Taimeiken, Nihonbashi, Tokyo - home of Tampopo Omuraisu (rice omelette)

I am not sure if I have adequately conveyed my deep, abiding love for the movie Tampopo on these pages. It is a seminal movie for me. I adore it so much that I re-watch it at least every couple of months without fail. It continues to remind me how profound and involving and joyful food can be - food for its own sake, not as a metaphor for anything else.

Now, most people think of Tampopo as "that ramen movie". Of course, the central story revolves around the creation of the ultimate ramen for Tampopo's little ramen shop. But there are many other food related vignettes too, and one of my favorites is the scene where Tampopo's son, Ta-bo, has an omuraisu or rice omelette made for him by a little tramp. Here's the entire scene on YouTube. (Yes I'm pretty sure it's a homage to Charlie Chaplin.)

Apparently, this style of omuraisu / omurice (where the soft-cooked omelette is placed on top of a bed of fried rice, rather than wrapped around the rice) was developed for the movie by the director with the cooperation of Taimeiken, an old _yoshoku_ (or yohshoku or youshoku (Japanese-style western cooking)) restaurant in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. Established in 1931 or the 6th year of the Showa period, Taimeiken is still thriving, now under the management of the grandson of the founder. It was even featured prominently in this New York Times article from 2 years ago about yoshoku. And of course, Tampopo Omuraisu is on the menu.

As much as I love Tampopo, I'd never been to Taimeiken, simply because Nihonbashi is not an area of Tokyo that I get to that often. (Tokyo is a huge city, and people tend to stick to certain regions of it, depending on where one lives, works, and so on.) I finally made it there though a couple of weeks ago. We carefully picked the date and time (a slightly chilly but sunny mid-week day, a bit early for lunchtime) to avoid the lines that we'd heard about. On busy days, according to Japanese review sites like Tabelog, the wait can be an hour or more to get in.

Like other shinise (see notes) yoshoku restaurants in Tokyo, Taimeiken operates on two floors. Upstairs is a rather expensive French-influenced restaurant, and downstairs is a less expensive (though by no means cheap...this is central business district Tokyo after all) and informal space. While the Tampopo Omuraisu is on the menu of both restaurants, we stuck to downstairs. It's a nice, comfortable space, with dark wood floors and furniture to match. The tables were already pretty full when we got there a bit before noon, but there was no line outside. The clientele was a mixture of office workers from the neighborhood and shopping ladies, some with small kids in tow.

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The heavy wooden furniture had a nice retro Meiji or Taisho-era (late 19th-early 20th century) look to it. As I've mentioned before on these pages, retro is very in in Tokyo these days.

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Taimeiken does not have desserts on its menu, and when it comes to starters or sides there are only two things you should be choosing. That's the "borscht" (though I wondered if they were using tomatoes instead of beets), and the "coleslaw", which is sort of like a shredded salad rather than a vinegary or mayonnaise-clogged slaw. Each is just 50 yen each, a price that makes almost everyone wonder if it's a typo at first. (I'm pretty sure the 50 yen is a nostalgia-inducing gimmick of sorts, but I don't mind.) They are Taimeiken specialities.

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For the main course, I of course wanted the Tampopo Omuraisu. There are actually several omuraisu listed on the menu, plus a couple of "omuretsu" (omelettes without rice), so if you want the Tampopo version, be sure to order the Tampopo Omuraisu.

After a few moments of waiting while enjoying the boriumu ippai (hearty and copious - actually it's just a manageable small bowlful) borscht and the coleslaw, the object of my desire arrived. The pale yellow, smooth surface of the just-cooked omuraisu lay upon the bed of chicken-and-tomato (or ketchup) rice, pregnant with promise.

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The waitress helpfully instructs you to cut through the surface vertically with a knife, but I didn't need to be told. I carefully pierced the taut skin of the omelette - a most exciting moment. The split omelete seemed to sigh a little as it relaxed into the rice, as the creamy insides came tumbling out. Apparently, when the previous head of Taimeiken came up with this variation on the omuraisu, his inspiration was the image of a tampopo, which means dandelion, bursting into bloom.

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The sauce on a Tampopo Omuraisu is plain and simple ketchup. I totally endorse this choice. If you want demiglace sauce or beef stew sauce on your omuraisu, order another omuraisu from the menu or go elsewhere. I'll stick to the tangy-sweetness of ketchup. A perfect spoonful of omuraisu has a good balance of creamy egg, rice, and ketchup, and each spoonful of the Tampopo Omuraisu was just right. Memories of my childhood came flooding back with each blissful mouthful.

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The only slight downside is that the perfection of the omelette made me ashamed about my own, far less impressive looking attempts at making omuraisu. I am determined to work on my omelette technique. (Although my chicken rice is as good as theirs, if I do say so myself.)

Taimeiken: Practical information

Taimeiken is located a short block away from the C5 exit of Nihonbashi station (also written as Nihombashi; the Japanese is 日本橋, which means "Japan Bridge") on the Ginza, Tozai and Asakusa metro lines. After you emerge from the underground up the long flight of stairs, just go around the corner and you should see the store sign.

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This is the sign marking the entrance to the lobby of the small building that houses the Taimeiken empire. (There is also a kite museum in the building, which sounds interesting but which I didn't check out.) The ground floor restaurant right off it is the more casual one as I mentioned, and upstairs is the formal dining room. Be sure you're going to the right place.

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In case you should not care for paying 1850 yen for an omelette, however good, or you are not a fan of Tampopo the movie (WHAT??), they also have a daily lunch special for around 800-900 yen, posted (in Japanese only) on the window outside, plus other yoshoku dishes such as hayashi rice, gratin, croquettes (korokke), spaghetti "naporitan" and more. One of our party actually had the kakifurai - breaded deep fried oysters (1280 yen) - which were really good too. Kakifurai used to make a regular appearance at dinner when I was growing up, when fresh oysters were still pretty cheap. Nowadays they are a treat.

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The ground floor restaurant is open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner, and is cash only. The upstairs restaurant is closed on Sundays and take major credit cards.

Japanese only web site. There's a recipe in English for an omuraisu, though not the Tampopo version, by the former head of Taimeiken (the father of the current head) on Nipponia from around 2000.

Taimeiken also operates a prepared food counter, Delicatessen Hiro, in the food halls of the nearby Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi store, the flagship of the chain.

Look for shinise

A shinise (老舗, pronounced shi-ni-SEH) means a business, especially a restaurant or store, that was established many years ago and has maintained its good name for that long. A shinise restaurant that is still popular, like Taimeiken or many other places I've talked about on this site, is usually a sure bet to be good in a nice old-fashioned way, especially in highly competitive Tokyo.

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