So where do you want to go tonight? I dunno man, I’m up for whatever.
Continue for an hour or so, typical back-and-forth for two still-getting-to-know-each-other XYs trying to hit on a mutually agreeable destination.
You up for some korean barbecue? Cool man, let’s do it.
Loops, slips and stalls, the conversation bounces randomly from spoken exclamations.
man. hm. okay, well…
Descent grunts and sighs before mudskipping out of the primal ooze to semi-literacy again. And then a fragment references mexican food, or mexico…the finer points of grating a chipolte pepper, who knows.
Oh dude! do you want mexican food?
Do I. And our gears are no longer free-spinning. Clutch-out, catch the train – shuk! The turnstile sucks up my metrocard and clik. pops it back to me on the other side. Thirty-odd minutes of lost time on the train, the usual exchanges, but hunger has quieted us both, and so even less talk than normal, instantly forgettable verbal ping-pongs. First stop. Shuk! Clik. Change trains. Shuk! Clik. Ebisu. One of the quieter sectors.
So we have two options dude, there’s this chain-type mexican place that’s got the margarita menu and the expat crowd, and there’s this smaller place that’s different, a little more hole-in-the-wall – that place, the hole-in-the-wall place, totally. Uhh, okay. Let’s go.
Salsita. The restaurant is the size of a bad studio apartment, 10’x14’ tops. Enter, standard looks and half-stares from the natives. You are always floating somewhere between unique and exotic over here – blond-haired blue-eyes are pretty much 100% all-the-time exotic, brown hair with dark-brown eyes is pretty meh, they can do that themselves no problem, but the height probably kicks me up a notch, that and roundeyes make me…borderline.
The three seconds pass. Two seats at the counter, best in the house, right across from the chef. He wears a white coat, linen with knot & loop fasteners. The space is wood, stone and tile, in the clay-based off-tones of central and south america. Were it not for the twelve raven-haired, narrow-eyed customers, and one Brit, sharing the room with you, it’d be a role of the dice to say you weren’t in southern california or some Mexico City tourista hotel’s quirky upscale taco stand.
This place is great man, this guy, he makes everything on the spot, to order. Wow.
Menu’s english even. With pictures that aren’t just for the gaijin, no surprise to any serious observer of Japanese culture that the people of Nihon have a serious visual tendency towards their interactions with the physical world. Many television programs are subtitled in technicolor ‘manga-esque’ bubble-kanji (‘Matthew’s Big Hit TV’ is a great example†) underneath the japanese dialogue. The menu hits all the right notes. Tacos on 4” corn tortillas, flautas with guacomole, mole sauce with sesame seeds, fajitas (texmex as the menu acknowledges, but good is good, purists are free to try and find something better in tokyo), and cilantro, blessed cilantro, sitting in its small stainless steel prep bin on the counter, inches away. The drink menu. Cerveza, boilermakers (ouch), cocktails…(!) Caipirinha, my favorite. Served on ice in a thick, chunky glass over the just-squeezed meat of an entire lime, delicious.
Chips with guac, made on the spot as foretold. The man says maybe three words to the beautiful assistant during our stay, virtually silent beyond the ritual greeting/sayonnara’s of japanese restaurants and the brief exchanges necessary to take orders and deliver food. Focused, he is constant motion within a space the size of a small american closet. A kitchen for one turning out meals for fourteen, one meal at a time. The avocado is dispatched with the efficiency of one who has sent millions to similar fates. Onions, chopchopchopchop. Lime. Salt. Served. Pretty much perfect. Next up flautas.
Why did you just ask for a cerveza man? Where do you think you are? Well…I just…it was on the bottle and I thought…
Still in tokyo. Another thirty minutes or so pass. The XYs talk about women, the easiest topic (good with drinks) since one of them doesn’t have the slightest clue what’s news in Japan at the moment nor what any of the world’s professional sporting organizations are up to, other than that the Euro Cup 2004 is underway and David Beckham is, apparently, chuffing it bigtime out there. Flautas arrive. Chicken. Inhaled. Beer, sipped.
Man you are enjoying yourself, aren’t you? Hmm? I came across the room and the whole time you just had this big, shit-eating grin on your face. Eh-heh, yeah…I really am, this is just incredible…
Another round of flautas, pork. Really just a savory vehicle for the delivery of more guacomole. A few feet away the dance continues, japanese-inspired shrimp and avocado cocktail is a popular appetizer, and I am envious of all who made that choice, but not terribly so, our own food is shattering expectations.
How did you find this place? Guy from work brought me…after the first time I came here, I went online and read about this guy. He went to Mexico for a few years to learn how to put all this stuff together the right way, and then he came back to Tokyo to start this place. It is pretty impressive, and if you do the numbers, he can’t be making much of a killing with this setup, one chef, fourteen seats, open six hours a night, six days a week, plus the average meal is two, two-and-a-half hours…so he’s coming in at like one or two in the afternoon to do prep and working at least til one am. That is love man, that is the love.
The chef builds meal after meal in front of us, we are watching him for three hours. He is…impassive, serene, efficient…beautiful. It’s an amazing experience, to witness food as art, craft made for the pleasure of doing it right versus material or external ego considerations. Indications of his satisfaction are unintelligible or too subtle for western eyes save one, the tastings. Every dish is hand-seasoned and hand-cooked and tasted at several points along the way to ensure it measures up. You share your meal, literally, with its creator, you cannot speak to this man, but you are having an intimate wordless conversation. Your every taste is shared, beyond having the chef’s approval, the knowledge that others have tasted your meal and enjoyed it along with you makes it more than food, it’s communal, ritual, transcendant stuff, man.
Chicken enchiladas with mole, shared between us and the chef. Followed by steak fajitas. Sequential entrées.
I brought a girl here, she was totally unimpressed. So that was pretty much it. Yeah, this place is a serious test, huh? You gotta pass this test to stay in the game. Heh…yeah. Hey did you see ‘Cien Días de Solitúd’ in the bathroom? The mayan calendar, the Pancho Villa snapshots…I can’t get over this guy’s attention to detail man, look at the pens in his coat, red and green man, red and green. Do you think they’ll mind if I take some pictures?
The evening ends, you revel in its perfection. You feel closer to people, you want to go back every night, you are grateful to have gone at least once.
† – The bizarre variety show seen in Lost In Translation, the real version is, of course, even more bizarre.