The Beauty of Blowtorched Tuna and Street‑Corner Sake
The Toyo experience in Osaka
From 9am to 5pm, it’s not easy to make friends in Japan. Not because the Japanese aren’t friendly or polite or open to your presence in their country, but both the language chasm and the duties of the workday mean that as a visitor, your main job is to stay out of their way as you go about yours. But once the masses of salarymen and women emerge from the gleaming steel structures that dot the country’s massive cityscapes, all bets are off.
In Osaka, a city known to shed the formalities of the workday with incredible ease, you have one of Japan’s greatest backdrops for striking up a fleeting tableside friendship. You’ll find it on an unsuspecting street a few hundred meters from Kyobashi Station, at what looks more like a garage sale or a homeless enclave than a dining-and-drinkng establishment. Nothing about Toyo makes sense: the kitchen is housed in the back of a pickup truck, the tables are made from stacks of yellow Asahi crates, and the hours are as erratic as the décor. But come most days after 4 pm and you will find a line of young Osakans clutching briefcases and fingering iPhones, anxious to take in the Toyo experience.
Look alive! You will never find a better perch from which to take in the dramatic transformation of the post-work Japanese. The same people who stood so quietly, so tensely in line behind you soon grow animated. Ties are loosened, hair let down, and kampais ring out in spirited choruses as rank and order dissolve with each passing sip. From soba to miso to raw-tuna red, the most aggressive transformers wear the stages of devolution on their faces. You want to be near this; this is the Japan that runs antithetical to the one you have constructed in your head. This is the beauty of Japan: It builds a set of beliefs and perceptions during the day only to destroy them once the sun goes down. Rigid? Reserved? Formal? Find a table, fill it with food and beer and new friends, and watch as all those stiff postures slacken.
Fueling this metamorphosis is Toyo-san, chef and owner of this beautiful mess, a short, muscular man in his late 60s with a shiny bald head and a wildfire in his eyes. He holds forth at the stovetop with a towel wrapped around his neck like a prize fighter, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, and a full-blast blowtorch in his hand. Toyo trades in extremes. Half the food that he sends out is raw: ruby cubes of tuna dressed with a heaping mound of fresh wasabi; sea grapes the size of ball bearings that pop like caviar against the roof of your mouth; glistening beads of salmon eggs meant to be stuffed into crispy sheets of nori.
The other half gets the blowtorch treatment: Tuna is transformed into a sort of tataki stir fry, toasted, glazed with ponzu and tossed with a thicket of spring onions. Fish heads are blitzed under the flame until the cheeks singe and the skin screams and the eyes melt into a glorious stew meant to be extracted with chopsticks. Even sea urchin, those soft orange tongues of ocean umami, with a sweetness so subtle that cooking it is considered heretical in most culinary circles, gets blasted like a crème brulee by Toyo and his ring of fire.
Regardless if you opt for spanking raw or burning inferno, the most important part of the Toyo experience is to keep a constant supply of cold beer and sake close at hand. You’ll need it to share with the salarymen that inevitably approach your table trying to figure out how a foreigner found his or her way to their little slice of post-work paradise. Be ready with a bottle and a few words of spirited Japanese, because it will never be easier to make friends than out here under the cloak of the Osaka night, with the auburn glow of Toyo’s flame throbbing in the distance.
Tell them what they want to hear: That you’ve come for Toyo-san. That, of course, is why they’re here. Every so often he looks up, gives wide-eyed onlookers an enthusiastic thumbs up, but mostly he keeps to his food and his flame, laughing softly to himself at something we’ll never understand. In some corners of Japan’s culinary world, where restaurants have roofs and ingredients come with responsibilities, he might be crucified for his blatant disregard for convention and basic decorum, but in Osaka, where eating is a sport and rules are made to be blowtorched, Toyo-san is a hero.