Japanese Classics and Specialty Surprises at Tsukushinbo in Seattle
While the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle is quickly becoming a popular Nihonmachi (Japantown) full of new restaurants, the original Nihonmachi still has a couple of gems. The James Beard Foundation named Maneki, now 108 years old, an American Classic in 2008. But just around the corner is the lesser-known Tsukushinbo. It's easy to miss, but pass by during the daytime on a Friday, and you won't miss the long line of people who know about the limited bowls of home-style ramen—served for lunch just that one day a week. Tsukushinbo's quality menu, though, goes well beyond just noodles and broth.
Tsukushinbo is small and homey, reminiscent of many restaurants in Japan. In addition to a scattering of tables, there's a wrap-around sushi bar that sports 8 seats. I recommend taking one of those seats so that you can talk directly with the sushi chef to find out what's especially fresh and delicious. On a recent night, that meant some recently arrived aji (horse mackerel) and local uni, as well as sweet shrimp known as Amaebi ($6 for two pieces). The chef removes the heads (back to that in a second) and then butterflies the shrimp, laid on a block of rice as nigiri. As the name suggests, the shrimp is seriously sweet, almost candy-like, spiked with a whisper of wasabi and dipped (that's your job) in just a little soy sauce.
But when you place that order for amaebi, be sure to ask for the heads. They go back to the kitchen, where they're lightly battered, typically with potato starch, before the cook deep-fries and salts them to serve. Add a little squeeze of lemon if you want an acidic note; either way, you've got a savory, crisp bite to contrast the softness of the sweet meat. Just be careful of the shrimp's pointy feelers!
The kitchen at Tsukushinbo is quite adept at sending out quality cooked food. The Ippins (small plates) are especially interesting, and reasonably priced. Some are in the printed menu, and some are showcased on the blackboard of specials, but only in Japanese. It's on the board that a friend once found a dish generically named Ika Special ($6.95). "Ika" is easily understood as squid, but "Special" is mysterious—it could mean anything.
In Japan, you might find this dish called ika wata ni, or squid and liver stew. Well, in my book, that's certainly special! It comes with squid—body and tentacles—that essentially simmers in its own guts. Shiokara is a similar but markedly more pungent dish, in which the squid is salted and ferments in its innards. But at Tsukushinbo, the reddish-brown gravy is seasoned with soy sauce, mirin, sake, and some secret ingredients the chef wouldn't divulge; he says it's his mother's recipe. The flavor has a mineral quality, offset by the bitterness of daikon, itself an pleasant contrast to the chewy squid. If you're adventurous, you'll impress the staff by ordering this dish. It may not appear on the menu board, but you can request it regardless—just be sure to complement it with a glass of good sake or beer.
About the author: Jay Friedman is a Seattle-based freelance food writer who happens to travel extensively as a sex educator. An avid fan of noodles (some call him "The Mein Man"), he sees sensuality in all foods, and blogs about it at his Gastrolust website. You can follow him on Twitter @jayfriedman.