By Japan Travel
Asakusa is one of my favorite areas of Tokyo. Once you step out of the beautiful Asakusa station, despite throngs of tourists, touts, and transients, one can see a side of the capitol that has been spared from the aggressive development and buzzing neon that dominates the city. Instead of chain stores and fast food restaurants, shops selling ukio-e prints, geta (wooden sandals) and kimono prevail. Rickshaw operators ferry visitors through alleys with 70 year old hand-pulled noodle shops and omikase sushi restaurants. Asakusa strives to maintain the feeling of the Tokyo of yesterday in a city that is always looking toward tomorrow. Seems like an unlikely place for Thai cuisine, but just steps from the station lies what is possibly the most authentic-and spiciest-restaurant in Japan, Montee.
Once you exit the main gate of Asakusa station, walk straight to the end of the sidewalk and turn around. You’ll see a subway tunnel with a sign listing Montee and a few other businesses in the underground terminal. The atmosphere down in this tiny row of shops/restaurants is something that should be seen personally, but to describe it a word: dank.
This is an area that hasn’t been touched by development since at least the 70’s. Among the list of tenants: a greasy stand up ramen joint, a fortune teller, a barbershop, a purveyor of discount grey-market electronics, and a few sake counters where grizzled men drink underground to escape the hectic world above. Nestled among these outfits is Montee. Although not exactly the location where one would expect to find authentic Northern Thai cuisine featuring fresh herbs, spices, and vegetables, but Montee delivers in a big way.
My friend and I luckily made a reservation which is necessary at dinnertime, as the shop only seats about 20. And that is if you don’t mind an elbow in your curry from the stranger next to you. It’s a tight fit. We had a seat at the only available table as raucous Thai festival music blasted from the kitchen.
We started with the Som Tum or green papaya salad. This is a dish featuring crisp papaya, garlic, tomatoes, and peanuts. With generous amounts of fish sauce, lime juice and chiles, the balance between sweet and sour, salty and spicy makes this a must-try. It is face-numbingly spicy, bordering on hallucinogenic, yet the papaya manages to keep things refreshing, while the exotic flavors kept us coming back for more.
Next we ordered spicy ground pork with cabbage. It’s got a generous amount of ground pork seasoned with garlic, kefir lime, and the ever-present chiles. Also included were julienned carrots, cucumber, and crispy cabbage leaves which are used as a scooping utensil. The pork was flavorful, and the vegetables had a refreshing, sweet/sour vinaigrette. The spice level on this dish was incendiary, but luckily Montee provides water pitchers on every table, and rolls of toilet paper with which to wipe your inevitably sweaty brow.
Lastly we ordered a spicy/sour Thai ramen. The broth was flavorful, with hot and sour sharing the palate equally. The noodles were cooked perfectly and the bowl was topped with a heaping amount of crispy bean sprouts and fresh cilantro. After this final great dish we made our departure, as about 20 people waited anxiously outside.
As Thai cuisine continues to gain popularity, it seems Tokyoites are eager to explore exotic cuisines and bold, spicy flavors. I hope chefs of some of the world’s more obscure cuisines take notice and will showcase the flavor of their homeland. Tokyo is waiting.
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