It’s very easy to spot a good restaurant in Tokyo or in most Asian countries. You look for a line outside. If the restaurant is good, they will be full at lunch or dinnertime. If the restaurant is spectacular, there will be a line waiting to get in. We Asians are not afraid to wait to get a meal. Most popular restaurants don’t taking any reservations, either.
I would like to say reservations are more part of a Western style of dining, but in the last two decades Asian restaurants are more accepting of and are starting to take reservations, but that’s still on an up-scale level. For casual dining it’s still a first come,first serve basis.
To most Asians, ambience is just an unnecessary accessory when it comes to eating. It does’t make food taste any better and it doesn’t make you any fuller. We just want tasty food, the rest is tolerable if the food is right on.
That’s why you will see Asian restaurants with sticky chairs, dirty walls, not so spotlessly clean, loud, rude waitstaff, tight seating in a very small space, with no AC in a 90-degree climate still doing awesomely well in Asia or any place with a lot of Asian population. Not that we’re willing to accept that lesser standard, but because our standard isn’t where you might put your focus.
In fact, you could find two restaurants in the same neighborhood, one equipped with all fru-fru AC, high cleanliness, nice wait staff, cozy chairs and all but empty. The other one is as described in the above paragraph, and is packed, with a long line waiting to get in. Let me ask you, which one’s food do you want to try?
I used to be so frustrated with my husband because if he has to pick between an uncomfortable restaurant with great food over a nice and cozy restaurant with just blah food, he won’t hesitate to pick the latter, while I would definitely choose the former. His focus isn’t on how the food tastes, but how much discomfort he has to encounter for just one meal, in his mind. I am the opposite.
We do fix our differences easily, without ruining our marriage, by me letting him sit and have his meal in his comfortable and cozy place by himself, while he waits for me to come back from the “hell hole”, as he would call it or “heaven on earth”, as I would describe all places that just serve great food. We are both happy and full; mission accomplished.
So, when my husband isn’t on the trip with me, I am free to explore and search for my secret hole-in-the-wall spots. On this trip I was staying in the Asakusa area where all great foods are, so I took a walk out of the Thunder Gate (Kaminarimon Gate) in front of the Sensoji temple, crossed Kaminarimon-Dori (Street or Ave) and continued walking on a street I think was called “Edo-Dori”. I intended to find a restaurant with a long line. No matter what the food would be, I was committed to eat the food that was served there.
After about seven big blocks,(f our blocks between Kaminarimon-Dori and Asakusa-Dori and another three blocks past Asakusa-Dori on Edo-Dori), because I started quite late, around 7:30pm, I expected the line I was looking for probably had already gone inside or even be done with their dinner, but I still thought I would be able to find something quite interesting.
Right in the middle of the city there was an old, three-story house…
with paper lanterns line up in the front…
and a few benches with people still waiting to get in.
This is it! I thought. The place was big, but people were still waiting to eat at ten minutes to eight. My instinct told me that this must be a special place.
I can’t read any of the Japanese signs there, of course. So I just poked my head inside and used sign language to tell the host that I was by myself and only needed one seat. In the meantime, while he was busy writing my name down on his call sheet, I snapped a few pictures of the inside.
I thought, this is it, the traditional restaurant that you have to sit on a little cushions on top of the tatami floors and eat off a small table in front of you.
I came outside and waited just briefly, shorter than 20 minutes, and my name was called. He pointed to a place DOWNSTAIRS! What?!?! OK I didn’t realize there is an underground level. On the way going down I just spotted the stairs leading up to the second floor, too. This was a much bigger restaurant than what I expected at first. I felt lit up inside–I’m at a great place again.
The underground floor was actually better.
There were normal tables and chairs, so you didn’t need to sit on the floor, but you couldn’t avoid smoke from both cigarettes and from the small stoves on almost every table. The smell of soy sauce and sake was soaking every cubic inch of air in the room. Thank goodness the cigarette smoke was very light in this room.
I followed a very young waitress dressed in a traditional kimono to a small wooden table with little wooden chairs. I spotted several foreigners in there, and I hoped this was not the “foreigners’ room”. The waitress handed me the English menu. (Oh no! This definitely is the foreigners’ room!) Anyhow, there were more Japanese in here than the obvious “foreigners”, so I figured I be okay.
From the menu, I saw that this restaurant is named “Komakata Dozeu Restaurant” and serves only dishes made from a little fish called Dozeu, or Dojo, which is the Japanese loach. They had five dishes made with Dozeu.
Dozeu Nabe: The fresh Dozeu is cooked in an aromatic sake broth until the bones become soft, then the Dozeu is cooked again in a sweet miso broth. The Dozeu is served on a thin iron plate filled with Warishita sauce (secret soy sauce base). The iron plate would then be placed on top of the Hibachi (charcoal grill). The customers have to finish the cooking by adding sliced greens and, if the Warishita gets dry on the plate, there is a pot of it available on the table that the customer can add to it.
Yanagawa: The Dozeu are cooked in a Yanagawa Nabe (pottery dish from Fukuoka prefecture) with shaved gobo (burdock root) and egg.
Dozeu Kabayaki: This is grilled, filleted Dozeu with sweet soy sauce, just like grilled Unagi.
Dozeu Kara-age: Fried Dozeu.
Dozeu Jiru: Dozeu cooked in Chikuma Miso (unsalted miso, which was popular in the Edo period)
Also, there were a few other a la carte dishes such as Chawanmushi (egg custard), Tamagoyaki (Edo omelette), Toru Tukune (Teriyaki chicken balls with soft boiled egg), Edo Yasai Awase (Edo vegetable salad) and Dangaku (Konuaku and tofu with miso).
That was it for the English menu. I started to wonder what would be on the Japanese menu, but that wasn’t the point right now. My one little stomach couldn’t handle all of the choices in the English menu already.
I ended up ordered the Dozeu Nabe because EVERY TABLE had ordered this; I couldn’t go wrong. Then I wanted to try the Dozeu Jiru too, so I ordered that. My order didn’t seem to have enough vegetables, so I ordered the Edo Yasai Awase, Edo vegetable salad, as well.
I was sure I wouldn’t be able to finish all of these. I wish I had someone else with me, but if I did then I wouldn’t have found this restaurant, because I was traveling with a friend who likes to set a destination and go to it. Well, my best culinary adventure trips were never about the destination but more about the journey. So I had to swallow my regret about wasting the food then.
On the table, there was a wooden box with a whole bunch of sliced Japanese green onions, and a little earthenware teapot filled with the broth.
My first course, the salad, arrived very quickly.
It was a very interesting salad consisting of thinly sliced cabbage, lettuce, whole okra, some corn, thinly sliced lotus root, and something looking like a flower that I don’t know the name of, but I’ve seen at the Tsukiji market before. The dressing was ginger and sesame and quite delicious.
I hadn’t finish my salad yet when the Dozeu Nabe arrived in an iron plate set on top of the Hibachi (the little grill stove).
The whole thing looks big in the picture but the plate was just about 6-7 inches in diameter. So, the Dozeu themselves are about 4-5 inches long at the most. Well, I have to admit, they looked intimidating and unappealing to me.
So, I quickly dropped the sliced green onion on top, right away, just to cover the naked fish, according to my waitress’s recommendation. She had taught me what needed to be added to the plate before she walked away.
I also ordered rice, too. I can’t just eat pure protein without any carbs. As soon as I saw the green onion was cooked, I scooped it off and put a new set on top. At this point I thought I had to get to the fish, regardless of how they had intimidated me. So I took one fish and put it over my rice.
In the same box with the sliced green onion there were two types of seasoning. One was Shichimi-Togarashi, a ground spice mix of cayenne pepper, five other spices and dried orange peel, so I put that on the Dozeu, just to make sure that I could swallow the fish down.
Ahemm…Errr…I should have remembered the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Oh my goshhhh…it was so light and unassumingly delicious. The flavor of the Dozeu was just so unique: no slimy texture, no weird fishy smell, even though they look kinda wwwwww. They were so tasty, with a mysterious hint of earthiness.
The flavor was so unlike anything else I had ever tasted that I have a hard time describing it to you. On top of the “aha” moment, I discovered that the bones were so soft and really needed no effort to chew, even the head, which is all bones. I never thought that I would use the phrase, “melt in your mouth” with respect to a fish, but this Dozeu Nabe together with the bones and all dissolves right there on your tongue and is easy to swallow. The rice and the green onion turned out to be the part that you had to chew.
I had no worries about choking on the bones. I had no worry about the fishy smell nor the slime. It was only the appearance that I just had to keep covering with sliced green onions, breaking the fish in half before I took it out of the plate. I’m now no longer afraid of the Dozeu! (Well at first they kinda appear to be slimy and like a snake; I am famous for my ophidiophobia, and I refuse to even write the word down more than once.)
As soon as I figured out what the whole deal was about, the cute waitress re-appeared with a little bowl of Dozeu Jiru that didn’t look like anything but a bowl of a thick yellowish-brown contents.
Noooo, it didn’t remind me of baby poo at all, but I won’t swear to it though…haha. It smelled nicer 😉 But it was so hot I just went back and focused on my new-found treat to my tongue.
I kept adding the sliced green onion, which was available for free and unlimited. It’s the sweetest green onion you will ever eat. It was huge, about half an inch in diameter, and was much less pungent than typical green onion, and three or four times sweeter. At this point I stopped adding the seasoning to the Dozeu because it made my tongue a little numb and I wanted to keep tasting these delicious fish.
On the third round of adding the green onion, the broth was almost completely evaporated, so I added more broth to the plate. I had to wait for it to start boiling again, so I turned my attention to the Dozeu Jiru. I sipped the miso broth–wow, this was really different. It was so not salty at all. It was actually sweet too. I loved loved loved this! I wished I could find this type of miso in California, yet I had no idea what this miso was called. (Dhurr…It said right there on the menu, Chikuma Miso)
I found Dozeu at the bottom of the bowl, too.
The Dozeu had the same texture as the one in Nabe: tender, tasty, with dissolvable bones. The Dozeu in the miso broth had a slightly different flavor, though. I could sense the real taste of the Dozeu more in the Nabe, but because the earthy flavor of the Dozeu just went very well with the unsalted miso, the blended flavor just gave the Dozeu another dimension.
Did I already say that I am so glad I stopped at this restaurant? I don’t think I said it enough. This was a really good find. I so want to take my hubby back here. LOL…I’m sure this statement will make his skin crawl when he edits this post and sees the photos! He doesn’t like eating most fish. He doesn’t think that fish should be human food…but my darling, you have no choice!
I ate half of the Dozeu on the plate, finished the Dozeu Jiru, and left only one third of the salad and half of the rice. I had ordered enough for two people. The bill came to around $30, but I only drank mineral water.
From my observation, the Japanese customers also ordered the Nabe, but they seemed to have a set that went with it. I saw some of them putting some other stuff in their plate that they added more broth to. Some seemed to have a sliced raw fish that looked like carp (Koi) fish sashimi in their set, too.
The tables that had more than two parties ordered the Yanagawa dish, the Dozeu and gobo root in omelette. That looked super delicious too. I made a mental note to try it next time, together with the fried Dozeu and the grilled one. I’m sure the fried and grilled Dozeu would appeal to my husband more than the Nabe and the Jiru would, for sure.
When I left the restaurant the crowd had already died down, but I will remember this place for the next time.
While I was writing this, I finally got to do research about this Komagata Dozeu Restaurant. This restaurant has served Dozeu for over 200 years! It was founded in 1801! Oh my gosh…that’s the very same year Thomas Jefferson was elected as the President and the Irish had just joined Great Britain, just to give an idea how long ago this place was established. The generation that is running the restaurant right now is the seventh! They must surely love doing this business, and also opened another location in Shibuya, too.
More from the research: the Dozeu used to be very abundant because they were caught in the flooded rice fields and in the streams, but these days, due to farm pesticides and rural development projects, the Dozeu have greatly diminished. Most of the Dozeu eaten in the restaurants have all come from fish farms or overseas, unfortunately.
That night must been the night that my psyche lined up with the Dozeu because, having walked back–which was the reasonable activity to assist in digestion for an over-eating girl who’s not bulimic–I passed through a neighborhood where I noticed a pub/restaurant that was still open, and had a wooden container filled with water in the front of the place…
and inside were live Dozeu fish.
So I got to meet the live Dozeu and eat them in the same night!
Nice to meet you Dozeu. You are so delicious. I’m glad we’ve met.
Komagata Dozeu (Asakusa Location, where I went)
1-7-12 Komagata, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Komagata Dozeu (Shibuya Location)
4F Renga Building
1-5-9 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Asakusa Location 11am – 9pm daily
Monday – Saturday 11:30am – 10:30pm
Sunday and Holiday 11:30am – 9:30pm
I would recommend the Nabe and the Jiru, but if you are not that brave, I read from a review that the Kabayaki, or grilled Dozeu, tasted sweet and eel-like. Or the Kara-age, the fried Dozeu, could be good too. I will definitely be trying the Yanagawa next time, and will report back when I do.