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Barbecue, bar-b-que, BBQ. Whatever way the sign over the door is spelled, it’s a subject that can generate almost as much heat as the cooking process itself. There are few meat eaters who don’t have strong opinions and preferences, but one thing is undisputed: When barbecue is done well, it tastes magical.

In Tokyo, sadly, decent smokehouses have always been too few and far between to properly test the validity of this very American assertion. Or rather, they were until the arrival last October of the very excellent Freeman Shokudo.

Working on a tight budget, Brooklyn emigre and erstwhile reggae DJ Jeremy Freeman and his wife, Maiko, have put together a brilliant little no-frills diner that has its priorities absolutely straight. They’ve kept the decor simple, but found room for a high-end analog sound system complete with massive speakers, while loading up a fridge with as much limited-edition craft beer as they can cram in.

The heart of the operation, though, back in the narrow kitchen, is Freeman’s sturdy, custom-built steel smoker. Since firing it up over four months ago, he has continued to fine-tune his recipes. Remarkably, it’s the first time he’s ever worked on this scale or used an oven this size. He says the step up from hosting small weekly backyard barbecues in Brooklyn to running a restaurant has entailed a rapid and intense learning curve.

The results are hugely impressive. Freeman’s repertoire covers all the barbecue standards, with pride of place going to his signature spare ribs. Served on a basic plastic tray — you can order either a full rack (¥5,500) or half (¥2,800) — they come with hot sauce and pickles on the side. Be warned, though: The ribs go so well with beer they tend to sell out fast, so it’s best to place your order when you call to book your table.

Smoked: The saba (mackerel) sandwich was such a surprise hit, it was added to Freeman Shokudo’s dinner menu. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Smoked: The saba (mackerel) sandwich was such a surprise hit, it was added to Freeman Shokudo’s dinner menu. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Freeman’s menu changes daily, depending on his whim or whatever cuts his butcher has available. But you’re likely to find pork belly (¥1,600) appearing regularly, as well as smoked on-the-bone chicken (¥1,800), gumbo (¥800) and, some days, even Jamaican-style jerk pork (¥1,800) infused with a fierce mix of Scotch bonnet and other tongue-tingling chiles.

But the piece de resistance — the dish you’re likely to scan social media for to make sure it’s on the menu before you set out — is Freeman’s house-cured, pit-smoked pastrami. Like a lovechild of Southern barbecue, specifically the South Carolina lineage, and New York Jewish tradition, his version is outstanding.

He brines and cures the beef for five days, rests it a further 24 hours, then rubs and smokes it for 10 hours low and slow over Japanese oak until the meat is falling-apart tender, salty-spicy, rich and deeply satisfying. Sliced and served in generous half-pound (quarter-kilo) portions, it is piled up as the overflowing filling of the ultimate killer sandwich (¥2,400; ¥2,000 at lunch). No other pastrami in Tokyo even comes close.

Piece de resistance: Freeman Shokudo’s house-cured, pit-smoked pastrami blends South Carolina-style barbecue with the New York Jewish tradition. | COURTESY OF FREEMAN SHOKUDO
Piece de resistance: Freeman Shokudo’s house-cured, pit-smoked pastrami blends South Carolina-style barbecue with the New York Jewish tradition. | COURTESY OF FREEMAN SHOKUDO

Freeman Shokudo’s lunchtime sandwich game is also strong. Besides the pastrami, other fillings (all ¥1,000) include pulled pork, smoked chicken (sometimes with mayonnaise-based Alabama white sauce) and — one that’s become such a surprise hit that it’s now a regular fixture at dinner (where they’re ¥1,200), too — smoked saba (mackerel).

What else to look out for? The gobō (burdock) chips and the crispy deep-fried okra (each ¥600) make great side dishes as well as nibbles with beer. Freeman always keeps a stockpot on the stove, and makes wonderful, restorative soups, ranging from green borscht to thick vegetable potages. And don’t miss the chili: It might be the best you’ll ever taste in Japan.

While the Freemans have both brought the passion and the recipes, they have also had strong support along the way. A key member of their team has been Tokyo barbecue pioneer So Ieki (aka DJ Blunt), known to many as the co-founder and former pitmaster at the seminal Hatos Bar in Nakameguro.

They’ve found a great location too on Nishihara Shotengai, a mellow low-rise shopping street just far enough away from the bright lights of Shinjuku to have its own character, without feeling too remote. Food, music, community: No wonder Freeman Shokudo is proving so popular.

Nishihara 2-27-4, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-0066; 03-6317-7262; bit.ly/freemanshokudo; open 12-10 p.m. (under COVID-19 regulations till 8 p.m.); closed Mon.; sandwiches from ¥1,000 (lunch), pastrami ¥2,400, ribs from ¥2,800; takeout available; nearest station Hatagaya; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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