South of the border in ‘Nakame’


Naka-Meguro’s days as a hip, artsy enclave have long been numbered. The area isgentrifying fast, especially down by the river and uptoward Daikanyama. But venture along the slow-moving, old-school shopping street that forms the spiritual axis of ‘Nakame’ (as the locals like to call it) and you can still find a few lingering traces of that alternative attitude –especially when you get to Junkadelic.

“Comfortable Mexican” promises the sign over the door — as if there were any other kind. How can it not be comfortable when the furniture is a mix-and-match assortment of battered rattan, old deck chairs and careworn tables? When the walls have been cobbled together from ancient timbers and favela tin sheets? And the rest room is paintedentirely in red and decorated with a bank of faded artificial roses?

Like so many of our favorite eateries, this is a labor-of-love story. Junkadelic’s quiet-spoken, unassuming owner, Hideaki Arima, has been visiting Mexico on and off for years. Back in Tokyo, he drew together a crew of like-minded souls and set to work fixing up a dilapidated shop, adorning it with crucifixes, Virgin Mary statues and Day of the Dead artifacts. The result, opened just over a year ago, is half Cancun beach bar, half Tex-Mex cantina — and entirely art-school Tokyo.

It may look funky but it’s clean. The semi-open kitchen, visible behind the DJ unit and below the screen where music videos flicker mutely, is as neat and tidy as the main dining room itself. Leading off the other side of the room, there are a couple of small private areas with lounge chairs. And at the back of the premises, there is counter seating along the bararea which, significantly, takes up as much space as the kitchen.

Arima makes a mean frozen margarita, in a choice of eight lurid flavors. He also offers 10 different Mexican beers, plus the excellent Liberty Ale from Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco; a score of rums sourced from around the Caribbean; and an even greater number of tequilas and agaves.

These become the focus of attention later at night, as Junkadelic segues into convivial DJ-bar mode. But when the doors first open each evening, it is the food that people are there for. Tex-Mex may be the starting point, but there are always a good number of dishes that you’d never find north of the border in Gringo-land. And then there are items, such as the “Mexican pizza,” that come from who knows where.

The menu (helpfully written in perfect English) is remarkably extensive. All the standard mainstream favorites are present and correct — the enchiladas, burritos, quesadillos and tacos — but the kitchen also produces a range of interesting daily specials, which are inscribed on a blackboard by the bar. And for the late-night drinking crowd, there are good dips, empanadas and simple bar snacks to nibble on.

A great way to start is with the chili rellenos. The bell peppers are stuffed with minced pork, fried nice and crisp, covered with Junkadelic’s patent “special” sauce and topped with melted cheese. Arima’s chef, Masanari Abe, spent several years in Mexico, and has obviously come back with some very good recipes indeed.

In a similar vein are the chimichangas. The tacos are rolled up around your choice of filling — we liked the chicken — crisp-fried, lavished with sauce and served with dabs of both sour cream and, interestingly, cottage cheese.

They have a good number of vegetarian options, ranging from the guacamole and bean dips to salads and gazpacho soup. Most intriguing of all are the tofu-stuffed tacos, in which the filling is made from pressed tofu mixed with a littlesavory-cooked rice to duplicate that chewy chicken texture.

One of the highlight dishes from the special menu is the Puerco Asado. The pork meat (juicy Iwachu mukin-buta) is grilled until it’s crisp, then cut into tender slices, covered with blanched onion slices and a mild red salsa, then served up with a wedge of lime and condiments of green tomato and spicy red chili. Eaten with excellent soft tortillas — your choice of either corn or wheat flour — presented in quaint baskets with sombrero-like lids, this is the ultimate in comfort food, filling, rich and inexpensive.

Out of deference to local sentiment, it must be said, spice levels have been tamed and toned down, and even thecilantro is served on the side. But if you like to pack your food with rather more heat, the tables are all set with small bottles of Marie Sharp’s Habanera sauce, a Tabasco equivalent from Belize that should be fiery enough for even the most chili-inured palates.

With its bunting flags furled across the ceiling, every day is fiesta and the party runs late at Junkadelic. The first part of the name sums up the flea-market, beach-scavenger aesthetic. But the last two syllables definitely stand for “delicious.”

In the neighborhood

Naka-Meguro seems to throw up interesting new shops, bars and restaurants the way Shibuya produces karaoke bars. Here are a few recent additions to this ever-changing scene.

Humano (pronounced without the “h”) is a bright new face in the izakaya alley on the west side of the station. This friendly hole-in-the-wall boutique specializes in Panama hats and zakka (miscellaneous knickknacks) that the owners have picked up on their travels in Central and South America. We really like the dolls and colorful objects from the Indio peoples of the high Andes. And we simply love the refreshing chilled mate tea they offer on weekends (for the rest of August).

Humano, 3-3-6 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 5856-2066; humano.jp/ Open: 1-8:30 p.m. (Sunday 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.)

Back on the other side of the station, a new Thai restaurant has just opened off Naka-Meguro’s shopping street. Although Soi 7 namechecks one of Bangkok’s premier side-street dining areas, it’s a simple place, with straightforward food. But they use quality jidori chicken and the beer is cheap (500 yen for Phuket Lager is most reasonable).

Soi 7, 2-12-7 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3760-6620. Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; closed Wednesday

Cross Yamate-dori, turn left at the river, walk a couple of blocks along the north bank, and you’ll find yourself in hula country. M&L — that’s short for Makani & Lanai (“Wind and Veranda” in Hawaiian) — serves up pupu, ahi poke, locomoko and other tropical eats. It’s a branch of the enterprising Zetton group, so the food ought to be better than it is. But with three outside tables and an airy upstairs terrace with ceiling fans, there can be few nicer places to sip a coffee (Muu Muu brand) or Kona beer.

M&L, 2-16-11 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 5428-4222; www.zetton.co.jp/aloha/ml/index.htm Open 11:30 a.m.-3 a.m. (Sunday & holidays 11:30 a.m.-midnight)