Kabuto, in Shinjuku’s Piss Alley, takes you back to 1950s Tokyo with its no-frills head-to-tail (unagi) eel dining experience.
Hitokuchi-kabayaki – bite-sized grilled eel skewer. - image © Florentyna Leow
Shinjuku’s Memory Lane, or more colourfully Piss Alley, is one of those places where you throw conventional dining expectations out of the window. Not here the fancy multi-course meals, perfectly clean tables, and excessively fawning waitstaff. Expect to forego personal space and emerge from your meal smelling like you shampooed with charcoal and grease. That’s all part of the deal here. If that doesn’t bother you, try a quick meal at Kabuto.
The outside of Kabuto. About 15 people can sit at the counter. - image © Florentyna Leow
Kabuto's a family-run operation serving up unagi (freshwater eel) skewers. Like many of the tiny joints in Piss Alley, this place is gnarly, with a fair bit of personality to match.
The lamp directly above the grill. - image © Florentyna Leow
The lamps above the counter are crusted with decades of soot hanging off them in crags. If you’re seated right next to the grill, you can watch the son of the house fanning the flames, dipping eel skewers in a tub of marinade that’s probably been going on for decades. (Many grill restaurants take pride in the age of their tare, the sauce they brush on to their skewers before and during grilling.) This is probably not the time to think too hard about hygiene or safety standards.
Oolong tea and a small plate of salted cabbage to begin with. - image © Florentyna Leow
You can order beer by the bottle, a few different sakes, and oolong tea that comes in small glass bottles. (“How Showa!” Exclaims the lady next to me.) There are few choices: you’re here for eel, or you’re not.
A very limited all-Japanese menu. There appears to be no English menu, but don’t worry – see below for what’s on the menu. - image © Florentyna Leow
You can order parts by the skewer. Most diners begin with the hito-toori, or the set of 7 skewers that takes you across the body of the eel - quite literally head to tail.
Eriyaki skewers. - image © Florentyna Leow
Today, he begins with 3 sticks of えり焼き eriyaki. This is eel head, steamed and then grilled with that dark, sweet-salty tare marinade. It is pretty much the definition of challenging, even for someone who grew up eating brains, cartilage and chicken feet. There’s deliciously tender, almost creamy eel flesh, yes. But it’s also interspersed with a latticework of eel bones that forces you to slow down and chew very, very carefully.
Hireyaki skewers. - image © Florentyna Leow
Two sticks of ヒレ焼き hireyaki follow. Eel tails - each section is only about the length of a thumb - twisted around skewers, are springy and a little elastic. And boneless. Tasty enough, and very welcome after the eriyaki, even if a little charcoal-heavy.
Kimoyaki skewer. - image © Florentyna Leow
Then a stick of キモ焼き kimoyaki, or grilled eel innards. They taste like innards: a little sweet, bitter, a little chewy. I would have preferred liver, but they apparently sell out of that part pretty early most days – by about 4pm.
Inside Kabuto. Expect lots of smoke. - image © Florentyna Leow
It’s at this point that I think about the whole point of eating in Piss Alley. It’s not about impeccable food. It’s about the entire experience of drinking in this smoky, cramped environment, chatting up the folks next to you, interspersed with some reasonably cheap old-school cooking that scratches the itch for umami-packed food that makes the alcohol go down. Even if you have to queue up these days in the alley, hanging out at a small place like Kabuto is good for that.
Hitokuchi kabayaki. - image © Florentyna Leow
After all of that is the piece de resistance, a skewer of 一口薄焼き hitokuchi kabayaki. This is the easiest piece to eat, the eel body proper cut up into bite-sized pieces, lightly grilled with just a little salt, with a smattering of charcoal all around. It’s pretty good. It’s almost underwhelming compared to the pieces that came prior.
Now you get to order more sticks of the part you liked best, or pay the bill and continue snacking into the night at the other bars in the alley. Kabuto is not a place for a full meal - it’s one stop in a day of non-stop eating. And it’s definitely intimidating for most diners. You will eat parts of the eel you never knew could be cooked, and it is not designed to coddle or guide you. But travel is vastly improved by trying new things. So go ahead. Order some eel heads. It’ll be a story for your grandkids one day.
For more Tokyo unagi choices, see our Best Unagi in Tokyo page.
Name in Japanese:
1 Chome-2-11 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0023
2:00pm - 9:00pm (Closed Sundays and public holidays)
:: Read customer reviews of Kabuto on TripAdvisor
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