Lady Cabbie, Spicy Ramen and Tofu for the Gods
Not because the place looked shabby (I’ve got a soft spot for holes-in-the-wall, as long as the food is good). Not because there were no Zagat decals or readers’ choice awards on the windows.
No, I would have avoided Tokyo II because the place was only half full, because none of its customers looked as if they had roots in the motherland, and, most of all, because the empty sushi bar advertised several rolls with cream cheese (Call me heartless, but I think Philly and Nori should’ve split up long ago).
In other words, if the lady cab driver who nearly caused an accident when she pulled over to retrieve me hadn’t delivered me to the lunch haunt around the corner from her ex-taxi garage, my prejudices would have led me far away from this restaurant.
But not only did Wendy guide me to Tokyo II (after forgetting to turn on the meter until we were halfway through our four minute journey), she told me exactly what to order: Korean ramen soup (“If you like spicy.”) and Agedashi tofu (“Make sure you get the sauce on the side.”).
The precision of her instructions struck me. Only a true food lover would be so adamant about ordering a certain dish in a certain way. Or so I hoped.
I took a seat at the faux oak bar – fully stocked and ready to service cabbies from nearby garages – studied faded posters of Mt. Fuji, cast a covetous glance at a man’s curry rice, and ordered my lunch exactly as the taxi driver had advised.
One taste of Agedashi tofu dashed my prejudices, confirmed my hopes, and endeared me to Wendy forever.
Imagine a paper-thin batter, gorgeously crunchy, encasing silky, creamy cubes of tofu (The contrast of these textures alone was enough to tear my attention away from the curry rice). Dipping the tofu in a concentrated broth of soy sauce, ginger, scallions and vinegar – and biting into bursts of fresh ginger and green onion along the way – was to consume a rare communion of flavor and texture. Simple, understated and $4.95.
Wendy’s spicy Korean ramen ($7.95) had a similar alchemy. Every element – spinach, cabbage, enoki mushrooms, bamboo shoots, scallions, carrots – gave to and received from the chili-chicken broth. Each ingredient retained its integrity, but was better for being part of the ramen. If only our relationships could be so healthy.
The soup’s only flaw was overcooked, under-seasoned pork. I’d order it again, but I’d try it with beef or chicken – and keep in mind that a single order is enough for two meals (provided you don’t wait too long for the noodles to soak up the broth).
Curry rice man cleared out, Tracy Chapman gave way to Donna Summer, and I thought about something Yoda once said to Luke Skywalker as I slurped my noodle soup: You must unlearn what you have learned.
If Tokyo II offers any proof, this is as true on a taxi adventure as it is in Jedi training.
Tokyo II Japanese Kitchen & Sushi Bar
38-01 31st St., Long Island City, Queens
Open: Mon-Fri, 11am-11pm (lunch break 3:30-4:30pm); Sat 1:30pm-11:30pm; Closed Sundays
Lunch Specials (including curry rice and Korean ramen): $7.95-8.95
Credit cards accepted