The Meat Bar — Happy Road’s Hidden Italian

The Meat Bar — Happy Road’s Hidden Italian

Shotengai are the traditional shopping streets that dot the neighborhoods of Tokyo.  Some are covered, arcade style and some meander, open to the skies.  I’m sure that a few of these streets date back to some ancient time, but the majority of them seem to hail from the 1950s as the city was rebuilt out of the ashes of the 1945 Tokyo firebombing. Make no mistake, these are not gorgeous arcades like those of Paris or Bologna, they are rickety, kind of shabby, occasionally seedy and to me completely charming.

A couple of weeks back, I went to visit one of these Shotengai dubbed “Happy Road” in the Oyama neighborhood in the Itabashi ward. It is of the covered variety and with a name like Happy Road, you can bet that there would be some sort of creepy clown imagery somewhere.  And there was…a mosaic clown adjoining an ice cream and crepe shop that had been doing business there for a very long time. Happy road is about 1 kilometer long and lined with cheap dollar shops, discount clothing shops, the ubiquitous pachinko parlors,  traditional sweets shops, grocers, butchers, boutiques and restaurants. It was packed with people wandering about, doing their daily shopping and picking up take-out from a variety of well-worn local businesses. My senses are honed for good food and Happy Road had that aura.  I snapped photos of a few places that I wanted to return to: A tiny store-front selling some sort of chestnut puree and what looked like top class gyoza; a sandwich shop dispensing one of my true guilty pleasures — white bread sandwiches, heavy on the mayo, stuffed with tomato, cucumbers, egg salad and tongkatsu (breaded, fried pork cutlets) and an izakaya, decorated in all sorts of happy and delicious creatures called “Meat” which I assumed specialized in meat — possibly yakiniku, maybe yakitori.  Izakayas are essentially bars — the focus is on drinking.  Some Izakaya are tiny 4 seat places and serve just pickles and a few dishes; some seem more like casual restaurants and others have specialties, like Okinawan food or seafood.  No matter what kind of Izakaya it is, the point is drinking, having fun and eating some good things while you do it. Which, when you come down to it, is the perfect way to eat and makes a typical American bar just seem sad with the musty smell of old beer and the rumbled curses of the drunk hanging off a bar stool.

We returned to the Meat Izakaya which, it turns out, when translated was just that: Meat Bar.  The whole restaurant is decorated on the outside with caricatures of smiling cows, wild boar, pigs, sheep and deer happily stirring the very pots that they are going into. “Eat the fuck out of me” they cooed.  Now, I have not seen a lot of Japanese spots selling deer or even sheep, so I figured the meal would be, at least, interesting.  Inside was warm and shabby with cheap, unmatched stools and tables; the walls cluttered with signs for drink specials and drawings of strong cows proclaiming the quality of beef.  With my beer I was given a tiny pot of stewed chick peas, white and red beans.  When I tasted them, I was oddly thrown back to the early 1980s when my sister (then in college) was living in Florence, Italy.  She had led me down a darkened street, where we first avoided the clutching arms of a cursing beggar who, seemingly, was just arms and a head (we later dubbed him “The Head”), then past a leering transvestite prostitute who made some sort  cat-in-heat sound  and finally down into a stone cellar restaurant  where we dined extravagantly on Florentine deliciousness.  Including a bruschetta with white beans, garlicky and fruity with great olive oil — which tasted precisely like what I was served in this Meat Bar in the middle of Idabashi.  Hmmm…

The “Meat Bar” claims that they have the best “meat sauce” spaghetti in all of Tokyo — a dish they serve “upside down” so you can taste the pasta before mixing in the sauce.  Typically meat sauce in Japan is a take on an Americanized Bolognese — it is often too sweet and ketchupy, but I have become fond of a few renditions (my wife’s!). We were served a dish of perfect, home-made fettuccine, with a rich, authentic wild boar ragu. It was the best pasta, by far, that I have ever had in Japan.  What the fuck?  This was becoming weird.  There was nothing to indicate that the Meat Bar was Italian in any way.  Construction workers were drinking Shochu and calpis, J Pop blared over the speakers and there was no wine.  There was not an Italian flag. Prices were super cheap.  There was, however, a menu (when I managed to translate it) full of deeply Tuscan specialties including horse carpaccio and a Trippa Alla Fiorentina (listed harshly on the menu as “Guts Stew”). Our order of meat arrived, 4 or 5 slices of each kind piled on a plate with a little flag to indicate what was what (Beef, Chicken, Boar). Everything was grilled perfectly and seasoned simply with salt, pepper and very, very good olive oil.  The beef was a tiny, perfectly rendered bite of Bisteca Florentina:  bloody rare, salted AFTER cooking with hints of wood smoke, olive oil and chiffoned parsley.  There was no way to mistake it –The Meat Bar is an undercover Italian Restaurant deeply in love with the cooking of Florence.

There are great Italian restaurants in Tokyo. Great French restaurants. I would bet, if you toured the major kitchens of Italy, France and Spain, that the majority of chefs doing stages would be Japanese.  That said, I have sort of dreaded going to Italian spots in Japan. On the one hand you have the execrable with over-cooked pasta dressed in ketchup, hot-dogs and red peppers (Neopolitan Spaghetti) on the other you seem to have the pretentious with crazy prices, formal service and overpriced wines. Someone at the Meat Bar must have agreed with me. I asked our waitress if the chef had lived in Florence and she said no, the owners had.  They had lived there, they had traveled back and forth multiple times, they were fanatics for Italian cooking specifically the cuisine of Florence.  They opened the Meat Bar because they were sick of how Italian food was presented in Tokyo — they wanted to present Italian food in the ultra-casual, rough and tumble manner of the trattorias they had fallen in love with — they wanted Japanese construction workers to drink the drinks they love and eat some very good food without ever feeling, for a moment, alienated or lost. Boy, did they succeed.


The Meat Bar – Happy Road, Oyama

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