It’s interesting how something that seems so simple like tempura — vegetables and seafood that is deep-fried in batter — can either be unsurprisingly cheap or surprisingly expensive. For most people living outside of Japan, the tempura you find in your local Japanese restaurant is probably tasty but on the less expensive side of the spectrum. Even in Japan, you can find tempura in convenience store bento, fast food restaurants, and even made right at home.
So why can tempura get so expensive, perhaps costing hundreds of dollars for dinner? I’m sure one of the reasons is the use of fresh, high-quality ingredients that tend to cost more. Another is that high-end tempura is labor intensive, with each piece deep-fried perfectly and immediately served one at a time, so it doesn’t get cold and soggy from sitting out.
Luckily, you don’t always need to pay a small fortune for higher quality tempura if you know where to go… and you go for lunch on a weekday. My friend BT introduced me to such a place, Ousaka (逢坂). (Note: In an earlier version of this post, I wrote that the name of the restaurant was “Aisaka,” but I’ve told that it’s actually pronounced “Ousaka” which sounds like the name of the city in western Japan. This highlights one of the reasons why Japanese can be such a difficult language: a single character (kanji) can have multiple pronunciations.)
Ousaka is located in the Toranomon/Nish-Shinbashi area, which is packed with tons of eateries frequented by government bureaucrats who work next door in Kasumigaseki, as well as the private sector folks in the area. It’s a particularly competitive environment for restaurants during lunch time as they try to grab their share of hungry office workers, so you can often find some good deals on food.
Ousaka offers a very nice tempura lunch set for about 1,500 yen (about US$15 at current exchange rate) — cheap compared to their dinners which cost between 10,000 to 15,000 yen (about US$100 to $150). You sit around the counter where the head chef and owner, Ousaka-san, fries up each piece of tempura. Each set also includes rice, a bowl of red miso soup, pickles, and a small appetizer of cold udon noodles in sauce.
One of the things that really stood out about the tempura was how good the underlying ingredients tasted. For example, I had a beautiful piece of shrimp which, unlike the shrimp tempura you get at fast food places and just about every Japanese restaurant I’ve been to in America, had a strong and unmistakable shrimp flavor. And it was perfectly fried in batter that yielded a delicate crunch.
In addition to the shrimp, I was served salt walter eel (anago), which is less oily tasting and perhaps less well-known than its freshwater cousin, the unagi. I also had a type of small coastal fish called kisu (Japanese whiting), sweet potato, and a small bell pepper. The final piece of the set was kakiage, tempura made of strips of various ingredients, which in this instance included strips of lily root (yurine) that tasted like potato.
You have the standard option of dipping the tempura in a sauce consisting of soy sauce, dashi, and mirin, with dollop of grated daikon (radish). But I suggest trying the tempura with the sour plum (ume) flavored salt — it might be simple, but it tastes wonderful. Besides, doesn’t traditional Japanese aesthetics emphasize the idea of beauty in simplicity?
Of course, you have to get to Ousaka really early if you don’t want to wait too long for a seat. Ousaka opens at 11:30am and the line can get quite long soon after. But that’s to be expected when you have food this good at such a relatively low price. And please don’t linger after you’re finished; while you should take your time enjoying the meal, the staff isn’t shy about moving you along so that others also have the chance to enjoy the food.
By the way, if you’re looking for another option for a tempura lunch, also check out Mari Nameshida’s recommendation for a tempura restaurant in Ginza.Ousaka Location: 2-13-16 Nishi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Tada Building 1st Floor Business Hours: Monday-Friday 11:30am-2:00pm, 5:30pm-9:00pm; Saturday 5:30pm-9:00pm; closed Sunday Getting There: Take the Tokyo Metro (Ginza line) to Toranomon station. Get out at exit 1.