Hatos Bar: The Invaluable Kindness of Pit Smoked Ribs

Hatos Bar: The Invaluable Kindness of Pit Smoked Ribs

I do not have a very high opinion of humanity.  Nothing surprises me when it comes to bad behavior —  betrayal, thieving, perversions, lying, cheating, sexual foibles, drug addiction, animal fucking.  As far as I can tell, the range of bad shit people do is pretty limitless.  I don’t harbor any resentment about this state of affairs. Instead, I am often filled with wonder at the bravery people display in just getting up in the morning. It seems to me that ancient aspects of our brains, those primal fears and impulses are in a constant state of war with our sophisticated intellect — our knowledge of death, of science, of history.  Maybe our brains have yet to fully evolve.  Whatever the case, I think being alive is pretty tough and admire whatever grace, whatever kindnesses that people can bring to the experience.   I have zero trust in humanity but I love the hell out of people.

So it was that an out-of-the-blue kindness reached me via email.  A local chef, a friend of a friend, had read my post, The BBQ King Is Deposed and reached out with words of encouragement, offers of help and an invite to his BBQ restaurant in Naka Meguro.  My son, although he has found plenty of food he loves in Japan, pines for BBQ: the meats I smoked in our backyard and the ribs and brisket at Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ.  I accepted the kind invitation and my ultra-excited son and I headed out to Hatos Bar.

Naka Meguro is cool.  Cool like a friend’s older brother who was always sitting in his room with a beautiful girlfriend playing obscure records, but would still take the time to say “hey” and give you a pound.  The shotengai (shopping streets) stretch out from the station with old izakaya and ramen shops nestled side-by-side with trendy curry spots, vintage clothing stores chockfull of weathered university T-shirts, upscale coffee shops, bakeries, bespoke barber shops crafting perfect razor-cut fades.  There is French spoken in the street.  Aussie accents, a touch of Brooklyn here, some East London there and none of it by tourists.  My favorite pizza spot is in Naka Meguro.  My favorite Yakiniku as well.  A fast-moving river cuts through the back-streets — in Spring it is ablaze with cherry blossoms.

I walked with my son, checking the windows of boutiques, of restaurants and felt him unconsciously reach for my hand.  With no one around to embarrass him, he wanted  to walk with me in these cool Naka Meguro streets holding hands, just as I did when he was five and walked him to school. His hand is a paw.  Like mine.  Thick fingers, meaty and warm, no longer that of a child.  I burst with love for this guy, this person who dwarfs his Japanese classmates, who is freaked out by his hairy armpits, who is still such a little boy and still wants to hold hands with his father.  I could weep, but I can’t.  Being 11 is weird. In the best circumstances it is weird.  But, being 11 and having your whole world turned upside down by suddenly moving to Japan, having to learn a whole new language, a whole new writing system (with 3 alphabets!!!) and a whole new culture must be really weird.  And, being the father of an 11-year-old is weird. Especially when, exactly like yourself, those Russian-Jewish genes kick in early and your entire body transforms and you have no idea if you are the 15-year-old you look like or the 11-year-old you feel like.

If I could, I would make this walk last forever.  I would hold his hand forever. I would be side-by-side with this little boy forever, no matter if he grew to be a giant,  boxing out whatever horrors would come our way.

We walked under a bridge, the train rumbling above, around twisting lanes and up a hill where we spotted Hatos Bar, perched above the street, wreathed in the subtle smell of wood-smoke.  The restaurant is small and cozy.  Wide-planked floors, low tables refurbished from old doors, a rough hewn bar with maybe 8 stools.  Eclectic hip hop played cleanly through a sound-system that had some thought to it.  Nothing about the decor screams BBQ — no silly Americana kitsch. A great selection of craft beers from Japan and America and a wide range of whiskies and bourbon. Leki, the chef who had emailed me, was cool.  He didn’t try to schmooze, just greeted us, made introductions and headed back to his kitchen.

The menu is small and direct.  Back Loin pork ribs, pulled pork sandwich, pork belly, beef sausage and a variety of sides.  My son wanted everything. Chili cheese fries, cole slaw, mac and cheese. I had Shochu on the rocks (I am on a no-beer diet….) and my son got their home-made ginger ale.  “It burns,” he said “like kid’s alcohol. I like it.”

Leki joined me on the patio and told me a bit of history.  They had been open for 8 years.  The first year was tough, the street they were on was dead and they found it hard to interest native Japanese in smoked meat.  But as the neighborhood exploded, business picked up with a lot of ex-pats and foreigners, all loyal customers, and things were now running steady. A full house most nights. We talked BBQ.  He told me that he uses native cherry for the smoking with a base of binchō-tan  charcoal, which is perfect for ribs as it burns long and steady.  The pit itself, was in the restaurant — a tiny custom-built device that Leki said was probably the smallest commercial smoker in the entire world.  He told me he would set us up with a plate so that we could taste everything.

I hate sticky-sweet BBQ sauce.  It is the refuge of poorly smoked meat, covering up mistakes and drowning out the porcine flavor that should be at the very heart of good BBQ.   Hatos didn’t disappoint me — they use a variant of the vinegar-based sauces of the Carolinas to match with their dishes .  The ribs were tender, falling off the bone, a beautiful, pink smoke ring edging deep into the heart of the rib.  Subtle spicing, sweet, cherry-wood smoke and rich porkiness came alive with the acidic tang of their sauce.  The Pork belly was lush and fatty and matched up even better with that vinegary kick.   My son’s face was covered in sauce as he inhaled another rib while lifting a slice of beef sausage — coarser, grainier, more authentic than most sausage I have tasted in Japan.   The cole slaw excited me.  It eschewed the mayo paradigm opting instead for fresh and alive flavors shot through with apple vinegar.  Perfect as a pairing with the pulled pork.  Admittedly, I am not a pulled pork guy — I like more texture, but I still enjoyed the smoky-meaty-acidic combination.  My son perked up at arrival of the mac & cheese.  Baked in an individual crock, it bubbled and steamed with gooey cheese and a sort of hollow fusili instead of the usual elbow macaroni.

Hatos makes a chili using long-braised cubes of chuck beef (I think!).  It is heavily spiced — layers of cumin, black pepper, thyme and tomato.  It is topped with cilantro and onion and is rich and complex.  Unfortunately this great chili is what is used for the chili fries. I say unfortunately only because chili fries need a looser, more liquid, ground-meat-based-chili to achieve that goopy meld between french fry and chili. As it is Hatos’ elevated chili doesn’t get down and dirty with the fries. A small criticism for what was an absolutely wonderful plate of food.

I met Leki out on the patio again.  Whatever reticence I had sensed had evaporated.  I heard a certain bounce to his English — not the practiced hip hop lingo that passes for urban vernacular, but a certain flow of those comfortable in the streets; comfortable with the mingling of different cultures.  We talked about Tokyo and neighborhoods and records and restaurants, each recognizing that we shared a common outlook on things, a street-wise ability to read the layers of urban life, to hustle — a certain chutzpah if you will. He told me that he had no restaurant experience before he opened Hatos.  He had lived in America for a while, fell in love with BBQ and just jumped right into it — learning and perfecting his craft as he went.  He showed me his kitchen, his diminutive smoker that creates such awesome flavors. I met his partner, another good guy; the 2 waitstaff.  My son joined us, wrapping his arm around my shoulders as we all talked about DJing and music and how much we enjoyed the meal — we promised that we would return, maybe so many times that they would get sick of us.

I had to go DJ after dinner.  My son and I got on the same subway, but I was going to get off about 8 stops before him.  It was his first time to take the subway alone. With a bit of BBQ sauce still on his face, we went over how many stops it was going to take, what to do if anything went wrong. He scrunched close to me, politely gesturing for an older woman to sit down. He said he was a little frightened riding alone.  I reassured him that it was easy and there was nothing to worry about; and again that juxtaposition of how much he has matured while still remaining a little boy just kicked at my heart.   As my stop came up, he told me what a great time he had at the restaurant and he thanked me.  I saw the worry in his eye, and reassured him once again that all would be fine. I kissed him on his head as I headed out.  As the doors shut I heard him call out “Bye Dad.  I love you. Break a leg!”

As I said, being 11 is weird.  Being a father of an 11-year-old is just as weird.  And sometimes that weirdness — the awkwardness, the acrimony, the irritations, the annoyances, the pressing of boundaries, the nagging, the petty hurts, the lashing out, the insecurities, the bouts of anger, the unnecessarily harsh words — just parts for a moment as you both dig into a plate of delicious ribs, so happy to be in each other’s company in a cool restaurant, in a wonderful city that you are both discovering. And you remember, with a gentle clarity,  just how much you love each other.




One Reply to “Hatos Bar: The Invaluable Kindness of Pit Smoked Ribs”

  1. I love you guys.
    I miss you guys.
    I am so pleased that even if only for several hours while you shared a meal Haru and you were in perfect bonded bliss. He is a great young man, tremendous spirit and wonderful company, and he is awesomely lucky to have such a quirky fascinating mensch of an old man.

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