Several years ago during a business trip, I learned about a famous dish associated with the city of Sendai — beef tongue, or as the Japanese call it gyutan. A Japanese colleague enthusiastically told my office all about it, knowing how exotic and strange it sounded to Americans. I don’t know what my other colleagues thought, but I was looking forward to checking it out.
The story of gyutan dates back to the American occupation of Japan after World War II, when regular beef and other meats were expensive and hard to come by. A man named Keishiro Sano came up with the idea of grilling beef tongue, which was being discarded by the American forces. He started a restaurant named Tasuke (太助) to sell his invention, and the rest is history. The term gyutan is actually an amalgamation of the Japanese word for beef/cow (gyu) and the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “tongue” (tan).
You can find places that serve gyutan throughout Sendai, and it’s a rather common thing you can find in yakitori and yakiniku restaurants throughout Japan. Not everybody does it well; sometimes the meat can taste rather tough, but it’s quite good if you find a place that does it right.
Of course, one of the best places to have gyutan is the one that started it all — Tasuke. The shop in Sendai that I went to several years ago looked like it hadn’t changed much in decades. The space was dominated by a large square grill placed right next to the counter, where the cooks lay long, wide pieces of cow tongue over the fire. There were perhaps about ten or so seats around the counter and some tables on the side.
Tasuke’s gyutan is cut rather thin and scored across the surface, which may help to explain how it manages to taste nice and chewy without being tough. Apparently, gyutan afficianados tend to favor tongue from American cattle because it has the best fat content. Gyutan is traditionally served with a bowl of rice mixed with barley, a green onion and ox tail soup, and pickles. I really enjoyed my first gyutan experience at Tasuke .
But what if you’re unable to get to Sendai and are looking for Tasuke in Tokyo? Well, the answer is not exactly straightforward. Tasuke’s website (www.aji-tasuke.co.jp) indicates that they only have one branch restaurant in Tokyo, in the neighborhood of Misakicho in Chiyoda ward. However, there’s another chain of gyutan restaurants in Tokyo that is also called Tasuke with its own website (www.tokyo-tasuke.co.jp). One of them is in Toranomon and is decorated with some old photos of Sano grilling gyutan, similar to the ones I saw on the wall at the Tasuke in Sendai. I’m not sure how these restaurants are related to each other — if the “Tokyo Tasuke” shops are offshoots started by people associated with the original Tasuke (which seems to be common thing with restaurants in Japan) or if they’re totally unrelated.
But as popular as grilled gyutan is, it’s not the only way that beef tongue is served in Japan, as I learned on my most recent trip to Tokyo Ramen Street at Tokyo Station. The Street underwent some renovations recently, with several new restaurants moving in. One of them is Kizo (き蔵), a Sendai-based shop that specializes in — you guessed it — gyutan ramen.
First of all, I could not believe that those slices of meat in the ramen were beef tongue. Instead of being grilled, they appear to have been braised, probably for a considerable length of time. They were so soft and buttery that they tasted like they were melting in my mouth. No chewiness, no toughness. It was really good!
The soup was a shio (salt) stock that was nicely flavored with black pepper and garlic. It went quite well with the flavor of the beef tongue.
I also tried the gyutan gyoza, which were good but did not distinctive in any perceivable way. It tasted like beef gyoza and that’s it. Kizo also offers another side dish that looks like bits of beef tongue wrapped in yellow, curry-flavored rice. Unfortunately, I didn’t order any, but it looked intriguing.
Gyutan is not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japanese food, and I know many folks will probably not be adventurous enough to try it. But I think it’s worth a shot, especially if you find yourself in Sendai or (if you’re in Tokyo) are able to go to a place like Tasuke or Kizo. Who knows? Maybe the taste buds on your tongue will love it and demand more.Tasuke (aka Aji Tasuke) — the original restaurant Address: The original Sendai shop is located at 4-4-13 Ichibancho, Aoba Ward, Sendai, with several other branches located within the city. The Tokyo branch of Aji Tasuke is located at 3-7-13 Misakicho, Chiyoda-ku, on the 2nd floor just above a Matsuya fast food restaurant. Getting There: The Aji Tasuke in Misakicho is located about one block away from the Suidobashi train station. You can take the JR Chuo-Sobu line or the Toei Mita line to get there. Tasuke — the one with several locations in Tokyo Address: Several locations in the Tokyo area, including Ginza, Shinjuku, Shiodome, and Toranomon. Check out their website for more information. I’ve only been to the one in Toranomon, which is located at 1-1-23 Toranomon, Minato-ku. Kizo, Tokyo Ramen Street Address: B1F Yaesu South Exit, Tokyo Station, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku Business Hours: 10:30am-10:00pm Getting There: Tokyo Ramen Street can be a little tricky to find if you’re not familiar with Tokyo Station. It is located on the Yaesu side, which is the eastern portion of the station. Go to the Yaesu south exit and look for the McDonald’s. Next to the McDonald’s is a flight of stairs with signs for “First Avenue Tokyo Station” and Tokyo Ramen Street. Go down the stairs to the B1 level and Tokyo Ramen Street will be right in front of you. Kizo is the first shop in the corridor, on the right.