One of my strongest food memories was of a 2 a.m. picnic on my first day in Beirut, Lebanon in 1999. I’d freshly left my wallet, containing almost all of my money and cards, in a taxi. I had about $20 in cash left and was feeling frantic. After fruitless hours with taxi drivers, police stations and phone calls to my bank I was ravenous and delirious. As I was running around in a frenzy, a local guy took pity on me and bought me a much needed meal. Watching the waves of the Mediterranean roll in at two in the morning, we ate mortadella and laughing cow cheese with pita, and drank a couple bottles of Beck’s. As I filled my stomach, life became much more bearable. I still have a fondness for Beck’s, Mortadella and those crappy cheese triangles. I’ll never forget my first day in Lebanon. Setting, mental state and hunger level often create the strongest memories.
The best food memories don’t always happen at Michelin Star restaurants, and your fave place to eat is usually not on San Pellegrino’s Top 50 Restaurants of the World list. My favourite restaurant in the world is a smoky little hole-in-the-wall where fatty grilled meat reigns supreme and the booze flows as fast as you like. It’s not posh, but the food is delicious and they serve food I can’t get anywhere else.
I dream about the restaurant we call “The Fatty Meat on a Stick Joint” often. It’s true name is 京ホルモン大社 or Kyo Hormon Taisha. It’s a yakiniku (grilled meat) stop that specializes in offal and less sought after bits of animal.
Knifewear’s “Cultural Ambassador”, Naoto Fujimoto, filmmaker Kevin Kossowan and I found our destiny in the narrow streets of Pontocho area of Kyoto beside the super kawaii (cute) canal while filming Springhammer. You can smell the deliciousness before you see the door. Who doesn’t love the smell of grilled meat? (Possibly vegans, but I figure I lost any curious vegetarians when I described the restaurant a paragraph ago.) The heady perfume of fat dripping onto binchotan charcoal gets me every time. (That charcoal, as well as the Konro Grills to use it in are available at Knifewear.)
In Japan, restaurants will often rank their best dishes, as a recommendation for first-time visitors. The top three here are all winners.
#1 is a skewer of four pieces of quartered beef intestine with a lump of fat attached, charred over the binchotan coal. You know how delicious that crispy and melting fat with a smoky flavour on a grilled ribeye steak can be? Well, this is that to the extreme. The chew of the intestine gives it structure and lessens the guilt you may feel from hedonistically eating a lump of the most delicious grilled beef fat in the world. I dream of this dish almost daily, during the 50 weeks of the year I am not in Kyoto.
#2 is a rich tripe stew with daikon and hard boiled quail’s egg cooked in a broth similar to a simple tonkotsu broth. Spicy mustard adds a bit of balance to possibly the richest, meatiest stew you will ever eat. This is gold for any meat lovers out there.
#3 is a skewer of meat from between the ribs of a fattened Japanese cow. About 6 pieces to a stick and fatty, drippy, tender, delicious. We find the minimum order to be at least two skewers per person. PRO TIP: As you dip your second in the togarashi (chili) powder call over a member of the wait staff to order your third.
We always add skewered and grilled negi (large green onion), shishito (a Japanese pepper), beef heart, duck gizzard, and pork belly. On a hot day the cucumber salad is a life-saver, on a colder day it is merely delicious. We always order second and third helpings of #1 and #3. Wash it all down with loads of nama biru (draft beer), cold sake. or the dangerous Yuzushu on rock (citrus flavoured sake on ice).
Kyo Hormon Taisha has been on the itinerary of every one of our Kyoto visits. Kris and Chris, managers of the Edmonton and Ottawa stores respectively, as well as photographer Visti Kjar, have since accompanied me to this palace of offal, they’ve all loved it.
I prefer to sit downstairs and watch the food being grilled. They don’t have an English menu so a bit of Japanese language skills are helpful, and appreciated by the welcoming chef and servers. Sitting by the kitchen also lets you order by pointing at the things you think look good, which I’ve found is much easier than becoming fluent in Japanese.
When Kevin, Naoto and I first stumbled upon Kyo Hormon Taisha were were tired from an intense travel and shooting schedule and looking for a meaty change from our very fish-intensive diet of the previous week. The narrow restaurant and bar filled streets of the Pontocho neighbourhood in Kyoto were thick with promise of delicious food and fun times, and we were ready for it. As I said, I’ve found that being exhausted and hungry while immersed in a foreign culture makes for memorable meals, and every time I return to Kyo Hormon Taisho, that magic is recaptured. I can’t wait for my next visit.