The old man sitting next to us stares, gape-jawed, as a mountain of fresh uni sashimi is delivered to our table. “Wha!” he exclaims, admiring the creamy lobes piled high in their spiny shell.
“Wha!” indeed. This luscious porcupine of the sea is just one of several bargain-priced rarities ($15 for five pieces) to be found in this quirky teishoku-ya, which might very well qualify as the most underrated Japanese restaurant in Vancouver.
A hidden gem to be sure, Tenhachi Japanese Restaurant is located on the ground floor of Shaughnessy Village, a high-rise bed-and-breakfast that offers dormitory-style studios by the night or month. Who knew there was a hotel – let alone a restaurant – in this residential neighbourhood?
The restaurant must have been a self-serve cafeteria at one point, judging by the sliding door and speed-line coolers adorning the front entrance. With its white laminate dining sets, burgundy carpet, blazing lights and porthole windows cut out of brick walls, the room feels trapped in the 1970s.
“It’s the anti-Kingyo,” my friend Andy remarks, referring to the buzzy downtown izakaya. True. There’s nothing remotely cool about the place.
Owned by Toshiaki and Mayumi Oda, Tenhachi has been around since 2007. Like their previous restaurant, Hachibei, on 16th Avenue, it’s a teishoku-ya restaurant, specializing in set menus ($15 to $18) that consist of a main dish, rice, pickles, vegetables and miso soup. There are other less expensive items on the menu – tempura, udon noodles, donburi bowls, etc. – but teishoku is the whole-meal deal that most customers seem to come for. There is even a children’s teishoku on pink or yellow plastic platters with smiley-face fries.
We ordered the shiso tonkatsu teishoku, a deep-fried breaded pork tenderloin, similar to schnitzel and quite common in Japanese restaurants. But this tonkatsu was layered on both sides with green shiso leaves underneath the breading. The shisho’s fresh and minty, slightly soapy flavour makes a lovely counterpoint to the golden panko crust and tender meat.
We also tried the mackerel, which I highly recommend. It’s a huge tail served on the bone with fatty, omega-oil-packed flesh that melts like butter on the tongue.
Both dinners were accompanied by big bowls of sticky white rice, steamed green beans sprinkled with bonito flakes, roasted kabocha squash, pickled daikon and one of the thickest, richest miso soups in Vancouver. The chunky soup, larded with cabbage, is worth a visit in itself. Also very good is the restaurant’s earthy, murky roasted green tea.
But the real reason to visit Tenhachi is its fresh sheet. Check out the restaurant’s Facebook page or sign up for its newsletter. (Considering the owners barely speak English, they make great use of social media.)
Following the seasons, the kitchen features all sorts of rare seafood and foraged delicacies. In the summer, it might be horse mackerel, East Asian saury or bonito from the Strait of Gibraltar. Last month, it was matsutake (pine mushrooms). Later this winter, there will be deep-fried oysters. From now until March, there will be lots of uni.
The generous portions include all five custard-like sections scooped from a single shell. Served raw, the golden sea-urchin gonads are pristine and fresh, without a whiff of iodine or fishiness. The flavour is crisp and clean, like a mouthful of salty ocean water. If you don’t like the bumpy, tongue-like texture, try melting them for a minute on top of warm rice.
The kitchen is currently using purple uni from Vancouver Island. One of the largest species, purple uni is also very moist. In December and January, the uni from farther north on the Pacific Coast will likely be more firm and sweet (and thus desirable to connoisseurs).
Another reason to visit Tenhaci? Breakfast! Sure, the kitchen makes Western pancakes or bacon and eggs for hotel guests, but there are plenty of international students who live upstairs who desperately miss mom’s home cooking. For them, Tenhachi makes a traditional Japanese breakfast with natto beans, roasted fish cakes, grilled salmon, grated-yam porridge and sweet omelettes. The $10 breakfast combos include miso soup, nori wrappers, pickles, lotus root salads and all the authentic trimmings.
Fermented beans may be acquired taste first thing in the morning. But outside of the major-chain hotels, I’ve never seen a Japanese breakfast elsewhere in Vancouver. It’s another unusual offering for adventurous eaters that makes this unassuming hole-in-the-wall all that more interesting.