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Friday, May 13, 2005


A Tokyo hotline to Bangkok

Hyakunincho, Tokyo's most polyglot district, is only a two-minute train ride from the heart of Shinjuku, but it almost feels like leaving the country. In the 1980s, when Southeast Asian food was still a novelty in other parts of town, this was where we came to forage, lured by the exotic perfume of lemongrass, galangal and durian, not to mention the heady whiff of late-night sleaze.

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At Somoo, chef Kasemsri Khem thee (above) complements the curries of her native Thailand with Vietnamese dishes such as spring rolls.
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Things have changed in the old neighborhood. It is visibly smarter, and these days the aromas that assail the nostrils are predominantly Korean and Chinese. Despite the inroads made by the kimchi joints, there are still a couple of places that continue to fly the Thai flag, including an old favorite of ours, Khun Mae.

It too has gone through changes. No longer is it shoehorned into that tiny, fuggy front room with its cheerful folksy facade and seats wedged in so tightly together you could hardly breathe. The new premises, some 50 meters further down the same side street, are spacious and sparkling clean, with ample gaps between tables. The staff are as welcoming as ever, and just as overworked. Gaggles of hungry customers, many of them Thais (a good sign, of course), hover outside the front door on busy evenings, waiting for tables to free up.

The menu has been substantially enlarged, and now boasts color photos with all dishes identified in Japanese and English (plus the Thai names of the dishes in katakana). Prices remain reasonable and, as you order, the young waitresses assiduously ask, "Karai wa daijobu desuka (Are you OK with spicy food?)"

In truth, the flavors have been dulled to suit Japanese palates. Our tod man plaa (deep-fried fish cakes) tasted more of sardine than the chewier, tropical white fish we are accustomed to. The yam khun mae (spicy Thai salad) was much better, the piquant minced pork meat nicely complemented by the soft green flesh of grilled eggplant (skin removed), with plenty of coriander in the mix.

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Khun Mae (above), now in smart new premises, serves all the Thai staples, including good spicy yam salads.
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One of Khun Mae's strongest suits was always its selection of dishes from Isaan, the rural northeast of Thailand neighboring Laos. But this time we found the kai yang (grilled chicken) disappointingly bland. And the som tam (green papaya salad) lacked that exciting depth of flavor that derives from using freshly pounded spices and being underpinned with lots of fermented fish paste.

Our spirits were partially restored with a hearty bowl of gaeng panang nuer (beef curry). The rich, dark-brown sauce was bolstered with plenty of coconut milk, though the slivers of beef were rather leathery. Overall, though, we found the cooking at Khun Mae par for the course for Thai food in Tokyo -- adequate but about as exciting as the anodyne 1960s soft-pop that plays on the sound system. Even with Chang Beer (600 yen) and Mekhong "whiskey" (400 yen per shot) to lubricate us, we were never able to generate that special tingle, the feeling that -- for a short while at least -- we had been transported out of Tokyo to more tropical climes.

Khun Mae has never been the best Thai eatery in Tokyo; now it's not even the best in the Okubo area. On the basis of a quick visit for lunch recently, we would transfer that mantle to Somoo, a new (since last autumn) place that, ironically, sits right across the alley from Khun Mae's now-abandoned original location.

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The wooden porch area gives it a faux-rustic charm, although that is greatly obscured by the strident signs and menus splashed across the front. Inside it is much more sophisticated. Push through the smoked-glass front door and you find that Somoo has a simple, stylish feel that would be absolutely at home in contemporary Bangkok.

Dark-wood veneers and furniture are offset by plain walls and exposed metal ducts painted white. A few hill-tribe artifacts dangle from the ceiling, but beyond that there is no self-conscious attempt to push the ethnic angle.

Perhaps to broaden its appeal, Somoo calls itself a "Thai and Vietnamese cafe restaurant." But its primary allegiance is clear, from the syrupy-sweet Bangkok pop music on the speaker to the Buddhist altar by the kitchen. And although the menu features a good number of Vietnamese dishes, chef Kasemsri Khemthee is understandably more confident in her native cuisine.

So, instead of the shrimp spring rolls and chicken pho noodles, you would do better to direct your attentions to the Thai section of the menu. The standard gamut of dishes are represented, from yam salads and coconut soups to Chinese-style stir-fries. Some of the highlights include the grilled Isaan-style sausage; serpent-head fish (a freshwater catfish) cooked with red curry paste; and the laap, another Isaan specialty, here prepared with minced chicken and mint leaves.

Somoo represents the new face of Hyakunincho, matching down-home flavors with a casual Southeast Asian chic. A decade ago, we used to venture up to Shin-Okubo in search of the exotic; these days we expect a good measure of style with our spices. This reflects a growing sophistication, not just in Tokyo but also Bangkok. It's also a welcome indication that some of the changes in this part of town are definitely for the better.

For those who are loath to travel any further than Shinjuku, Somoo has a sister restaurant close to the edge of the Golden Gai. Called Saamrot, it is smaller and simpler, but equally tasty, both in its food and appearance.

The legendary Hyakunincho Yataimura ("Foodstall Village") has also become a victim of its own popularity. It started as a ragtag agglomeration of stalls knocking out basic street foods from various parts of Asia. You didn't go there for the food, but for the thrill of squatting on stools and slumming it.

Now it's been given a makeover that has erased all the patina and charm. The format is the same: The dining area is still surrounded on all four sides by stalls representing half a dozen nationalities (now including Indian and Mexican); and the waitresses still vigorously compete for your order. But if you haven't been there for a while, you might not recognize it, so spick and span it has become.

If you are living in the Tokyo region and have an interest in Thai culture, then do not miss the annual Thai festival, being held this weekend (May 14-15) in the Yoyogi Park event space, next to NHK Hall. Along with musical performances and stalls selling crafts, there is always plenty of food on hand. Besides being able to eat your fill of good Thai street food, this is also a great chance to discover new restaurants. For more details, see www.thaiembassy.jp/activities/act2005/thaifest/e_index.htm

The Shin-Okubo shuffle

Khun Mae, 1-10-7 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku; tel. (03) 3368-1166; www.khunmae.net/ Open 11.30 a.m.-midnight. Nearest station: Shin-Okubo (Yamanote Line). No credit cards (cash only). Japanese/English menu; little English spoken.

Somoo, 1-11-24 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku; tel. (03) 3366-8686; www.somoo.net/ Open: 11 a.m.-11.30 p.m. (Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-12.30 a.m. Nearest station: Shin-Okubo (Yamanote Line). Most credit cards accepted. Japanese/English menu; some English spoken

Saamrot, 1-2-19 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3205-0148; www.saamrot.com . Open daily 11 a.m.-3.30 a.m..

Hyakunincho Yataimura, 2-20-25 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku; tel. (03) 5386-3320; www.yataimura.jp/

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