I know I still need to post on the meals my wife and I enjoyed in Kyoto as well as update you on our weeklong eating spree through Tokyo, but I thought I would whet your appetites by dedicating one post to what was one of the best meals S and I had during our recent trip to Japan–and definitely the most fun. As well as one of the most authentically local.
S and I first heard about Sutamina-en while putting together last year’s edition of The Miele Guide. The entry that was published in the 2009/2010 edition of the guide read, “This famous yakiniku restaurant can be recognised by its humble hole-in-the-wall shop front, and a queue that snakes out onto the street even in the cold of winter. Scrawled daily on a chalkboard at the entrance is a simple menu, consisting of over 10 different cuts of premium Wagyu beef and tongue at amazingly affordable prices. Cooking is a do-it-yourself affair with mini table grills. The restaurant does not take reservations and brags that even celebrities have to wait in line like everyone else.”
Having already booked what we felt were more than enough fancy dining options, we wanted to check out some more down to earth, cultish places. Sutamina-en, from the description, certainly seemed to fit the bill. After doing a little more web research, we felt confident that this would be a great place to visit.
Sutamina-en is in the northern fringe of Tokyo. The easiest way to get there is to catch the Keihan-Tohoku train (JR East) to Oji. From Yurakucho station (the closest station to my hotel), the ride only took us 20 minutes or so, so while Oji looks pretty far away on a map, it is very accessible. From Oji station, grab a taxi. You’ll need to get your hotel’s concierge to print out the address (and ideally a map) in Japanese that you can pass to your driver. The ride is a quick 15 minutes or so and won’t cost you very much.
You’ll also want to get to this very famous yet humble restaurant by 430pm if you want to grab a table during their first seating. The doors open at 5pm and the line just keeps getting longer and longer throughout the night, so arriving early is best. I do need to also say that if you don’t speak Japanese or Chinese, you won’t really be able to communicate with anyone in the restaurant. No English is spoken here so, seriously, unless you are up for an evening of pointing at what everyone else is eating and gesticulating rather wildly, you might want to give Sutamina-en a miss (ideally, you can find someone who speaks Japanese or Chinese to go with you). The owner’s wife, Mrs Dai, is a super-sweet woman affectionately known as “da-jie” (“big sister” in Mandarin) who is orginally Taiwanese. Chinese-speakers will be very well taken care of by this amazingly generous proprietress.
Sutamina-en specializes in yakiniku. Which means you’re expected to cook a good portion of your meal yourself. Each table has a small gas grill on which you’ll cook a wide range of produce, from fresh vegetables to an amazing assortment of cow parts. The platter pictured above contained, among other things, tongue, trachea, stomach, stomach lining, and small intestine. But the stars of the show–at least for S and I–were the more traditional cuts of beef, all gorgeously marbled and perfectly marinated. In addition to the DIY (raw) items, you can order a number of amazing dishes, including one of the best pumpkin salads we’ve ever tasted, and a Korean-spiced wagyu tartar (gyu gei) that I swooned over. End your meal with a Korean style beef stew/soup. Sweet, spicy, thick. savory. It was an enormously satisfying bowl of goodness that I am still dreaming about, and wish I could have right now.
This restaurant is very (and wonderfully) local and, as I said, super-humble. Don’t dress up–especially because the clothes you wear will end up smelling of barbecued beef by the end of the night–and leave any pretentions at the door. Sutamina-en is just about great food, good booze (and they have some very good beer and sake) and great memories.
This is one of those restaurants that, once visited, you can’t stop talking about. I was BBMing images of the beef to friends during the dinner (more than a couple replied back with messages along the lines of “I hate you” and “you suck”). And since returning to Singapore, I have been singing its praises to anyone who will stop to listen to me. It’s also the kind of restaurant that some folks would probably prefer to keep secret. But since Sutamina-en doesn’t take reservations, I don’t see the harm in bloggging about it. At the most, I’ll just have to get in line a little bit earlier on my next visit. And you can bet I’ll be going back every single time I am in Tokyo.
Address: 3-13-4 Shikahama, Adachi-ku, Tokyo 123-0864, Japan
Telephone: +81 3 3897 0416