by Charles J. Waggon
They put the quart
Before the hearse
— Burma Shave
“D’ja get that, li’l CJ? Heh, heh. Puttin’ th’ cart b’fore th’ horse, ya’ know?” Dad said as he fiddled with the radio knob, tuning the hissing whine coming out of the dash speaker into the clear, fat tone of a steel guitar.
Brringgg. The alarm yanked me from a Texas twilight in 1938 to a trembling Tokyo morning in 2003. Must have been the four-alarm hangover I’d had what made me dream about them Burma Shave signs. Also had something to do with how I got the hangover – cattin’ around a bunch of Burmese joints in Takadanobaba.
‘Course, when I was a kid I’d no idea where or what a Burma was. Knew what Shave was, though. Seen the old man with his mug and brush, razor and strop. Got the bad end of that big fat strop after the time Harlan and I accidentally burned down the pump shack.
Anyroad, it all started when I got a call from U Bhecha, an engineer I’d done a few projects with back in the ’50s and ’60s. He’s from Burma, said he was passing through Tokyo, and had something to deliver to a friend in Takadanobaba, so whyn’t we meet there. Said they got a real Burma-town there now – lots of restaurants, bars and stores.
I know Burma’s now called Myanmar, but I keep forgetting.
We meet at Takadanobaba station, head up the main drag to Mingalaba, a little family restaurant. U.B. orders che-aie-kun-jo (¥500, #5 on the menu), fried chicken skin-like pork rinds but thinner, comes with sweet hot sauce. Great with the Myanmar beer we’re drinking.
Then comes the la-pet-toh (¥600, #14), a tasty and truly Burmese dish that pins the weird meter – fermented green tea leaves, garlic, roasted soy beans, peanuts, dried fish and what-have-you. Truly unusual earthy flavor. More beers, then sei-tah-hin (¥900, #35), a spicy lamb stew with ‘taters.
U.B. suddenly whispers, “Charlie, we have to leave right now. I’m going to the toilet, you pay the bill and wait downstairs.”
U.B. pulls out a small package from inside his coat, shoves it low into my hands. “Hold this for me,” he wheezes as he quickly sidesteps away.
I pay up and am out the door. U.B is right behind me. Hardly recognized him in the sunglasses and new goatee. As we headed back toward the station, U.B. muttered about some individuals he’d just as soon not run into as he yanked off them fake whiskers—a close shave.
“Lots of other places, Charlie,” U.B. offers, knowing I’m still hungry. “First have to drop off this package.”
We cut down a side street and then into this little store selling all kinds of stuff from Burma. U.B. looks around, bumps into another customer, says something, the package changes hands, and we’re already out the door.
In the next building downstairs there’s two places what serve Burmese food, and U.B. heads into the one called Rendevous Cafe. Tiny, packed and friendly, with aromas that instantly made me hungry.
Thing about Burmese food, it’s like eating Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese – the same time. U.B. starts leading the menu on the wall, all in Burmese. He chats with the waitress. Then she hollers at the chef. We drink more beers until the chow lands on our table.
This was some truly great food, and U.B. says most of the customers are from Burma. They also speak Japanese, and part of the menu is in Japanese. Asahi Super Dry is only ¥280 here, but U.B. and I splurged ¥450 on the high-test seven percent Chang Beer from Thailand.
Our next stop was another hole-in-the-wall ’round the block where everyone there was from Burma. We started drinking shan-aie, some hooch from the Shan region in northeast Burma. Looks like gentlemen’s sipping whiskey, tastes like Chinese medicine and grows on you like a beard. Don’t remember too much after that, folks, but I am sure I had a good time.
NT Bldg. 3F
2-14-8, Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: 5 p.m. to midnight
Yanagiya Bldg. B1
2-18-6, Takadanobaba, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Open: 1 to 11:30 p.m.
Closed first and third Wednesdays of the month.