For lovers of slow-smoked, tender meats, the word barbecue can be somewhat of a misnomer in Japan. Thoughts of racks of ribs or slices of fork-tender brisket are shattered by the reality of yakiniku; thin slices of meat quick-seared over high heat.
While yakiniku is a fine thing in its own right, if your heart is set on pulled pork, a thin slice of kalbi (rib) just isn’t enough. So what’s a devotee of low and slow to do?
While there has been a small resurgence of barbecue in Tokyo, I decided to visit three of the original giants of Japan’s barbecue scene: Bashamichi Taproom in Yokohama, Hatos Bar in Nakameguro and Smokehouse in Harajuku.
Bashamichi Taproom (where, in the interest of disclosure, I worked for a short time in 2016) serves Texas-style barbecue with a Japanese twist, using locally sourced cherry wood in its big red smoker.
The use of thick wedges of cherry shows itself in the smoke ring present in all their meat; a thick, pink band that penetrates nearly a centimeter deep. The sweetness of the cherry smoke also provides an interesting contrast to the bold spice rubs used on the pork and the simple-but-strong Texas rub on the brisket, both of which were developed by the restaurant’s first pitmaster, Chuck Morrow.
Over time, the establishment’s menu has evolved under the watchful eye of Morrow’s protege, Masahiko “Mah” Takahashi. Takahashi has made sourcing the best possible ingredients his main goal. He tells me that over its seven years of operation, the restaurant has changed the meat it uses several times, from grass-fed to grain-fed Australian beef for its brisket (due to consistency and texture) and then, after an enlightening research trip to Texas in 2015, to using prime-grade American beef.
On that trip, Takahashi had the chance to meet with Aaron Franklin, proprietor of Franklin Barbecue, one of the most highly regarded barbecue restaurants in Texas. Takahashi credits that meeting with helping him to further improve his barbecue. As a result, Bashamichi’s menu has been recently updated and now includes smoked lamb chops as well as barbecued pork belly.
The texture and flavor of the brisket is first-rate, and not to be missed. The pork shoulder is fantastic as well, though it is sliced, not pulled, a slightly different take on the traditional presentation. In my opinion, the ribs are the best in Japan: Takahashi cooks them until mouth-wateringly tender but with a solid bite.
A Tokyo classic, Hatos Bar is a small, atmospheric restaurant off a side street in Nakameguro; small enough that reservations are almost essential. Hatos is one of the longest-running barbecue restaurants in Japan, having opened in November 2009. If you’re going, make sure to bring a crowd so you can sample a good variety of what’s on offer.
While most choose the ribs, I found Hatos’ pork belly and the chunky, tender pulled pork sandwich to be outstanding. The side dishes, especially the mac and cheese and the cornbread, speak to having been perfected over years of hard work. One downside is that the restaurant allows smoking, which can interfere with the enjoyment of the otherwise great food.
On Cat Street in Harajuku is Smokehouse, which is coming up to its five-year anniversary, an impressive milestone for any restaurant, let alone one situated in such a competitive location. The technique and presentation of Smokehouse’s barbecue is excellent and it is the only one of the three to offer burnt ends, cubed bits of the brisket’s “point.”
With proper slow-cooked barbecue, a crust, or “bark” forms as the smoke, spice rub and meat meld in the smoker. The burnt ends are the chewier, denser parts of the bark, essentially the pure flavor of barbecue in a single bite.
Smokehouse offers brisket as well, with a house made espresso-based rub. The brisket has a noticeable coffee flavor, with hints of bitter chocolate as well. The pulled pork is juicy and tender, though lacks a deep, smoky flavor. The ribs are fantastic, though, and honestly the thickest, meatiest spareribs I’ve ever seen, with a great spice rub that really complements the pork.
Smokehouse’s cornbread is delicious as well. Dense, creamy, almost cake-like, it’s some of the best I’ve had in Japan. Yasuhiko Nakamura, pitmaster at Smokehouse, told me it’s the restaurant’s fifth recipe, showing Smokehouse’s commitment to improvement, even after five years of serving great barbecue.
In talking with Morrow, Takahashi and Nakamura, one thing all cited as key to a good barbecue restaurant is time and training. Morrow has been practising barbecue since the age of 14. Takahashi trained with Morrow as an assistant for two years, claiming that he was “like a drill sergeant,” always demanding more from him. He also believes his talent as a pitmaster today is rooted in that same strictness, stemming from Morrow’s tutelage. Nakamura, meanwhile, said Smokehouse trains its cooks for two years before they’re deemed ready to take over the pit.
Morrow is happy to see that barbecue is spreading in Japan, though is concerned at the quality of some of the newer establishments. “(The pitmasters) are learning as they go,” he says. “But they have customers who may be eating barbecue for the first time, meaning the customers are learning about barbecue through the pitmaster’s own learning curve.”
For Takahashi and Nakamura, sourcing the best available meats for barbecue and working with suppliers to constantly refine the available produce has become the main focus of their restaurants. For Nakamura at Smokehouse, that means sourcing the best American meat possible. And for Takahashi at Bashamichi Taproom, it involves pushing domestic suppliers to raise their standards to make Japanese pork worthy of true barbecue.
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