While planning my recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, I came across the New York Times article "36 Hours in Kyoto" and was mildly intrigued by the recommended deep-fried skewer restaurant on a dead-end lane. Expecting an hole-in-the-wall izakaya cranking out greasy sticks loaded with strange snacks, I hesitated to put Kushi Tanaka at the top of my must-do list. However, as I explored the streets of Kyoto making my way from my ryokan to the notable Pontocho alley, my instinct (or perhaps my appetite) steered me in Kushi Tanaka's direction.
After locating the restaurant around 9:40 PM at the dead-end of an alley just as described, I was disappointed to find the sliding entrance door locked. The sense of rejection prompted by the locked door unexpectedly turned into sudden, intense determination - I now HAD to eat at this place. A few frantic knocks brought an elderly cartoonish-looking man to the door who I immediately recognized as the caricature displayed on the establishment's homepage. In broken English he sheepishly explained (but with a noticeable twinkle in his eye) that the restaurant closed at 10:00 PM. Quickly brandishing my cellphone clock to show the current 9:40 PM time, I pleaded with him to let us eat, emphatically explaining how we had read about him online and MUST try his food.
Either flattered by my shameless lauding of his restaurant's reputation or out of embarrassment of me calling him out on shutting down prematurely (or perhaps just in an effort to put an end to my nagging), he slid the door open and invited us inside. Upon entering and glancing over the menu, I quickly learned that Kushi Tanaka is not an izakaya in the slightest, but rather, is the crème de la crème of fried food establishments, proudly offering a prix fixe 20 course Kushiage Ippo-Tsuko meal for ¥3,800 (about $30).
As his team of beautiful assistants swiftly set our places at the otherwise empty 10-seat dining counter, the chef went right to work. With the preciseness and rhythm of an orchestra conductor, he commanded the skewers, dipping, breading, dousing, flipping, plucking and plating with an obvious expertise honed over many years in front of a fryer. The symphony that followed included perfectly crisp morsels of mochi, beef, sea eel, pork, leek, mushroom, asparagus, tofu, scallop, pumpkin, bread, corn, mackerel, quail egg, tomato, shrimp, cheese and apple (and a few more I was too excited to record).
Sensing our growing satisfaction (and willingness to eat quickly so as not to hold him and his employees hostage), the chef began to loosen up, that twinkle in his eye turning into cheery bursts of giggles as we peppered him with curious questions. He explained his sudden decision several decades ago to leave his suit and tie businessman lifestyle behind to pursue his passion - fried skewers of course. 37 years of deep-frying later, here he was, serving up a smorgasbord of savory treats and sharing Asahis with two pestering albeit highly appreciative new fans.