where thirsty, smoking salarymen who probably should be at work can be found sitting on plastic beer crates at 10am, drinking Hoppy mixed with shoju, and eating the grilled innards of a variety of hoofed animals. If I had to think of a comparison to a place in Trinidad, it would probably be Smokey and Bunty’s, but with food.
What, doesn’t sound like a very romantic date night to you?
Indeed the first time I went to Daitoryo, I was slightly offended. The place is small — only eight stools inside flanking the kitchen, and maybe ten seats outside — and being directly under the train tracks, you hear a constant ba-dunk-a-dunk of trains passing overhead. Almost everyone is smoking and if you’re lucky to get a seat at an outside table you can expect to be elbow-to-elbow with some drunkard next to you, who just might try to chat you up in English, or perhaps offer you something from their own plate.
But what Daitoryo may lack in class, cleanliness, or service, it makes up for in food, and if you give it a chance you’ll see that the general dodgyness of the place is what gives it a very unique character. The three sweaty, grungy men working the grill don’t have time for the typical excessive pleasantries that greet you in your average Japanese restaurant. If you want something, you have to shout to them what you want. And I imagine that in a country like Japan, where society is so strict about what kind of behaviour is acceptable, a place like Daitoryo gives you the chance to let your hair down, and let your guard down too.
I first went to Daitoryo almost ten years ago, when I was just an innocent young girl teaching English in Japan. At the time there were almost no foreigners going to Daitoryo and nothing was in English. Now, I suppose it is catching on as a good place to go and eat, and much to my surprise they now have a crudely translated menu, which lists what seem to be the things that gaijin most often would order.
If you happen to be with a Japanese person, and if you have an iron stomach, you can try a lot more interesting things that are not on the English menu, such as motsu which is a sort of stew of cow stomach, or kusaya which is a highly fermented fish. Both of these dishes could burn the hair out of your nostrils if you give them a sniff. And you better hope the person next to you doesn’t order them.
As for me, I stick to a few of my safe and well known favourites — tsukune (minced chicken), shishitou (grilled peppers), negi (leek), and chicken. Oh yes, and nori cheese is good too, especially if you’re drinking cold beer. And I am of course always drinking cold beer.
To get to Daitoryo, you can go out either the Central or the Shinobazu Gate. Both gates exit on to a huge road with the train tracks above your head. Cross the road and you’ll see a UNIQLO shop on the corner. Go down that alley, walk all the way down, and when the alley ends at a T-junction you’ll see a tiny bar with a green awning on your left. That, my friends, is Daitoryo.