Ozaki wagyu beef: Ryukyu Chinese Dining TAMA, Tokyo

It was an innocent recommendation in the current issue of Time Out Tokyo – featuring the oft-discussed but misunderstood wagyu beef – that turned into an educational culinary adventure one December evening.  A lone mention of taco rice (タコライス), a humble but popular dish among U.S. military officers in Okinawa, drew me to Ryukyu Chinese Dining TAMA (琉球チャイニーズダイニング TAMA), an establishment that decided to twist the original concoction by using a rare type of wagyu beef.

However, the restaurant first had to be located.  Expectations of a rambunctious, ramshackle izakaya resulted in a double-take when the destination had been passed over, then finally reached.  The façade of a deceptively upscale restaurant on a winding side street somewhere between Shibuya and Omotesando didn’t seem to match a dish that essentially amounted to the contents of a taco being dumped onto a bed of steamed rice.  Past the front doors an interesting juxtaposition awaited: a mostly local crowd gabbing loudly over small plates in a carefully laid out dining area with a bar – one that doubled as an open air kitchen.  Wine bottles boasting prices lined the walls.

 

 

Despite the review of a wagyu beef taco rice dish in an English publication, TAMA itself provided only handwritten menus in Japanese.  The situation caused some panic, particularly since this establishment applied an upscale, modern touch to Okinawan and Chinese dishes, meaning that bucking tradition would be par for the course.  Furthermore, the taco rice dish was the only one mentioned in the magazine.  A brief search on the Internet yielded little more information than a couple of dishes such as steamed wontons.  Knowing that an opportunity to satiate all curiosity about the menu was gone, we simply went with the taco rice and the wontons.

 

For some reason I did not stow away my copy of Time Out Tokyo like most sensible tourists would.  This decision, or lack thereof, dramatically altered the course of the meal.  One of the chefs saw the magazine and immediately snatched it away from my table.  He then showed it to a diner at the counter, who promptly walked over to my seat, wondering what we had been able to order.

That diner happened to be Hisato Hamada, wagyu expert and CEO of Viva Japan.  (One of his company’s services, Wagyu Direct, exports beef from Japan to European Union countries.)  Hamada also contributed significantly to the Time Out Tokyo in my possession, and was responsible for the slab of wagyu beef pictured on its front cover.

While Kobe beef is often synonymous with wagyu beef, there are in fact 250 brands of wagyu in Japan.  That prized beef in the Time Out Tokyo photo actually hailed from the Miyazaki Prefecture, further south and west of Kobe, and coincidentally was the same brand featured in the TAMA menu.

 

As it turns out, Ozaki beef is rare – in more ways than one.  Consider the numbers.  Ozaki beef is made possible by one lone farmer (Muneharu Ozaki, who feeds his cows a special diet and spring water).  He works with one supplier (Hamada).  How many restaurants in Japan feature Ozaki beef in their menus?  Only five.  Ryukyu Chinese Dining TAMA happens to be one of these.  Therefore it was no surprise that the taco rice was several notches above its original Okinawan predecessor, featuring ground Ozaki beef and red rice.

 

 

Not to be outdone, the aforementioned wontons seemed to give off some Italian flair, drenched in an unusually creamy sauce with a hint of spice.  In fact, the sauce really featured Chinese sesame paste, vinegar soy sauce and Chinese red chili oil.

 

This dinner order did not satisfy Hamada, who visits TAMA just once a month amidst a busy schedule that takes him across the world to promote, educate and supply wagyu beef.  Assuming that my stomach was a bottomless pit, he proceeded to plow through the menu, adding more plates to the pile and elevating our meal from already excellent to absolutely superior.  One of these was a plate of elegantly towering Japanese sweet potato fries, each of which was to be dipped in salt and what appeared to be caramel or honey, but in a way was a little bit of both – born from the sugar in the sweet potatoes themselves.

 

 

The best was saved for last: more Ozaki beef, this time a plate of 100 grams worth of rare cuts specifically from the shoulder, a part of the cow that tends to feature more tender meat.  Each piece literally melted in one’s mouth, completely devoid of the heaviness that can follow in the aftermath of typical steak consumption.

 

Ozaki beef may be rare in terms of sheer quantity, but at TAMA a 100-gram plate will set you back only 1500 yen (US$12.80 by current exchange rates).  The Ozaki beef taco rice barely scrapes US$8.50. Although Ozaki beef is clearly one of the stars of the menu, Hamada is quick to point out other dishes that we had no room for such as innovative takes on pasta and chicken.  Innocent recommendations no more – it’s worth betting the farm even on a menu one cannot read, with such prices and deftly executed dishes as these.

 

Address: Ryukyu Chinese Dining TAMA, 2-3-2 Shibuya, Shibuya, Tokyo.  Telephone: +81 (0)3-3486-5577.  Website: http://tama2007.jp.  They are open every day from 6 p.m. (18:00) to 3 a.m. (27:00). Closest Tokyo Metro stations: Shibuya (East Exit) (渋谷駅東口) and Omotesando (Exit B2) (表参道).

琉球チャイニーズダイニング TAMA, 東京都 渋谷区 渋谷 2-3-2.