One of the unique aspects of the Japanese culinary world is the prevalence of senmonten, or specialized restaurants. Senmonten focus on one specific kind of dish, with the logic being that the intense devotion and deep experience their chefs acquire will translate into a transcendentally delicious meal.
For example, the senmonten Sansada just makes tempura, and that’s a practice that it’s been carrying on not just for the careers of its current cooking staff, but for generations. Sansada is said to be the oldest tempura restaurant in all of Japan, having been founded all the way back in 1837, the third year of the Tenpo era, when Japan was still ruled by a shogun and samurai walked the streets of Edo, which wasn’t yet called Tokyo.
At the time of Sansada’s founding, Japan was still under a policy of national isolation, but a man named Sadayoshi, who was living in Mikawa Province (present-day Aichi Prefecture) managed to make his way to Edo, where he started serving customers from a tempura cart. Eventually he saved up enough money to open an actual restaurant, and since he’d become known as “Mikawa’s Sadayoshi,” he took the first kanji from each word, which when put together become read as Sansada, and made that the name of his eatery.
182 years later, Sansada is still one of Tokyo’s favorite tempura restaurants, so we stopped by to try it for ourselves. Thankfully, unlike Sadayoshi, who would have had to travel by foot along the Tokkaido highway that connected Edo with lands to the west, all we modern-day diners have to do is hop on Tokyo’s Ginza subway line, get off at Asakusa Station, and walk about a minute from Exit 1 to be at the entrance to the restaurant, which is near the famous Raimon gate of Sensoji Temple.
Like we said, Sansada is a senmonten, so pretty much everything on the menu is some sort of tempura. Still, there’s a variety of different types of tempura rice bowls and set meals, and the most popular is the jo-tendon tempura bowl, a step up from the regular tempura bowl, so that’s what we ordered.
The jo-tendon is brought to the table with a lid on top, out of which enticingly peeks a tempura shrimp tail. With the enticing aroma of sesame oil floating up from the opening, we quickly removed the lid and gazed upon the golden glory of nearly two centuries’ worth of tempura tradition.
In addition to the jumbo shrimp was a cut of kisu, a type of whitefish that’s a popular tempura choice, and a kakiage, various chopped ingredients fried up in a tempura disc.
We started with the shrimp, and right away Sansada showed us that they know how to cook tempura right.
There’s an art to tempura frying, as the pieces should be neither too dry and crispy nor too soft and soggy. Sansada’s is just right, with a bit of extra moisture from the tempura sauce the shrimp is finished with. The sauce is less sweet than that used at some other tempura restaurants, which allows the sesame oil’s flavor to also dance across your taste buds with each bite.
Next we moved on to the kisu, which was equally excellent. The tender fish’s natural sweetness blended harmoniously with the sauce, and alternating bites of fish and rice kept our palate perpetually primed for the next.
But the biggest surprise came with the kakiage. Because of kakiage’s anything-goes list of ingredient candidates, some tempura restaurants stuff them with inexpensive, undersized, or sub-par ingredients that wouldn’t qualify for full tempura status on their own. But with Sansada’s jo-tendon, the kakiage is made up of premium seafood stuff like full-sized shrimp, scallops, and squid.
You might expect all of this flavor and history to come at a huge price or with monstrous lines, but Sansada’s jo-tendon costs 1,820 yen, making it a bit of a luxury, but not one that’s out of reach of most Tokyoites or travelers. And while the place gets crowded on weekends, we stopped by at 11:15 on a weekday, before the lunch rush, and got a seat right away, with no wait.
Really, it’s hard to find anything negative to say about Sansada, which probably explains why it’s been in business for 182 years.
Sansada / 三定
Address: Tokyo-to, Taito-ku, Asakusa 1-2-2
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
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