Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on May 2009

Photos Courtesy of Taiko Chaya

Photos Courtesy of Taiko Chaya

Taiko Chaya in Asakusabashi has a history dating back to 1926—one that has seeped into the cigarette-stained walls and is personified by the elderly gent fussing over the floral decoration on a sashimi bowl behind the counter. Working at a furious pace beside him is the energetic manager, who flashes out smiles of greetings while expertly dissecting the day’s catch from nearby Tsukiji market.

The restaurant’s extensive menu, fluttering in small handwritten strips from the rafters, covers not only the usual izakaya fare, but also more exotic delights like alligator and ostrich. We plumped for alligator karaage (¥1,260), yet it was not the edgy experience we were expecting. The batter was crispy and light, but the meat inside, as is normal with alligator, was bland, with a similar taste to tough cod.

Taiko Chaya’s real selling point is its fresh fish. At only ¥600, the chef’s omakase sushi is outstanding, with generous slabs of juicy tuna, mackerel and salmon presented beautifully on a wooden platter. Gobbling down each piece, we took sips of “premium” sake (¥650) that enhanced the delicate flavors with its fragrant aromas. Next we ordered some hamachi (¥150)—perfectly plump and fatty. Huge bowls of tuna sashimi (¥900) with pretty floral motifs also caught our eye as they glided past. It seemed a shame to chomp through the elderly chef’s artistic creations, especially as you could see the care he puts into them.

Taiko Chaya’s crowd consisted exclusively of rank-and-file office workers who had dropped in to indulge in some well-earned R & R. While some were visibly wilting over their drinks, when 8pm rolled around, the entire place became electrified. With an energetic drum roll, the stocky manager announced the start of the nightly janken taikai (rock-paper-scissors tournament). The prizes—fatty tuna or prime beefsteak—were pretty enticing, so we sat up and paid attention while our suddenly effusive neighbor explained the rules.

The huge crowd carefully gathered around the main counter so that everyone could get a piece of the action. What followed was fast, furious and rather silly, but somehow this simple game kick-started the evening: customers were no longer slumped glassy-eyed over their tables, but sitting up straight talking excitedly to their neighbors about the competition.

We didn’t win any prizes, but we got damn close, and we’ll definitely come back to try our hand again and sample more of the restaurant’s diverse menu. Just like the top-notch sashimi on offer, we’re well and truly hooked.