Times will change, empires will rise and fall, but thankfully some institutions are set, if not in bronze, then at least in good old concrete. By this I mean the backstreet teishokuya (定食屋, diner), specifically the tasty one in my neighborhood. At lunchtime the place is crammed with businessmen and construction workers, huddled over small, greasy plastic trays and reaching over each other’s shoulders for the hashibako (箸箱, chopstick case). The feeling is: Who needs restaurants when you can get a cheap, caloric teishoku (定食, set meal) for under ¥1000, served in less than three minutes?
One regular there is a burly construction worker, who can always be seen shoveling from a bowl of katsudon (カツ丼, deep fried pork boiled in sweet soy sauce with onions and egg dolloped over rice) with one hand while holding a large donburi (どんぶり, bowl) of ramen with the other. It’s a gravity-defying conjuring act. Between sipping the ramen soup straight from the donburi and chomping on the pork and rice, he occasionally stops to wipe his mouth with the ends of a towel draped round his neck. Inside of 11 minutes he’s done eating, has paid and is out the door with a tsumayōji (つまようじ, toothpick) between his teeth.
While other eateries have updated their enterprise, we can rely on the teishokuya to remain exactly the same. The oily patches of nicotine staining the walls, the mysteriously embarrassing holes punched out in the plastic stools, the never completely clean table surfaces and the sad, plastic plates on which the pote-sara (ポテサラ, potato salad) garnish has been resting since the night before — these are all necessary teishokuya accoutrements. And, of course, also a must are the huge pitchers of diluted mugicha (麦茶, barley tea) propped on the counter, which customers can pour into slightly greasy plastic glasses. The one thing you must never do is use the restroom. That is, unless you’re a connoisseur of military boot camp architecture in Manchuria circa 1940.
Surprisingly, quite a few young people frequent these establishments. Kids in their teens and students in their 20s observe an age-old, unwritten protocol by sitting at the table with legs crossed, poring over a supōtsu shinbun (スポーツ新聞, sports tabloid) as if they were born and raised on the premises.
Unlike the katahijiharu (肩肘はる, shoulder and elbow-ache inducing) atmosphere of expensive restaurants, or the robotic creepiness of famiresu (ファミレス, franchise family restaurants), teishokuya offer genuine, laid-back relaxation and the particular shōyu no shimitsuita (醤油の染み付いた, soy sauce stained) comfort zone that, for better or worse, the Japanese heart calls home.
The amazing aspect of the teishokuya is its all-in-one nature. The kitchen is often manned by the owner/chef, with perhaps a part-time dishwasher. Waitressing is done by the chef’s wife, often with a sister or neighbor obasan (おばさん, middle-aged woman) as assistant. With such a team, the average city teishokuya can turn out more than 100 different dishes, each in a prep time of no more than eight minutes. Main dishes can be anything from karē(カレー, curry and rice) to bowls of udon, shouga-yaki (生姜焼き, ginger pork) and korokke (コロッケ, potato croquettes), and the vegetable garnishes range from ohitashi (おひたし, boiled greens) and kiriboshi (切り干し, dried daikon strands boiled in sugar, soy sauce and sake) to everyone’s favorite, sengiri kyabetsu (千切りキャベツ, shredded cabbage). Teishokuya do it all with amazing speed and efficiency. No fuss, no waiting, no haggling with the staff, no tip, and a full-on meal for less than ¥1,000.
Recently, the in vogue item on the teishokuya menu is the namatamago (生卵, raw egg). Cracking a cold egg into a steaming bowl of rice is a national favorite, popularly known as tamagokake gohan (たまごかけごはん) or, among the under-25 generation, the abbreviation TKG. Once a staple of the Showa Era (1926-1989) breakfast table, the TKG has made a roaring comeback with a vast range of variations. There are specialized TKG-only soy sauces and TKG-specific restaurants that serve nifty things like TKG with hogushi yakijyake (ほぐし焼き鮭, grilled salmon flakes) and a scattering of naganegi (ながねぎ, scallion) over that egg and rice.
Don’t forget to kakimazeru (かき混ぜる, stir vigorously) with your chopsticks before tucking in, so that each pearly grain of rice is coated thoroughly with egg. When to pour the soy sauce is up to you, though many purists insist on doing that before the stirring and immediately after cracking (the egg).
Chinamini (ちなみに, by the way), the average teishokuya price for a simple TKG runs between ¥200 and ¥300. No wonder these places never go out of style.