You never know quite what you’re going to find in the busy back alleys of Shimokitazawa. It has music bars and shisha pipe dens, old-school yakitori, the latest in craft beer, tofu doughnuts and bohemian barista coffee. So why not artisan tortillas and mole sauces from the far south of Mexico?
Abrazo a la Oaxaquena — which translates much like “Hugs in the Oaxaca Style,” though it’s called Abrazo for short — is a perfect addition to this eclectic, casual, artsy neighborhood. Open since December, it’s a small, welcoming place with no pretensions or attitude but bucketloads of enthusiasm. Plus a serious infatuation with the distinctive cuisine of the region it is named after.
With its cheerful blue paintwork inside and out, Mexican flag fluttering in the breeze and a head-high cactus standing sentry by the door, Abrazo certainly looks the part. But it’s not the Day of the Dead knickknacks on the walls and counter that let you know you’ve come to the right place: It is the warm aromas emanating from the griddle in the open kitchen. You’ve arrived in tortilla territory.
In northern Mexico, wheat-flour tortillas may be more prevalent, but down in Oaxaca they’re always made from cornmeal, prepared fresh from scratch. That’s the way it is done at Abrazo, all by hand. Balls of cornmeal dough are formed into the classic disk shape using a simple wooden press and then placed straight onto the stove top to be lightly crisped.
This is a laborious process, quite the opposite of fast food. But for owner-chef Shintaro Kato it is a fundamental statement of intent. It’s also a way to stand out from many of the other restaurants around town that use premade frozen tortillas.
Kato likes to draw an analogy with traditional Japanese cooking. Sure you can buy precooked rice out of a convenience-store freezer and zap it in a microwave in seconds. But nothing beats the flavor and freshness of rice that’s been slowly steamed over an old-fashioned kamado cooker.
The actual job of pressing and grilling the tortillas is mostly done by Kato’s righthand man, Tetsuo Nakajima. His official title is chef auxiliar but it might just as well be “tortillador.” Every evening he prepares dozens of them; on a busy Saturday well over 100.
A good proportion of those tortillas are cut and deep-fried to make the chips that are served with just about everything. Nakajima is also in charge of guacamole, using the classic Mexican technique of mashing the avocado flesh with an empty Corona beer bottle as his pestle.
Meanwhile, Kato oversees the rest of the cooking. He prepares everything to order. Ask for a plate of tacos — as everybody does — and he starts rustling up the toppings on his cooker. Beef, chicken, pork belly, cactus even, or (his top recommendation) shredded-pork carnitas, they’re all good.
His menu is far longer than you can explore on a single visit. Among most interesting of the starters are his tostadas de Picadillo, deep-fried tortillas topped with black bean, pork, lettuce and green asparagus; and the empanadas, deep-fried tortillas stuffed with minced white-meat fish (generally tai snapper) and nanohana spring greens.
Kato also has an unusual recipe for ceviche that he first came across while working in Oaxaca. He takes raw hotate scallops and marinates them in a hibiscus flower infusion together with tamarind to impart an intriguing tartness. Topped with small cubes of avocado and tomato, and perked up with coriander leaf, this makes a fine starter.
But pride of place at Abrazo goes to the mole sauces that are served with chicken or pork. Oaxaca is often known as the Land of the Seven Moles, and Kato currently has versions of three of them on his menu.
The mole pipian is made with pumpkin seeds and tomatillos, and mole almendrado has a base of almonds. But most impressive of the lot is the classic mole negro that he pours over his pan-fried chicken. Black and glistening, the dominant flavor is dark savory chocolate, just the way it should be. In terms of chili heat, it’s not more than mildly tongue-tingling, but the combination of other flavors — Kato says he blends in more than 20 spices — is rich and satisfying on the palate.
What his cooking lacks in fire, it gains in delicacy of touch and flavor. That is not intended as damning with faint praise, more as a caveat for those who equate Mexican food only with searing spices at the upper end of the Scoville scale.
Equally, Abrazo is not a Margaritaville kind of party place — though the cocktails are fine, and the premium tequilas arrayed on the counter pack their proverbial punch. It’s quiet and serious, a very Japanese take on a very distinctive cuisine. Very Shimokitazawa, you might say.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.
Fiesta descends on Yoyogi Park
One of the biggest festivals of the year in Mexico is Cinco de Mayo (May 5). Next month, for the first time, it will be properly celebrated in Tokyo — though not on the actual day — with a festival in the Yoyogi Park outdoor event space. Besides many stalls selling Mexican (and South American) food and drink, there will also be music and other performances. May 3, 10 a.m.- 9 p.m.; May 4, 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; www.cincodemayo.jp