Enjoy kushiage without the grease at this Shinjuku skewer specialist


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on December 2008

Photos by Kohji Shiki

Photos by Kohji Shiki

Ever since our ancestors speared their first mammoth, we’ve had a taste for food on a stick. Tatsukichi satisfies this ancient urge with a daily selection of nearly 40 kushiage, morsels of vegetables, chicken, beef, pork, fish, shellfish, tofu, mushrooms and special seasonal ingredients skewered in unique combinations onto tiny bamboo sticks. Each stick is then carefully battered, breaded and briefly deep-fried in a secret blend of oils.

Ordering is a breeze. You need do nothing more than sit at the counter. The cook will ask if there‘s anything you dislike, then the sticks will start coming at a relaxed, measured pace.

At the start, you’ll get a small dish of five dipping sauces and a cup of nibbles: carrot and cucumber spears with bite-sized cabbage leaves. A chilled mug of Asahi Super Dry (¥550) is the drink of choice, but wine, shochu and sake are also available.

As the cook lays each freshly fried skewer on your plate, he’ll name it and suggest which of the sauces to dip it into—or he’ll simply say “Sono mama”—just as it is.

A recent meal started with a seasonal special, chestnut kushiage, then progressed through delicacies such as shrimp wrapped in shiso leaf, shimeji mushroom and cheese, black pork filet, a small medallion of sweet onion, lotus root stuffed with cumin-infused pork, and herring roe wrapped in kombu.

Of course you can make requests, as one young lady did in the next seat. She studied the Tatsukichi menu online from her mobile phone and ordered an autumn special: sanma wrapped in shiso.

The health conscious will be happy to hear that each kushi is only lightly breaded, and fried just long enough for crispness and crunch, but with no oiliness. Throughout the progression, too, the chef will balance vegetables with meat.

Photos by Kohji Shiki

Photos by Kohji Shiki

At a certain point you’ll receive a tiny dish of vinegared mekabu seaweed as a kuchi naosu (a palate cleanser).

The evening’s parade of tastes continued with mozzarella cheese and salmon, Nagoya Kochin chicken with a few grains of special iro iro salt, Italian cherry tomato stuffed with cheese, and the very popular hon-shimeji—mushroom wrapped in a bacon strip. Be sure to try the lovely hamaguri clam, served on its shell under slivers of scallions, and anointed with a bright note of vinegar.

If you are wise and practice self-restraint, you’ll have room for a dessert kushi such as muscat grape or deep-fried ice cream. Or you can finish off the meal with a small bowl of ochazuke (¥400). When you say the word, your cook will count up your skewers. Each stick is ¥170.

At Tatsukichi, the manner is relaxed and the service unobtrusive. The restaurant is decorated in a comfortable, contemporary Japanese style with noren separating the four discreet “rooms,” each with counter space for about 12. The nonsmoking section is popular, so reserve ahead.

On the wall next to the entrance is a large wooden announcement board similar to ones used at sumo tournaments. Champion eaters have their names written on wooden markers. For 20 years, a certain Mr. Okuda has reigned as yokozuna with 160 sticks consumed at one sitting. Finishing 80 sticks will get your name up on the board.