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Eats n’ Drinks Reviews: El Charro, The Cricketers, Niche Bars

There’s just so much good food and drink around that we put three of our great contributors in one awesome article. Keep reading for Bender’s experience at El Charro, Erika’s review of Takarazuka’s The Cricketers, and Ryan’s look at several specialty bars all over Japan.

South of the Border in Shinsaibashi: El Charro

 

If there were an internet listicle titled, “Top Ten things American Expats Miss,” number one on that list, or at least appearing in the top three, would be Mexican food. Almost no other cuisine can spark the ache of nostalgia and homesickness in the bellies and minds of Americans as fervently as Mexican food. I am sure that other countries like Mexican food, but we Americans love Mexican food: Facebook fact. Throughout my time in Asia, I have tasted varying degrees of Mexican food from delicious burritos that rivaled my favorite burrito haunts back in the States to a plate of warm tortilla chips covered with chicken and veggies cold and fresh from a can. But I recently stumbled into a little Mexican restaurant in Osaka and what I found ranks with some of the best I’ve had in Asia.

El Charro is a little Mexican restaurant in Shinsaibashi. The restaurant sits closely to the clubs and many other international restaurants. I imagine the competition between restaurants is pretty intense, but if you are craving some excellent Mexican dining, then El Charro is a fine place to try.

The night that I found El Charro, I was looking for another restaurant, but after walking around unsuccessfully for a while, my hunger increased, and my wanderlust waned. I happened to see a sign with “el” in the name, and I knew Mexican cuisine was near.

I walked into the restaurant to find that I was the only patron that night. The owner was sitting at the bar, and I could easily see the chef in the back. The restaurant was decorated with colorful Mexican blankets on the walls. The second story establishment was open to the streets of Shinsaibashi below. The owner of El Charro greeted me and pointed to a table by the window. As I sat down, he asked me if Spanish was okay. I mumbled a “sí,” but I soon realized that my mind’s attempt to speak in Spanish was going to produce a scramble of speech drawing from Spanish, English, Japanese, and Korean. After trying to talk for a minute, I ordered a Corona – if I didn’t have to work the next day it would have been a margarita – and proceeded to peruse the menu.

After looking through it for a minute, I asked the owner his name. He told me his, Shigeru, and I told him mine. A minute later he brought out my beer, and I replied, “Arrigato.” His response was the old mnemonic for “do itashimashite:” “Don’t touch my moustache.” However, Shigeru actually had a moustache.

After I came to the conclusion that I was unable to decide on a meal for myself, I asked Shigeru what his favorite thing on the menu was, and he immediately pointed to the taco set. I quickly ordered his suggestion, and then invited Shigeru to have a seat at my table. After he sat down, we talked for a long time about many different subjects. I found out that El Charro has been open for 28 years. I found out that Shigeru spent six months wandering around Mexico. I found out that the tortillas in the restaurant were handmade. Things were starting to add up, and I was hoping the sum was going to be a great meal.

After a couple minutes of conversation, Shigeru went to the kitchen and grabbed my meal. As he sat it down, I was pleased to see many of my favorite components of Mexican cuisine. On the main plate, marinated and seasoned beef and pork sat in little separate bowls. In addition to the meats, little bowls of guacamole and pico de gallo – chopped and lightly seasoned tomatoes, onions, coriander leaves, and serranos – looked ready to be devoured. In the middle of my plate, a little bunch of lettuce and vegetables were ready to add some cool crunch to my soon to be assembled tacos. Shigeru lifted up the napkin on the basket on the side and reiterated the point of handmade tortillas. To round it all off, a little bowl of jalapeno hot sauce accompanied the rest of the meal.

I picked up the tortilla and could instantly feel the quality of a nice handmade tortilla. I assembled my first taco with a pork base and made sure to evenly utilize the elements on my plate. The fattiness of the pork went well with the acidic tang of the pico. And we all know that everything tastes better with guacamole on it. A couple of pieces of queso fresco rounded out the taco, and my first bite transported me back to the creation or dispersion of so many hangovers back home. I quickly ate the first taco, and then proceeded to craft a taco with the beef, and I was equally impressed.

IMG_0593Throughout the meal and through a full mouth, I kept on saying, “Arrigato, arrigato, oishi desu,” and each time Shigeru would respond, “Don’t touch my moustache.” My dinner plate did not last long. Shigeru continued to give me great company, and after my meal was finished, Shigeru got out two guitars and tuned them up. He called the chef from the back, and I was treated to a traditional Mexican song. The song was the perfect dessert to a perfect meal in Shinsaibashi.

As I got up to leave, Shigeru told me my total. One of the greatest parts of eating Mexican food in the States is how economical a meal can be. However, a taste of home this far away comes at a price much higher than what we are used to. That night at El Charro all bets of budgetary fidelity were off. But, as I was fumbling through my change bag, Shigeru told me to just flip it out. He then proceeded to count out all of my single yen and five yen coins to cover my change. What a guy.

Overall, El Charro in Shinsaibashi offers up some pretty good Mexican food. Although I am sure there are many places serving Mexican food around, the handmade tortillas really make this place stand out. They were excellent, and the rest of my food was satisfying, too. I would definitely bring some friends back to try it out, or even just bring some people to meet the kind and friendly owner.

 

Bender

 

 

Get Bowled Out: Takarazuka’s Craft Beer Bar

Photo 2014-09-11 午後7 20 25Calling all craft beer lovers! If you are missing the craft beer culture of your home country, interested in Japanese craft beers, or simply yearning for British pub food, head down to The Cricketers for a pint or two. Tucked away in a cozy corner a short walk away from both the Hankyu and JR Takarazuka stations, The Cricketers offers a variety of craft beers and beverages (both domestic and imported), delicious pub menu classics, and more.

I must admit that I am a regular, so I’ve been able to meet many of the other regulars and sample many of the products. The available brews change weekly, but you can always find the classic Bass IPA on tap. If you’re looking for something light and refreshing, Liefmann’s Fruitesse cherry beer is also a constant – though it tastes more like a summer cider than a beer. The prices range from 500-600円for a half pint and 900-1,200円for a full pint – a little pricey, but worth it considering the quality and variety of the beer. After four years of Natty Ice and Natty Lite at frat parties in university, I (unsurprisingly) never acquired a taste for drinking beer, but The Cricketers’ variety is slowly winning me over – though I still prefer the lighter or fruity options. Two of the better ones have been Rogue’s Hazelnut Ale, malty but with caramel notes, and Minoh Beer’s Kokusan Momo Wiezen – light and refreshing, though I didn’t taste the peach as strongly as others did.
Unsure of what to get? Try the sampler set: 4 small tap beers of your choice for 1,000円. Past lineups have included Seattle Cider’s semi-sweet cider, BrewDog’s Punk and Hardcore IPAs, Baird Beer’s Asian Beauty Biwa Ale, Kurofune Porter, and Red Rose Amber Ale. A large fridge houses bottle beers with a further range of choices. Despite, or perhaps, because of its rather large size, Plank Bier’s Pilserl seems popular with the salary men. My favorite is the large can of Seattle Dry Cider – be warned, it is surprisingly potent. For frequent customers, there’s also a point card.
Swing by at night to meet Matt, the owner, or during the day to say hello to his wife Naoe. The multi-talented Matt, a native of Hull, England, opened The Cricketers a year ago (stay tuned for an anniversary celebration with a free keg!) and also teaches English during the day. This translates unexpectedly well to the pub environment, as patrons are a good mix of beer lovers of all nationalities, foreigners looking for a taste of home, and Japanese people interested in eating foreign food and practicing English. As an ALT at a high school whose students are reluctant to speak English, meeting so many Japanese people of all ages with a genuine interest in learning the language is incredibly refreshing. Our conversations have often been exchanges, so I’ve managed to get in some good conversation practice and learn a few unique phrases not common in textbooks. The atmosphere varies – some nights are quiet and feel similar to a café or conversation exchange, while others are packed with customers from all over the world. One Thursday, I met people from Japan, America, England, Australia, Korea, Spain, and Sweden – an eclectic mix for sure.
Photo 2014-09-25 午後8 48 17Somehow, Matt also finds time to run Bangers N Mash, a meat company whose products frequent The Cricketers’ menu. Try the English Classic for the Iberico and chorizo sausage for 1,000円, or my favorite, the German sausage curry wurst set (Bavarian pretzel included) for 500円. New to the menu are traditional English pork pies – made in Hyogo’s own Sasayama! If pork isn’t your thing, there are also imported meat pies from New Zealand with flavors like chicken & mushroom, butter curry, and mince & cheese. The menu also includes kebabs, burgers, and some pretty wicked onion rings.

The Cricketers also hosts special events and promotions. Most recently, patrons enjoyed a blast from the past at a Mods & Rockers themed night, complete with Fuller’s London Pride, Camden Lager, Quadrophenia, and prizes for best costumes. Other events have included a New Zealand beer and food night, a “Beer School,” and a make-your-own-bacon workshop. A regular event is the weekly curry night every Wednesday – those craving curry that is actually spicy will not be disappointed.
Overall, there are many reasons I became a regular. The drinks are more expensive than I usually go for, but are definitely worth it for the quality and variety. The food is always delicious and reasonably priced. The atmosphere is good and the other customers are friendly – the perfect cure after a long day at work or for any bouts of homesickness! Kampai!

 

Erika

 

Access: JR Takarazuka or Hankyu Takarazuka Stations. Go down the escalators in the center of the Hankyu station and turn right past a small park area. Turn left into the Sorio shopping center and go down the escalator. Turn immediately right down the corridor past Japanese restaurants – The Cricketers is at the end on the left.
Links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thecricketers.takarazuka

 

Collecting Tiny, Dark Holes: A Colorful Handful of Niche Bars in Japan

 

Ryan Hertel - Sludge - King CobraWhen exploring a new city in Japan or just looking for a new place in a familiar city, it’s usually pretty easy to find the local gaijin bar, because they’ll typically be some of the only ones with an active web presence and prominently displayed on Lonely Planet or a similar web resource. These larger bars also tend to be attempting to attract the largest client-base possible by utilizing a very broad theme or lacking a theme entirely. With a lack of variety and stimulation, they can also get old pretty quickly. Thousands of other Japanese bars fall under the radar, choosing instead to market by word-of-mouth to like-minded guests within a specific niche. Read on for a brief profile of several of these niche spots.

 

BAR 混沌(Bar Chaos) – Osaka

Bar Konton (translated: Chaos), located in a crusty basement in Osaka’s Amerikamura area, caters to an audience of punk rock listeners or the similar minded. Sitting almost directly across the hall from “Punk And Destroy” records, this tiny, dark bar can seat comfortably maybe 10 people. The owner/bartender is a familiar face to the local punk scene both for his bar and as the food vendor for many punk shows at King Cobra down the street. On my first visit, I was greeted with a very loud and outgoing “Irasshaimase!” from the all-in-black, crusty-himself bartender. I quickly noticed the large pile of VHS tapes haphazardly resting behind the bar, including the prominently displayed copy of Peter Jackson’s “Bad Taste.” The tape playing was an old live compilation of American crust-punk pioneers Nausea. Throughout the night, several people cycled in and out, including many area band members, travelling punk fans, the daughter of one member of Osaka punk supergroup S.H.I. (Struggling Harsh Immortals), and a middle-aged Estonian (if I recall correctly) gentleman who stated that this was the only bar in the basement corridor that seemed at all welcoming. Many Jack and cokes and shots were spread around throughout the night, many band stickers were provided, and a convincing argument was made to attend the S.H.I. Halloween night show at King Cobra. If you’re looking for a dark but pleasant little bar that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in its 12 years of existence (as we all are), Bar Konton comes with my highest recommendation. It’s also only about a block away from the Asahi Plaza Capsule Hotel.

Ōsaka-fu, Ōsaka-shi, Chūō-ku, Nishishinsaibashi, 2 Chome−9−5

Nippo Santtera Hall B1F

TEL: 06-6213-6255

 

Pol̩ Pol̩ РKanazawa

Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture boasts that it was one of the cities not destroyed in the war, so it offers many old and beautiful Japanese experiences, including an old tea district, castle grounds, and many beautiful sushi houses and izakayas. It also holds one of the grungiest and well-worn reggae bars you will find in Japan. If the idea of a foot-deep layer of disposed-of peanut shells on the floor sparks either a feeling of nostalgia or intrigue in you, then Polé Polé is probably a place you’ll enjoy. The soundtrack consists exclusively of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” “Buffalo Soldier,” “One Love,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Three Little Birds,” “Jammin’,” and “Redemption Song” repeated on a loop. I know this because I have heard this loop many, many times between the two times I have visited this bar. Behind the bar, you will find a mix of young artists and university students from the area as well as, possibly, the middle-aged, expensive-suited, and portly owner, who will tell you of his travels to America and his love of reggae (or at least Bob Marley’s greatest hits). The earlier mentioned layer of peanut waste comes from the all-you-care-to-eat complimentary peanuts, which can become a problem if you don’t pay attention to your impulse eating. If you want to feel in theme, get a caipirinha made with their prominently displayed cachaça, Brazilian sugar cane liquor. Of course, the bar is also well stocked in Jamaica’s own Red Stripe lager. The regulars are also very excited to shout conversate at a new face.

2 chome-31-30 Katamachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa-ken

TEL: 81 260 1138

 

Music Bar Stoic – Kobe

Ryan Hertel - Red Headed Owner - Bar StoicI discovered Music Bar Stoic whilst wondering aimlessly through the Sannomiya neighborhood and coming upon a destroyed acoustic guitar hanging out in the street. This led me to turn without question and enter the door of the establishment behind it. I stayed inside because of the tacky junk collected along the bar and hung from the walls, the cheap drinks, the eccentric clientele, and the choose-your-own soundtrack setup. The first time I entered with two friends, instead of asking what drink we wanted, the bartender asked what my favorite band was. I said NoFX. Within 30 seconds, the bars soundtrack had changed to NoFX. Any musical request throughout the night was made, thanks to the power of the internet. The owner wants the bar to be whatever you want it to be. On one of my other visits to his bar, the big screen TV was showing old video bootlegs of some BB King performances. Also, make sure to try his signature cocktail, the Stoic. I know it’s good, but I can’t remember what’s in it because memory. However, there are lots of free peanuts from a peanut-person shaped peanut dispenser! I remember that! On my first visit, I had just attended a concert by Kobe locals, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and when I mentioned it to the bartender, he quickly pointed and shouted something to another guest. This guest was the brother of one of the band’s members. Many drinks, singing, dancing, and craziness happened. I believe unfortunately compromising pictures exist of me somewhere now. If you want a small bar and personal experience in Kobe, Stoic is a much better option than many of the chains most people end up in.

4 Chome-5-12 Kanōchō, Chūō-ku, Kōbe-shi, Hyōgo-ken

DAI 2 Bldg 1F

http://musicbarstoic.com/

 

Dead Rock Caf̩ РKochi

If you find yourself in Kochi city in Shikoku, you should certainly try some new, excellent foods at Hirome Ichiba food court. I had a grand experience with barnacles, which are frighteningly called kamenote, or “hands of turtle.” Not far down from this sprawling dining experience, you can find the Dead Rock Café, which the owner claims is the only rock bar in Kochi. He also very dejectedly stated how little of a music scene there is in the quite rural area. The plus to this is the likelihood of meeting some very cool people at this one location. If you’re a fan of Rancid, you will notice their pictures and albums pasted everywhere, as they are the owner’s favorite band. A patron, who stated his favorite musician is Frank Zappa, was very excited at the mention of Tokyo noise musician Merzbow and quickly pulled out his phone to introduce me to another noise artist, Muslim Gauze. Dead Rock suffers from a complete lack of a web presence and not a single mention anywhere that I could find, but it’s definitely worth the hunt. Luckily, I retained a flyer for the bar’s one year anniversary that had the address written on it. Free peanuts.

1 Chome-9-3 Ōtesuji, Kōchi-shi, Kōchi-ken, ニュー??ビル3F

Open: 8pm (Literally the only information I could find online via Google street view)

 

SuperDeluxe – Tokyo

Tokyo is not lacking for any diversity in bars. I’m fairly convinced that you can find any theme of bar you want in the Golden Gai area. However, one very specialized spot offers crafts brews and doubles as a live house strictly for experimental and noise acts. SuperDeluxe hangs out in a basement in Roppongi Hills not far from the Mori Tower. The offering of two local drafts from Tokyo Brewing Company, Tokyo Ale and Shakespeare Stout, are already a big reason to go on any of the locations “Open Lounge” days. However, the many nights a week that SuperDeluxe serves as the experimental noise hub of Tokyo are an even better option. I’ve attended two shows, and both were well worth the experience. The first was a recurring show called “Channel.” Local electronic artists team with local video artists to create an audio-visual experience combining their mediums. The second was a duo of duos with Keiji Haino (Japanese experimental artist) teaming with Jim O’Rourke (producer, Sonic Youth) opening with a cymbal & keyboard distortion set for the headliner of the above-mentioned Merzbow teaming with Eiko Ishibashi to do a double trap-set drum and distortion set. Both times I’ve met and chatted up some interesting, open-minded fellow travelers.  If you want to see 200+ incredibly focused and excited viewers’ heads asplode, check out a Merzbow show, as he seems to play at SuperDeluxe quite regularly.

3 Chome-1-25 Nishiazabu, Minato, Tokyo

B1F

https://www.super-deluxe.com/

 

King Cobra – Osaka

King Cobra is another live house that often doubles as a bar. Look for “King Cobra Bar” on their schedule. This is the place to go in Osaka for a DIY, low-key show with occasionally bigger touring bands. Anvil, of the same-named documentary fame, will be one of the bigger names to play there when they come through on November 1. If you want to see a punk, metal, or indiscriminately loud band in Osaka for an affordable price, this is the place to go. If you just want to have some beers with a rainbow of Japanese punks and heshers of all ages, this is also the place for you. I’ve met an American dude who just keeps getting a job long enough to renew his visa to continue playing in bands. I’ve met a Lithuanian punk on a squat surfing vacation. I’ve met a very confused Armenian-Canadian who was very unsure of why someone recommended him the place. Lots of people end up having a blast there. It’s also where I’ve scored the best cassette tapes I own in Japan. There tends to be cheap food for sale by some random locals, including the above-mentioned owner of Bar Konton. A King Cobra show followed by a night at Konton could easily be a great alternative evening to ending up at any random gaijin bar again.

2-18-7 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture 542-0086

http://king-cobra.net/first.html

 

Definitely take some time in Japan to step out of your comfort zone and walk into some strange bars. My experience has been that the niche bars tend to have been a hobby that became a career for the owners, so they are generally more than happy to bring new people into their worlds. It’s hard not to have fun with someone who is super-passionate in their interest, even if they do not line up with yours beforehand. Also, so many free peanuts.

 

 

Ryan Hertel

 

 

 

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