This is part 1 of my latest travel series: Post Quake Japan.
You know you’ve found a really authentic, local, “hidden” find when the restaurant you’re visiting is virtually invisible on English language websites. There are no tourist arounds, and the owners speak little, if any, English.
We had the privilege of visiting this incredible little “izakaya” of sorts in Shimbashi, a busy area of Tokyo right next to the glitzy Ginza area. We came here through an introduction: Bryan’s co-worker’s fiance is Japanese, and her best friend’s family owns this restaurant.
Even cooler? The patriarch of the family was a professional baseball player in Japan. Hiroshi Kamizuru played as a pitcher for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows from 1976 – 1982. The bar is lined with photos of him during his baseball heyday.
After retiring from baseball, Kamizuru decided he wanted to open a restaurant that showcased the food of his hometown, Kagoshima. Sometimes called the “Naples of the Eastern World,” Kagoshima sits on the warm, southernmost tip of Japan and is rich full of interesting local dishes.
The restaurant named Kago is the brainchild of this inspiration, and it’s an incredible find. The regional cuisine is fascinating, delicious, and really fun to try. We sampled all sorts of unique local specialties – everything from their famous kurobuta (black pork – also known as Berkshire pork) to the scary (even to Japanese people), chicken sashimi!
The daughter of the family, Maori, was really, really nice and took care of us all night long. Even though her English and my Japanese were broken at best, we managed to communicate reasonably well, sometimes with the help of an electronic dictionary!
We began with a simple cold appetizer of braised agedofu (fried tofu) and okra. It was light and refreshing – a perfect way to start off the meal.
Satsuma Age, a type of fried fish cakes, is also very characteristic of the region. Another cold appetizer, these cakes can sometimes be stuffed with vegetables, such as a carrot stick or a gobo root. They are springy, moist, and reasonably dense. If you’ve had Chinese fish balls, it’s quite similar except fried.
It’s an izakaya, so of course there are drinks. We both got glasses of Asahi beer. They also have a selection of southern Kyushu shochu (Japanese potato distilled spirit), including the local specialty, imojochu (made from sweet potatoes). Maori gave us a special “sakura” glass (turns pink when it is cold) filled with imojochu. It was sweet, light, and refreshing.
We tried several types of sashimi (raw fish). The one that is most characteristic of Kagoshima is the kibinago, a small, sardine-like fish that is traditionally served with miso paste (silvery fish in the middle).
We also tried some other types of sashimi, such as tuna (maybe toro? it’s quite marbled) and yellowtail (hamachi).
Next we tasted grilled katsuo (bonito fish, also known as skipjack tuna). This is the same fish that is used to make the dried Japanese bonito flakes (katsuobushi). It is rich and full of umami. The fish was cooked just a tad more than I typically prefer. Nevertheless, a splash of lemon, grated radish, and soy sauce balanced out the richness of the fish perfectly.
Black pork (kurobuta, also known as Berkshire pork) is one of the most famous regional specialties of Kagoshima and it is phenomenally good. We tried several dishes with kurobuta, such as these perfectly pan fried gyoza. I love how they fried it with the crispy bottoms just like they do in Beijing. Juicy, succulent, and super flavorful, these were among the best tasting gyozas I’d ever had.
Another classic regional specialty is Tonkotsu (not to be confused with tonkatsu). Literally “pork bone“, tonkotsu is a rich, pork stew where Berkshire pork ribs, daikon, and konnyaku have been cooked for 9 hours in shochu (Japanese distilled spirit). What results is fork-tender pork, very flavorful root vegetables, and a nutrient rich, umami-infused bone broth that’s perfect on a chilly day.
Chicken sashimi – breast meat, gizzard, and liver
Maori then asked us whether we were brave enough to try chicken sashimi. Supposedly even lots of Japanese people from other regions are scared of this regional delicacy. We didn’t realize it until we received the dish, but “chicken sashimi” actually refers to three kinds of sashimi: raw chicken breast, gizzard, and liver (!!). The chicken breast meat and liver are to be eaten with soy sauce, while the gizzard is to be eaten with sesame oil.
Here’s Bryan – not his first time risking his life eating scary Japanese food!
The texture was interesting – definitely chewier than fish, with more tendon or something. The gizzard was especially hard to chew, but definitely reminded me of gizzard that I had eaten before (cooked, of course). The liver was soft (as expected), and definitely still had that characteristic liver flavor, which I don’t love. Would I order it again? Probably not, but it was interesting to try once.
Although we were stuffed at this point, we heard that the shabu shabu (hot pot) was one of Bryan’s coworker’s favorite dishes here. We knew we had to try it.
Kagoshima shabu shabu is made with black pork belly, and it was among the best shabu I’d ever had (and I’ve had some pretty good shabu!). They gave us several different kinds of other vegetables and tofu for dipping, such as enoki mushrooms, spinach, mushroom, and agedofu (fried tofu).
We “cooked” the fatty, flavorful super thin slices of pork in a kombu (seaweed) based broth. It was soooo good.
We loved the distinct dipping sauce of the shabu shabu, which had strong hints of yuzu and a spicy kick from hot peppers. I ended up asking what secret ingredient made the soup so aromatic, and Maori showed me a yuzu fruit (upper left). They mix the zest of yuzu with salt and hot pepper (and other ingredients she didn’t disclosed) to make this delicious, flavorful paste (bottom right). Floral, citrus-y, spicy, and salty, this is truly an addictive sauce and I still think about it to this day.
We heard that Bryan’s co-worker also loved this simple tomato appetizer, so we tried it as well. These tomatoes are green on the inside, which is something I see less often in the States. Tomato slices are served with just a small sprinkling of salt, and taste surprisingly good for something so simple.
They shaved some fresh katsuobushi flakes for us to try. Katsuobushi is dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna (also known as bonito). It is often shaved into flakes and is one of the main components in dashi, the basic Japanese stock. It has tons of umami and goes perfectly with a tall glass of cold, Asahi beer.
Just as we were about to explode, Maori asked us whether we wanted noodles. Noodles? Bryan absolutely loves fresh noodles, so of course he couldn’t say no.
They were chewy, toothsome, and held up well while boiling. Honestly, it was among the best ramen I’d ever had (especially since we were eating it with this addictive yuzu sauce with which I had recently fallen in love).
I had a fantastic time at Kago. Instead of being tourists, we felt like we were living a slice of everyday Japanese life. As we slurped our noodles, we heard loud conversations all around. Behind us, four Japanese businessmen in suits drank beer, smoked, and guffawed at each other’s jokes.
It’s totally a family run business. You see the mom running around serving people while the brother prepares dishes behind the counter. We watched her father makes all sorts of things right in front of our eyes (hint: sitting at the bar gives you the best view of the food!). We also chatted with Maori throughout the night.
What I like most about this place is that it gives you a chance to see a part of Japanese cuisine that we don’t often see in America. Even in Japan, Kagoshima cuisine is quite unique and particular. If you go, you definitely must at least try a few black pork dishes (the gyoza are incredible and the shabu is still one of my favorites). Tonkotsu is also a regional specialty, so I would recommend trying that as well. If you’re brave, you can always try chicken sashimi. It’s quite interesting and unusual.
Our entire meal, including alcohol cost 12,000 yen (about $155 USD). However, since we were friends of friends, I’m not sure if they charged us for everything they let us try. Nevertheless, the prices on the menu are very, very reasonable, with many items costing under 1000 yen.
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