Panda: A bear’s den of delights on the Chuo line
Musashi-sakai might seem obscure for most Tokyoites, but this leafy suburb two stops beyond Kichijoji on JR’s top suicide line has some surprisingly tasty spots. A great start is quirky izakaya Panda. Other branches are Kopanda in Harmonica Yokocho, Kichijoji, and Tachinomi Futa-ku in Asagaya (it has a small truck sticking out)—but the westernmost venue has a lot to recommend it.
The panda-shaped lantern outside is a clue, and the tiny door makes it seem a hobbit’s dwelling. Bend in, remove shoes, and behold the wide counter with a low bench fitting 12 at a push. To your right is a sequestered table for groups, and at the back another two—with one on a raised dais with a commanding aerial vista.
What sets Panda apart from your standard izakaya is the manager Momo, who does most of the cooking on an oven behind the counter. She’s charismatic and engaging—in English, too—and spends the night bantering with her customers. If you are one or two, get a seat at the counter’s near end to watch her in action.
The TV behind the bar is not invasive, and the muted sound gives way to an eclectic playlist ranging from Tom Waits to J-pop. On different occasions I’ve seen Kung-Fu Panda (of course) playing silently on the screen and the Japanese women’s soccer team thumping Brazil to patrons’ and staff’s delight.
The nama grapefruit sour (¥450) is a prime opener, with half of a peeled grapefruit placed in a large glass of shochu and soda for you to mash with a metal cocktail stirrer. The menu is one of those crazy handwritten swirls, which Momo will explain if you don’t read Japanese. It changes regularly, especially the sashimi, but all dishes range from about ¥400-1,000 apiece. Some of the delicious creations have been Korean-style karaage with chili sauce; ramen salad [pictured]; sui gyoza, or boiled dumplings, swimming happily in a bowl of spicy miso soup; cream-cheese tofu and crackers; and the hearty cha-han (Chinese fried rice). Another recent star was the moist, tasty mochi gome niku dango, or steamed meatball with mochi rice.
After your grapefruit sour, swig a bottle of their namesake Panda beer from Thailand (¥700). With all this liquid refreshment you’re bound to visit the little bear’s room, where a soft-lit panda shrine waits for your offerings. Really.