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Otako: A 93-year-old ‘oden’ joint that still keeps its hot pot simmering

by

Special To The Japan Times

On a bitterly cold winter evening few sights are more welcoming than the cheerful glow of the large red lanterns that hang outside traditional restaurants. They promise noodles, eel or yakitori chicken, or advertize an all-purpose izakaya tavern. But the underlying message is the same: Here you will find good, simple nourishment. And, invariably, sake.

The lantern outside Otako spells out its specialty in bold, black hiragana script: oden, the traditional hodgepodge hot pot of seafood, meat and vegetables slowly simmered in a steaming savory broth. Not that Otako has any need to advertise — it’s one of Ginza’s landmark restaurants.

Founded in 1923, it isn’t the oldest oden shop in Tokyo — that honor is generally ascribed to the 101-year-old Otafuku across town in Asakusa — but it is certainly among the most popular. You can tell by the clientele it attracts.

From middle-aged couples out on low-key dates and humble salarymen eking out their yen all evening to executives in well-tailored suits slumming it for few short minutes with off-duty hostesses from the nearby Ginza bars, the variety is nothing but eclectic. But all are drawn in by the same promise: the aromatic lure of classic Japanese comfort food.

Slide Otako’s door open and wait your turn until a seat opens up at the long counter that runs down one side of the dining room. If you can, install yourself in front of the pans and watch the chef at work, deftly lifting out the oden ingredients, slicing and arranging each order on the plate.

There are more than 30 different items to choose from, including chunks of daikon, tofu, kamaboko fish paste, mushrooms, seaweed, octopus, squid, small meatballs on skewers and packages of minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves. These are left to bathe in the rich broth until they have absorbed the same rich flavor and dark-brown tinge. This is the robust style traditional to eastern Japan — nowhere does it better.

Oden is food to nibble on. It’s perfect as a foil for alcohol — the sake selection here is limited and most people order their drink served atsukan (warm) — though never enough to make an entire meal. Thankfully, Otako also has a side menu of basic izakaya staples, ranging from sashimi to grilled seafood and Japanese-style salads.

Tables can be reserved, but only for parties of four or more and only in the upstairs dining room. At the counter downstairs it’s first come, first served, no matter who you are. This is all part of the fun of dropping in for a bite here. At Otako’s egalitarian counter, the chances are you will end up chatting — and even sharing food and sake — with your neighbors, whether they are paupers or company presidents.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.