Fukuoka’s best-known export abroad may be tonkotsu ramen, but the city is also famous within Japan for a few other dishes. One of these is mentaiko, or spicy cod roe, an ingredient that’s worked into many local specialties and a firm favorite amongst Fukuoka residents. It’s unsurprising, then, that Japan’s first mentaiko specialty restaurant, Ganso Hakata Mentaiju, opened in Fukuoka.
The first thing that stands out about Mentaiju is its unique architecture. This three-story standalone building, just a few minutes away from bustling Tenjin, is covered in wooden slats, giving it a distinctive appearance not unlike a wooden box or crate full of treasures that just happened to wash ashore. Inside, the theme continues with simple wooden tables and a wooden countertop on the first floor. The second floor offers a more modern and intimate experience. The wood theme continues here too, but the room is framed by large windows, one of which offers a view of the cherry blossoms in the right season.
Once you’ve sat down and taken in the surroundings, it’s time to think about how you would like to have your mentaiko. Customers can enjoy a variety of mentaiko dishes including mentaiju, mentai-nikomi-tsukemen, and mentai-sui. Virtually everything on the menu has a dash of spicy cod roe with it, down to the pickles and soup. The star of the menu is their namesake mentaiju: rice topped with seasoned roe and nori seaweed, drizzled with their signature sauce to taste. (This can also be ordered to go, so you can enjoy eating outdoors.) The mentaiko here has been wrapped in umami-rich kombu to impart maximum flavor, while the sauce comes in four levels of spice. If you want the mentaiko to have the upper hand, opt for standard or mild, while spice lovers should go for medium or spicy to add zing to the dish.
Another highlight includes their tsukemen (dipping noodles), served with a sauce that’s made by slowly simmering more than 10 types of vegetables with mentaiko until it creates a rich broth, perfect for dunking chewy noodles.
If you want even more, you can also opt for one of the sets, which combines some of Mentaiju’s greatest hits. Besides all that, there are also plenty of side dishes to be had, including cod roe soup, and mentaizuke, or pickles made with cod roe. Fun fact: if you visit in early July, the cucumbers used for the pickles will be swapped out for something else as the annual Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival will be on and participants are not allowed to eat cucumber around this time. Hometown priorities come first.
The hometown pride doesn’t stop there: it’s not only about eating Fukuoka’s finest; you can drink it too. Mentaiju has a curated lineup of Japanese sake, shochu and fruit wine from around Fukuoka Prefecture, which go perfectly with their other local produce. Have a glass or share a flask with friends; it’s a refreshing option to cleanse your palate for the next umami-rich bite.
If you really have mentaiko fever, you could even have it for breakfast: Mentaiju opens at 7am. It does get busy around lunchtime though, so to beat the queue try to stop by for dinner. Sip some local sake, dig into a mentaiju – it doesn’t get more Fukuoka than this.
More info at www.mentaiju.com