Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Chaos Kitchen: Yokochō culture reimagined with 2020 vision

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Imagine a classic old-school yokochō, a compact enclave of narrow pedestrian alleys lined with small, low-rise restaurants, hole-in-the-wall noodle counters, pubs and assorted drinking dens. They still exist around Tokyo, holdovers from a bygone era but still essential ports of call for the afterwork crowd.

Now envisage a scrubbed-up, modern version. You’ll find the same motley mix of ramen, burger and kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi joints, even an old-school kissaten coffee shop or izakaya tavern alongside the stand-up beer and sake bars. But this yokochō is not only bright and clean; it’s entirely sealed in, one floor below ground level. Such is the scenario at Chaos Kitchen.

Beckoning bugs: The enticing neon entrance of Kome to Circus. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Beckoning bugs: The enticing neon entrance of Kome to Circus. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Occupying the entire basement level of the sparkling, reborn Parco luxury mall in Shibuya, it’s not a food court. Nor is it anything like a typical department store dining floor, all straight lines and bland, standardized decor. In fact, it’s like nowhere else in the city.

Notwithstanding its name, Chaos Kitchen has been laid out with little left to chance. Designer Sou Fujimoto uses reflective materials to give the illusion of greater space, and his layout incorporates enough unexpected angles and dead ends that you might lose your bearings for a moment.

As you make your way around, it’s hard not to pause in each doorway, peer in, peruse the menus, and make a mental note to return later (or not). What makes this concept work so well is that it has been so thoughtfully curated. No major brands are involved, but several of the names have accrued a substantial level of street cred.

One is Ata. Instead of cloning the brilliant bistro style of the original (an impossible task), it’s created a spinoff focused on small dishes — “French yum cha” it calls them — for leisurely tapas-style snacking. Another is Kiwamiya, a popular Fukuoka-based meat specialist whose signature dish is Hamburg steak that you grill for yourself on a teppan hotplate in front of your seat. Since the start, this has consistently drawn the longest lines.

Cup noodles get a major upgrade: Jikasei Mensho's ramen a la plastic bucket. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Cup noodles get a major upgrade: Jikasei Mensho’s ramen a la plastic bucket. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Others making an immediate splash include Kushikatsu Arata, dispensing Osaka-style kushikatsu (breaded, deep-fried brochettes of meat and vegetables) and brash Kansai cheer; Tachinomi Beer Boy, the down-market sibling of the Craft Beer Market chain; and Kome to Circus, an intriguing chamber that tempts passersby with its neon sign and menu of bugs and miscellaneous creepy-crawlies.

And then there’s Jikasei (“Homemade”) Mensho. The latest iteration of the excellent Mensho ramen group, it stands out from the get-go by having touchscreen tablets at each seat for ordering (in English or Japanese). It offers just two styles: ramen topped with slices of shimofuri (fat-marbled) wagyu; or tantanmen, with fine-chopped beef in a rich, spicy mala soup — for which a vegan version is also offered.

Either way, the noodles are outstanding, made as always at the Mensho in-house workshop from freshly ground wheat. And they’re served in large translucent pails rather than bowls — an innovation apparently first introduced for employees at Twitter’s HQ in San Francisco. It’s a futuristic look that feels absolutely in sync with the idea of this bustling, contemporary yokochō.

Shibuya Parco B1F, Udagawacho 15-1, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-8377; 03-3464-5111; bit.ly/chaoskitchen; open 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. (some bars till later; exact hours vary by store); nearest station Shibuya; nonsmoking; English menu; some English spoken; major cards accepted

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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