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Friday, Jan. 31, 2003

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Fun food in funky retro style


There is precious little architecture left in central Tokyo these days that has any history attached to it. So when restaurants want to imbue their premises with a period feel, mostly they just have to fake it. The results can range from ersatz Edo-style castles to flimsy, film-set backdrops glorifying the gritty Showa years of post-war austerity. Whichever way, the results invariably tend toward theme-park pastiche.

News photo
When winter winds are blowing, Coca Restaurant's Thai-suki is just what the doctor ordered. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS News photo

That is certainly not the case at Coca Restaurant in the heart of Yurakucho. It may be surrounded by some of the flashiest, priciest real estate in the city -- indeed, on the planet -- but this modest, grimy, three-story gray-brick building is a hold-over from a much earlier era. Evoking the feel of 1930s Canton or Bangkok's Chinatown, it is grubby and shabby, not so much retro as a relic -- and in this funky, faded, prewar authenticity lies its charm.

The warm glow of the red neon sign above the door is a low-tech beacon in a high-tech part of town. Banks of bamboo steamers waft their vapors and the tempting aromas of dim sum through the dining rooms and out into the street. It's the sort of place where you stop and join the queue by the door, not so much because you're hungry but to imbibe some of that cheerful, good-time atmosphere.

The conversion from abandoned office building to its present incarnation as a restaurant was obviously a low-budget effort. Chunky, cast-iron chandeliers hang from the high ceilings. The old-fashioned, metal-frame windows have been given perfunctory fabric curtains, cheap but colorful. The walls -- whitewashed but with a band of vermilion running along their base -- are patchy and peeling in places, decorated sporadically with reproduction Thai art. The wooden furniture is simple but sturdy. The speakers belt out a constant soundtrack of upbeat, bootleg-era Kansas City jazz.

Lest you get the wrong idea, Coca Restaurant has no connection with cola drinks, nor with Colombian cartels. The food here is simple, forthright Chinese-Thai cooking, a step up from street-stall fare, but about as unsophisticated as the surroundings. Throughout the day, you can drop by for dumplings, steamed buns and basic short-order dishes on the ground floor. More substantial meals are to be had on the upper two floors, which open from 5 p.m.

The menu covers a wide range of Thai staples -- from tom yum kung (spicy prawn soup) to khai yang (barbecued chicken in the Northeast Thai style) -- but the specialty of the house is Thai-suki, a form of hot-pot cooking also known in Southeast Asia as steamboat, which was pioneered by the original Coca restaurant chain in Thailand.

Despite the name, Thai-suki is less like sukiyaki than an exotic take on shabu shabu. Usually it is cooked in circular pans with chimneys rising up the center. Here, though, the rudimentary gas burners are set with wide casseroles of heavy stainless steel. Once the clear, salty broth is bubbling, you drop your fish, meat, vegetables and other ingredients in, retrieve them as soon as they're cooked, dipping them in a spicy orange-colored sauce or anointing them with grated garlic, ginger or other condiments.

The basic 5,000 yen Thai-suki set menu is intended for two people (or even three with modest appetites), although it is worth supplementing it with some extra side dishes. The other course, at 3,800 yen per person, is slightly more substantial since it includes an appetizer -- such as spring rolls; deep-fried todman pla fish cakes; stir-fried greens; or a very tasty hot laab (Laotian style minced chicken cooked up with plenty of herbs and chili), which you eat with slices of raw cabbage -- plus a simple dessert.

The Thai-suki ingredients, served on bamboo trays lined with fresh palm leaf, include a good selection of seafood -- swimmer crab (watari-gani); tiger prawns; scallops; small squid stuffed with minced chicken; white meat fish (usually grouper); and white rectangles of cuttlefish, lightly incised so they curl up into attractive florets as they cook.

There was also an assortment of "balls" -- small marble-size servings of surimi fish, meat, shrimp and chicken, with a couple of wonton -- plus a basket of vegetables such as lettuce, Chinese cabbage, dark-green water spinach (kushinsai), mushrooms, together with tofu and bean thread-noodles. When you have worked your way through all these, you can bulk up with rice, which you cook into porridge in the rich broth, or with a variety of green noodles known as pa-mien.

Hot-pot cooking is always good medicine against the cold, and that mouth-tingling chili sauce helps to boost the effect. It is supposedly made from a "secret recipe" concocted in 1957 by the founder of the chain, but to us it tastes like a diluted version of the ubiquitous bottled red chili ketchup found on restaurant tables throughout Thailand. Likewise, the ingredients are of supermarket quality -- you can't expect fresh seafood from Tsukiji at these prices.

But that is not the point. You are here because this is fun food, to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, enhancing the pleasure with bottles of Tsingtao or Singha beer, or perhaps shots of Mekong whiskey. The casserole bubbles away, filling the room with so much good cheer and water vapor that the windows and walls stream with condensation. It's the sort of atmosphere that's impossible to reproduce in a modern building. Go enjoy while you can, before they redevelop it.

Coca Restaurant
2-8-13 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; (03) 3201-5489
Open:11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily
Nearest stations: Yurakucho (JR and Yurakucho lines); Ginza (Ginza, Marunouchi and Hibya lines)
How to get there:From Yurakucho Station, walk toward the the Mullion Building (Hankyu and Seibu department stores). The Coca Restaurant is opposite the annex of the Seibu department store.
What works: Fun, economical comfort food in a funky, retro setting.
What doesn't:A certain tolerance of grubby decor and MSG is called for.
BGM: Revival jazz at a considerable volume
Price per head:Set menus at 5,000 yen (per hot pot) and 3,800 yen (per person); also a la carte.
Drinks:Beer from 550 yen; wine from 2,400 yen/bottle; Mekhong whiskey 450 yen/shot; Shaoxingju from 1,000 yen/half bottle.
Credit cards: Most accepted
Language:Japanese menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Recommended, especially at weekends. Specify if you want Thai-suki, as it's not served in all the dining rooms.

There are other branches of Coca Restaurant, each with similar menus, and equally cheerful and good value, albeit without the retro architecture. One is in Shibuya (Spain-zaka): 13-8 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5459-3042. The other is in Ueno, in the mall next to the revamped JR station building: Atre Ueno 2020, 7-1-1 Ueno, Taito-ku; tel: (03) 5826-5825.


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