There are few good reasons for staying in Tokyo through a long, punishing Japanese summer. But there are a few consolations. The heat and sweat are a lot more bearable if you know that once night has fallen you can be sitting outside, with a light breeze in the air, cool music on the sound system, a cold drink in your glass and good food on your plate.
That is the promise — and the pleasure — of an evening at Hatos Bar. This laid-back, arty hangout has been open a year and a half already, but so far it’s managed to fly under most people’s radar. In large part that’s due to its location, hidden away on a quiet residential backstreet on the outer fringe of Naka-Meguro. Now, finally, the word is starting to spread.
Make that three words: beer and BBQ. If that doesn’t sound like summertime, then nothing does. And not any old beer: Hatos Bar only stocks full-flavor craft ales, both bottled and on draft, from small-scale regional microbreweries. These are intended not for chugging down to slake the thirst but for leisurely sipping and appreciation.
There’s nothing ordinary about the food, either. Hatos Bar has blazed a trail as the first place in Tokyo to make and sell authentic pit barbecue, the kind of down-home cooking better associated with the southern states of the USA than inner-city Tokyo.
Owners So Ieki and Yojiro Morita are not trained chefs: They’re musicians. But when they decided to open their bar, they knew they wanted to serve good food and drink. Ieki had been turned on to craft beers when he was in the States snowboarding competitively. That was also when he was given his first taste of pit barbecue. A decade later and he is producing it like a pro.
He’s developed some excellent recipes and rubs. But the key factor in getting it right is the handsome little oven that stands at the back of the narrow kitchen space, which was custom-built for them by one of their artisan friends. But there’s nothing of the backyard barbecue about it: It is sleek to look at and, more importantly, it gets that low-and-slow cooking — anything from five to 12 hours, depending on the cut of meat — done to a T.
The menu is short and to the point: smoked pork sliders, pulled pork, baby back ribs, and usually a couple of other seasonal specials. There are fries and salsa as starters, with chili beans, corn bread and mac ‘n’ cheese for those with serious appetites. Ieki and his partner, Tsuki, also rustle up decent pastas and salads.
Where to start? You can’t go wrong with those ribs. The dark, glistening glaze is rich and savory, with a deep molasses sweetness and just a tang of spice. The meat pulls of the bone effortlessly. No need to stand on ceremony here: Use your fingers. And then just try to stop yourself licking them clean.
The pulled pork is, if anything, even better. The shreds of meat are mixed together in a ketchup-thick sauce, then piled up in a generous mound inside a hamburger bun, with a tangy gherkin and a saucer of ‘slaw on the side.
This is not bashful, delicate food. So you might as well go the whole hog and order up a serving of the chili fries. As the name indicates, the fries are slathered with a hefty portion of chili beans, then topped with fresh tomato salsa. Be warned, though: Unless you are ravenous, a single serving is more than enough for even two people to polish off in comfort.
During the summer months, don’t miss the smoked corn on the cob. The moist young corn steams inside its layers of sheath, acquiring just the lightest hint of smoke flavor. These are so good, don’t even contemplate sharing one between two.
And then there is the smoked belly pork. This has been on the side menu of daily specials recently and it’s outstanding. The thick slices are given a jet-black caramelized crust that contrasts beautifully with the juicy meat inside. This is the same meat used for making the chāshū served at ramen restaurants. The long barbecue smoking process draws out the fat, but it’s still a lovely rich cut. With a small serving of potato salad on the side and a foaming pint of ale in the glass, this was just great.
With so many craft ales to choose from, both domestic and imported, how do Ieki and Morita choose which ones to stock? “We like to work with people and companies that have the same approach as us,” says Ieki. “It’s all about heart.”
That is why most of the beers on tap at Hatos Bar come from Shiga Kogen, a dynamic young venture in Nagano Prefecture set up as an offshoot of a centuries-old sake brewery. These are big, bold brews that don’t hold back on either flavor or strength. Our personal favorite is the House IPA, which is smooth enough to sip all evening, despite an alcohol content (8 percent) that delivers a righteous kick.
When you have food and drink this good, you want to linger. Hatos Bar is just the place for that. The walls act as an exhibition space for photos and other artwork; there is good music on the sound system, from rock and dub to club mixes and electronica; and there is simple, comfortable furniture (most of it second-hand) to sit back in.
At this time of year, our favorite place to chill out is at the large table outside the front door. The terrace is spacious and raised well up above street level, and there’s little or no traffic anyway. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t boast a brilliant view; it’s just a great place to sit and while away the evening with friends.
Hatos Bar also serves a simple lunch menu. It will be closed for the Obon holiday until Aug. 23.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at foodfile.typepad.com/blog.