Batter Up: Finding a Tempura Spot to Call My Own

Serious Eats_Jessie-Kanelos-Weiner-Tempura-1

It took me until I was in my 30s to understand that restaurants are like pets. They have a shorter lifespan than humans, and it’s our responsibility to take good care of them, enjoy their company, mourn their passing, and move on.

And usually, I’m capable of following my own advice. But Tenta was different: We never got to say good-bye.

One summer night in Tokyo, I went out for a walk and passed this sliver of a restaurant, barely wider than the sliding door at its entrance. Actually, it wasn’t clear that the place was a restaurant, since the only seating was at a bar, and the patrons—a mix of female and male, young and old—were smoking, drinking beers and whiskey highballs, and eating...something I couldn't quite make out in the dim space. I squinted at the menu, the print fuzzy from being repeatedly photocopied: TEMPURA.

It was 2012, and my wife and daughter and I were living in a 260-square-foot apartment in the Nakano neighborhood while I was writing a book about Japanese food. "I think I found a tempura place," I told Laurie and Iris. We went for dinner the next day. It’s unusual to take an eight-year-old to a bar in Japan, but it’s not illegal, and Japan is very tolerant of children. I didn’t speak much Japanese then, and there was no English menu, so I read what I could and guessed at the rest. We ordered à la carte: shrimp, eggplant, onion, green pepper, sea eel. At some point the cook/bartender, a chubby guy in his 30s with a kind smile and a black bandana, held up a hand. Enough. You can order more later!

Tempura batter has to be used quickly after it’s made, or the coating becomes tough instead of light and tender. So periodically, the cook would pour more low-protein flour into a mixing bowl, add egg and water, and mix gently with chopsticks. Then he’d pull the ingredient we’d ordered out of the fridge, dunk it in batter, and toss it into the deep fryer. At any given time, the fryer held half a dozen hunks of breaded vegetables and seafood, each destined for a different customer and in a different stage of cooking, yet the cook managed to simultaneously chat with customers and serve drinks without letting anything overcook or mixing up the green pepper order with the jumbo shrimp.

He gave us each a ceramic plate lined with paper and topped with a metal rack to keep the underside of the tempura crispy during the 10 seconds or so before we devoured it. We dipped each piece alternately in gray sea salt and tentsuyu—light and sweet from soy sauce and mirin, with an umami flavor from dashi and a cleansing bitterness from the mound of grated daikon that rose from the middle of the dish like an iceberg.

The best item we ordered was the eel. It didn’t come from the fridge. The cook pulled it live and wriggling from a tank next to the front door, slaughtered and filleted it in seconds, and served it two minutes later. Best of all, he tied the eel’s slender backbone into an overhand knot; tossed it, un-battered, into the fryer; and presented it to Iris, who to this day goes around telling children and adults alike that they really need to try crispy eel backbone.

Over time, Tenta became our symbol of everything great about Japanese food culture. Going to Tokyo without spending an evening or two at Tenta, bantering with the chef and ordering just one more shrimp, was unthinkable.

Illustration of the exterior of a small restaurant, with a staircase on the right, menu out front, and lantern by the door

In the summer of 2016, I looked at Tabelog, the Japanese equivalent of Yelp, and found that Tenta had moved a couple blocks north. The new space wasn’t great—it had less foot traffic, was larger and less cozy, and the bar was tucked awkwardly into one corner. But the food was as good as ever. We ordered a vegetable-tempura assortment that included fried shiso leaves, battered on one side, as thin and delicate as a sheet of phyllo dough. They were so delicious that we asked for an extra plate of leaves alone.

Last year, I wanted to include Tenta in an article I was writing about Tokyo travel. When I called to confirm its hours and location, however, there was no answer. I texted a friend living in the neighborhood, who walked past the restaurant and reported what I already suspected: Tenta was no more. I thanked her in polite Japanese, relieved that the impersonal Facebook window couldn’t betray how crushed I was.

Theoretically, finding another restaurant I liked as much as Tenta should have been relatively simple. Sure, it was one of the most spectacular eating experiences of my life, but the bar for food is set so high in Japan that finding amazing food in an unassuming neighborhood restaurant is a common experience. The restaurant’s entry on Tabelog confirmed that it was nothing special, with an average rating of barely over three stars out of five (which is pretty good, actually—Japanese reviewers are tough!).

I grumbled about this a bit. How could people not recognize the greatness of this perfect little restaurant? But really, this was a good thing. Maybe Tenta was like a baby, or a house cat—we love our own and celebrate its quirks, but to a disinterested third party, it’s barely different from hundreds of millions of others. Maybe there was another hole-in-the-wall tempura bar in my neighborhood where we could become regulars—if you can use the word to describe a family that comes in once or twice a year.

Back in Seattle, Laurie and I often get pizza and beer at the Hopvine, a bar three blocks from our apartment. I like the Hopvine so much, I requested it for my birthday dinner last year, despite these facts:

  • It’s not the best pizza in town, or even the best pizza in the neighborhood.
  • Nor is it especially cheap.
  • It takes at least 20 minutes for them to make your pizza.

But I keep going back to the Hopvine because it’s cozy, friendly, and nearby, and the food is pretty good. This, I realized, is all I ask of a tempura bar. For that matter, it’s all I ask of my friends: Be around when I need you, and don’t be objectionable in any important way.

So I set out on an on-again, off-again quest to find the new Tenta. How hard could it be? There are over a thousand tempura restaurants in Tokyo, including at least a dozen within a mile of our apartment. And I knew exactly what I wanted: really good food (obviously), ordered à la carte and served by a friendly chef at a comfortable, well-worn bar. In other words, I was like a newly single person looking for someone a lot like my ex. Great plan, right?

Candidate #1: Tensuke

Illustration of the exterior of a restaurant with eaters visible inside, people looking in the windows, and one facing the viewer

My friend Michael had sent me a photo of a batter-crusted egg oozing golden yolk onto a bowl of rice—a flash-fried egg tempura, he explained, calling it "the single best, yet simplest, dish we had during our trip." It came from a tempura restaurant called Tensuke, in the Koenji neighborhood. I decided to check it out on my next trip to Tokyo, with my friend Molly, in October.

After our initial attempt was thwarted by a long line of diners, I made sure to arrive at Tensuke 20 minutes before it opened. A few minutes after noon, the door slid open and everyone took seats at the counter (all of Tensuke’s 12 seats are at the counter). The restaurant is so slim that my butt was practically against the wall.

Everyone ordered the Egg Lunch (JPY 1,300) that Michael had described in such glowing terms. As at Tenta, the wall above the kitchen at Tensuke is lined with vertical slats of wood hanging from hooks, each advertising a particular piece of tempura available that day. I was looking forward to supplementing the lunch set with some à la carte extras.

The chef at Tensuke is a real ham. To make their signature dish, he cracks an egg into a copper cauldron of bubbling sesame oil, tosses the shell over his shoulder into the trash, points directly at a customer, and flashes a cocky half-smile, as if to say, "This one’s for you, chief." As the egg cooks, he sprinkles it with crispy bits skimmed from previous batches of tempura, somehow convincing them to adhere to the egg.

I had no idea it was possible to cook an egg in a deep fryer until I saw it done. I’m sure the chef ruined 10 dozen eggs before he got it right. But once he did, jackpot: Each bite delivered tender whites, runny yolk, and crispy crags of batter, all moistened with a sauce balanced right on the line between salty and sweet.

Molly and I got only a few bites into the egg and rice before the counterman started delivering the rest of the lunch-set items to a paper-lined plate set on the ledge behind the egg bowl. Whiting. Shrimp. Eggplant. The most tender and sweet piece of green pepper. Compared with Tenta, the tempura at Tensuke has a lightness and an almost smoky perfume of sesame oil. The lunch set marched on and on. I hid a piece of squid underneath some rice. We did not order any extras.

In December, I was back in Tokyo with my family and took them to Tensuke for lunch. The egg came first, and Iris dug in. "This is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten," she said. As more tempura pieces arrived, we passed them around, like kids furtively trading the contents of their sack lunches.

Tensuke is a fantastic restaurant. But it’s not going to be our new regular tempura spot. It’s just too good. A place that draws customers from all over town and always has a line out the door isn’t a neighborhood hangout, even if it looks like one on the inside.

Candidate #2: Tenya

If you’re from the United States, Tenya is a difficult restaurant to understand. It’s a national chain with about 200 locations throughout Japan. As is true of fast food places everywhere, it has zero atmosphere, and it’s easy to get out for under $6.

Unlike with fast food chains in most places, however, the food quality at Tenya is superb. Last time I was there, I had the tendon (sauced tempura on rice) with shrimp, maitake mushroom, sweet potato, squash, lotus root, and green bean. It cost $5.50, came with miso soup, and made a hearty dinner. Their recent fall seasonal specials included a duck tempura bowl and one made with fresh oysters and red rockfish. They also serve draft beer.

This isn’t so outlandish by Japanese standards: Many fast food places in Japan have bizarrely good food (hello, CoCo Ichibanya). But the dishware at Tenya is also superb. Seriously, look at this photo. I’ve had worse food and worse presentation than Tenya at a supposedly high-end tempura place.

Tenya is probably capitalism’s greatest achievement. But it’s not going to be our neighborhood hangout, because it’s just not designed for hanging out. The lighting is institutional, the seats are uncomfortable, no one is going to hail you as a regular, and it’s hard to imagine striking up a conversation with other diners. (Imagine approaching another table at Wendy’s.) How does Tenya serve such great food for $6? Partly by making sure you don’t sit around wasting their real estate.

Candidate #3: Kiyoshi

Illustration of a chef preparing a bowl of shrimp and green bean tempura with long cooking chopsticks

I began wandering the neighborhood, peering into the windows of tempura places to see if their ambience sparked any Tenta nostalgia. That’s how I came across Kiyoshi, a little mom-and-pop tempura place on Waseda Street, about halfway between our apartment and the neighborhood temple, Arai Yakushi. It has a weathered wooden bar at the front and a small tatami-floored dining room, which is where we sat one Wednesday night in December. We ordered seafood- and vegetable-tempura assortments and the pickle plate. It’s never a bad idea to order pickles (oshinko) at any restaurant in Japan, but these were particularly good—especially the tart apples pickled in rice bran.

The tempura was excellent. It featured almost everything we would have ordered at Tenta, including a crispy kakiage patty of seafood and onions. Our server, the mom of the mom-and-pop team, was delightful. The menu listed only tempura sets, but Mom assured us we could also order à la carte, and I requested a couple extra pieces of the tender, creamy kabocha squash. Everything was delicious, and with each bite, I dwelled on how this place was different from Tenta. The chef was older, and skinnier. They didn’t have menu items listed on vertical wooden slats on the wall. No eel bones.

Kiyoshi is a terrific neighborhood tempura bar, and I know that each time we go back, it will feel a little more like mine. It is everything I’m looking for in a new Tenta—but it’s simply not Tenta. Just because all cats are cats doesn’t mean I’d be satisfied if someone swapped my cat out for a similar model.

The Tempura of the Mind

A couple days after visiting Kiyoshi, we went out for Christmas dinner to Penguin Village, an okonomiyaki restaurant run by the Oda brothers, two ruggedly handsome Japanese professional-wrestling fans. Their restaurant is open most nights from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., and the facade features an absurdist pirate-penguin mural.

Okonomiyaki are Japanese pancakes. They’re drinking food, and at most Tokyo okonomiyaki places, you cook them yourself. The waiter brings you a bowl of sticky batter full of cabbage, mountain yam, pickled ginger, and whatever custom ingredients you ordered, and you stir it up and cook it on a griddle built into your table. I cooked my lumpy first okonomiyaki at Penguin Village, in 2012.

Illustration of okonomiyaki on a griddle, with toppings raining down on it

As at Kiyoshi, you take your shoes off and sit on the floor. We ordered Iris’s favorite, the Niku Niku Niku ("meat meat meat," although it actually includes four meats, if you count pork belly and ground pork as two meats), and waited the agonizingly long 15 minutes it takes to cook an okonomiyaki.

While our food cooked, we chatted with the brothers, who mentioned that we’d come in on the restaurant’s 11th birthday. After dinner, they brought us free ice cream in heart-shaped dishes—whether for the restaurant’s anniversary or because they hadn’t seen us for over a year, I’m not sure.

Okonomiyaki is not my favorite food. Penguin Village is surely not the best okonomiyaki restaurant in Tokyo. But the stomach wants what it wants. With my most analytical hat on, I went looking for a new tempura place—emphasis on the tempura—when what I really wanted was a new place.

So I guess a restaurant that doesn’t serve tempura is my new favorite tempura place. In any case, it’s never allowed to close.