The main branch of a popular tempura chain gets everything right


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on January 2009


Famed tempura restaurant Tsunahachi feels like the Japanese equivalent of a local pizza joint back home. Everything about the décor, food, service and atmosphere gives off a casual, neighborhood vibe.

Located on one of the small, relatively quiet side streets radiating from the east exit of Shinjuku station, Tsunahachi is one of those places you’d walk right by if you weren’t looking for it. A quaint wooden storefront bedecked with bamboo plants, it seemed incongruous (as things in Tokyo often do) compared with all the brick and neon surrounding it.

After lining up briefly outside, we were cordially ushered in by the suited host. (Don’t be put off by a queue—we only had to wait five minutes.) The interior is pleasantly cozy, clean and unassuming. Atypically for a chain restaurant—Tsunahachi has some two dozen locations around town—it seemed as if there was a real soul here, some actual history to be found in its old wooden bones.

The two main dining rooms feature stools in front of open kitchens with chefs in white hats and aprons shouting “Irasshaimasse”; there’s also a nonsmoking tatami room. The clientele is varied, to say the least—our fellow diners ranged from salarymen to trendy young couples to fellow expats. The staff are friendly and attentive, and we found ourselves seated with our shoes off, English menus in hand and appetites whet, in no time.

Courtesy of Nakae

Courtesy of Nakae

But the food is clearly the main draw, and Tsunahachi’s reputation for high-quality, reasonably priced tempura does not disappoint. We opted for two of the mid-range course menus (priced from ¥1,995-¥7,250) and were treated to a smorgasbord of favorites: sweet and succulent ama ebi, slightly fishy but fantastically tender anago, and an array of seasonal vegetables, from firm and crunchy lotus root to sweet baby onions—all served piping hot, crisp and not too oily. All of the courses are also served with pickles, rice and clam-filled miso soup.

The pièce de résistance, though, was the unusual dish of oyster wrapped in ham and mushrooms, and fried in the shell to crispy heaven. The result was sweet, savory and meaty yet delicate. Other offbeat tempura items include green peppers or mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, eggplant stuffed with clams, and scallops in seaweed. The egg yolk or natto varieties might be attractive to more adventurous diners.

In addition to tempura, a couple of salads and various sashimi is available, as well as ice cream and fruit sherbet.

Tsunahachi’s prices, food, service and atmosphere make it a reliable, tried-and-true dining spot. It’s clear to see why this is a favorite local haunt.