Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tanuki/Ajiwai, Yurakucho (たぬき / 味わい,有楽町)

Party at the moon tower! Or the next best thing - Yurakucho yakitori with McNoonan! I also just read up on the real moontowers in Texas, if you're interested.

McNoonan is back from his Layoff World Tour - Hawaii, Boston, Disneyworld. This is a world tour like the World Series is a world series, but without Canada. Since there's no time like the present, we decided to reprise the successful Yurakucho yakitori expedition of several months ago (can we call this Yurakitori?), with the usual focus on trying new places and achieving mixed results.

Yurakitori Street is a little alley next to the railroad tracks (you'll see Shinkansen go by, at least every 15 minutes but seemingly more) and right by Ginza exit C1 or Hibiya exit A1. Or from Ginza crossing, walk west, away from Mitsukoshi and towards Dutour, towards the park and it'll be on your left after you go under the highway. 'K? This is a fantastic place to take visitors, but fun no matter who you are. It either lets you feel like you're 'really in Asia', sitting outside drinking beer and eating barbecue in shabby surroundings, not a common thing in Japan, or else lets you feel like you're back in Showa. Either way, once in a while, it's recommended. You might want to take a cushion or something though - McNoonan and I agreed that after a fairly short time, the small stools become excruciating. When I stood up to stretch, the staff didn't look askance for even a second. They knew my ass hurt.

On this street, and in the tunnel under the tracks at the end, there are probably 10 yakitori places. This is the story of two of them. Since we got down there early, well before 7, we were rewarded with empty seats all around. We settled in to the first place on the street (Tanuki), because the old guy out front agitating for business was so funny, and got down to business.

Despite all this preamble, McNoonan and I are pretty conservative chicken-eaters. If it crunches, or squelches, or jiggles, we're probably not on that bus. That rules out hearts, livers, gizzards, feet, bones and stones (OK, some of those aren't really options), but leaves us with regular meat, meat with onions, meatballs, wings and butts (more or less, and those really ARE options). I can eat all of it if I really have to (like at a work dinner!), but I notice that even the crusty guys sitting next to us tend to leave the crunchy bits on the plate.

Tanuki is a pretty big place, and the old guy shuffles back and forth out front, trying to leverage his position as first on the street to pull in customers. Sometimes he shuffles down to the other end of the street - turns out one of the other places is the same as Tanuki (last one on the other side), which we found out when we later considered going there and saw that the menu was the same. Grrrr... I should mention that direct comparison on the night proved the sometime-advanced theory that Suntory Premium Malt's is a superior beverage; it sure tasted good here, and when we changed brands later the difference was noticeable and disappointing. We ordered a few normal rounds; the standout was actually the normal chicken-on-a-stick shouniku (正肉), which was juicy and tasty. For some reason their onions, alternated with chicken in the negima, were pretty dry and flavorless. The meatballs were good - lots of sauce, crusty on the outside, and with a low concentration of the cartilage fragments that some places add to 'improve' the texture. There are only so many ways you can order the same few things though, so after a while we decided to continue elsewhere.

The street was pretty full by that time (a lot of tourists too, including some big Germans abusing a waitress), so we struggled to find seats. Down on the left side, a small place with only two guys and a tiny grill had one table for us, so Ajiwai won the business. This street must surely be in the guidebooks - every shop has an English menu, and the staff all try to speak a little English to you.

Differences compared to Tanuki: slightly expanded menu, different type of chicken, less-tasty Sapporo beer instead of Malt's. We were able to have some chicken butts here (bonjiri), which are a fatty, flavorful favorite of McNoonsky and I; they were unfortunately small and not too tasty. Similarly the house-special meatballs were a bit disappointing - they're the long, cylindrical variety, molded onto a pair of disposable chopsticks, and have lots of shiso mixed in, but no crust and strangely bland. Fortunately the regular meatballs were excellent, dark dark brown and very flavorful. I wondered if there was extra flour in the mix or something, because they formed a very distinct and crunchy crust on the grill.

This makes three area places I've been to (with more to come some time, I'm sure). I remember the food most fondly at Tonton, in the tunnel under the tracks, but the seating there is so uncomfortable that it defies belief. Do visit the street before you die, OK?

Try the roasted raccoon-dog too!

Like, aji-WOW, man!

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