by The Finn
Anyone who reads this column regularly knows how much I love this town. But if you base your idea of how this town works strictly on my columns, you'd only know how heartbreaking this town can be. I aim to change that. Now while it’s true that this is a heartbreak town, there’s an amazing beauty here. In the people, the architecture, the local customs… They’re the things that made me love this town in the first place. So, over the next few weeks, I'd like to introduce you to a few of my favorite places. Places where I worked, places I drank and places I just hung out and had a good time. They all form the city that I love. One I think you’ll love. So, for the next few weeks, I’d like to introduce you to my Philadelphia. And we'll start this week with my favorite little lunch place in the world.
Everyone who knows me knows that I have a penchant for Japanese food. Well, perhaps penchant isn't a strong enough word. A compulsion to seek out good Japanese may be a better description. Whenever I'm in a new area, I always check for three things, Japanese food, tobacconists and bars. Kind of sums up my big three vices right there. Lemme tell ya, if I ever find a bar with good sake and sushi that sells me French cigarettes, I may never go home.
Many years ago, I was working for a giant, international law firm. It was the closest I've ever come to selling my soul for a buck and one of the worst jobs I've ever had. My boss was a Napoleonic mess, a despicable little man who hated everyone he worked with who yelled constantly at everyone taller than he was. The QA team I was working with was the least functional group I've ever been a part of. And let's just say that the lawyers themselves were the most miserable bunch of bastards it's ever been my displeasure to meet. I hated the place, but a paycheck was a paycheck. Since I was a contractor, the only way I had to figuratively give the company the finger was to take my lunches by myself, away from my boss and the rest of the crap team I was straddled with.
Most days I’d leave the building, glad for the silence that can only come by immersing yourself in a crowd. Headphones on throughout most of these solitary treks, I’d wander around midtown, checking out an area I’d never worked in before. One day I was out wandering around and I stopped by a local electronics store to peer in the window. They had a really graphics card in the window. It was really sweet (especially for the time) but way out of my price rang, especially considering that the wife and I had just bought a place. After a mental “Oh well,” I stepped away from the window and noticed a little Japanese place next door that I had never seen before. There was no sign out and nothing that said if they were open or closed. But the door was open and I could smell tempura cooking inside.
So, I popped my head in and was immediately greeted by Shiro, the owner. He’s a very smiley, quiet(ish) guy who makes the best damn quick Japanese I’ve ever had. Make no mistake about it, I’m not talking about gourmet food. I’m talking about sushi, teriyaki and udon. Nothing terribly fancy, but this man makes shumai that you’ll kill your mother for. The place is tiny. There’s window bench seating and a large common table right in the middle of the restaurant. And that’s it as far as seating goes. It’s family style because Shiro likes to talk to everyone who sits down in his joint. He likes to meet with them and find out what they like and don’t like. He’s incredibly personable and really likes to get to know the people who frequent his establishment. People who come back here come back fantastic food that’s reasonably cheap and for Shiro’s consistent good mood
After meeting Shiro the first day, I came back religiously three times a week for lunch. I’ve had every kind of sushi he knows ho to make and several he’s experimented with. When I finally had to leave the blood sucking vampires, I’m sorry, I mean the law firm, I stopped in for lunch on my last day and to tell Shiro I’d see him around. He wished me well, and when I returned to the city a couple of years later, his sushi joint was the first place I went. Not only did he remember my name, he also remembered my favorite, soba udon and shrimp tempura. We sat and talked about the old days and it was just like I never left. Since I took my job in the ‘burbs, once again, I don’t get back here as often as I’d like. But every time I walk in, I get that famous smile and damn good food. Like a lot of good things in this town, Tokyo Lunchbox may not be the fanciest place or the most expensive. But it's consistent and damn tasty and for me, that's what counts.
thefinn has had a long, tawdry love affair with soba that the world was never supposed to know about. Archives