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Soichiro Honda, the man who founded Honda Motor Co., was once quoted as saying that the best-selling car cannot be the best-driving car, because the compromises needed to become the former are incompatible with the lack of compromises required to be the latter.

It’s hard not to respect a person with such unflinching standards, and even want to emulate him a little. So when we found out one of the legendary engineer’s favorite restaurants was just a short train ride from our office in downtown Tokyo, we decided to check it out. Even after we found out it’s famous for its grilled eel livers.

Actually, eel is pretty commonly eaten in Japan. There’re even two separate types you can find, the saltwater anago and freshwater unagi. As you could guess from the name of the restaurant Honda frequented, Unagiya specializes in the freshwater variety.

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Unagiya is a short stroll from Higashi Nagasaki Station on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line. After a few minutes walking along the shopping arcade that stretches from the station’s south exit, we came upon the eel-serving eatery.

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As we stepped inside the pristinely clean restaurant, we were greeted by the friendly staff. We sat down in a chair at the counter, which they informed us had been the usual seat of the late Honda himself.

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We’d already decided on half of our order before arriving. Those who’ve been to Unagiya say their grilled eel livers are an absolute must, but unfortunately, they tend to sell out ahead of the restaurant’s 8:30 p.m. closing time. We’d called ahead to make sure they were still available, and when the owner told us she had just two orders left, we hurried right over.

When we stopped by, the skewers were selling for 800 yen (US $7.90) a pop, and with the price jump in unagi since then, they probably cost more now. Once they brought ours out, though, we had no complaints about the price, since the stick was loaded with a massive portion of a dozen livers.

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Don’t let the generous serving size fool you into thinking this is a case of quantity over quality. There was none of the gaminess that often comes with eating grilled organs, and despite the somewhat grisly appearance, the soft, flavorful livers were like 12 small flowers of deliciousness blooming in our mouths.

▼ If you can’t stand how it looks, just keep thinking of flowers.

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The restaurant’s lower-key side dishes are equally tasty, such as the soup with eel liver and crunchy eel bones.

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▼ The pickles, meanwhile, are entirely eel-free.

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However, the primary reason to make a trip to Unagiya, and the impetus for Honda’s repeat visits, is the grilled unagi on rice. Like many restaurants in Japan, Unagiya offers different grades of their signature dish, designated in decreasing price as sho (pine), chiku (bamboo), and bai (plum).

Unagiya also has a fourth level above these three. Given the restaurant’s connection to Honda, and thus indirectly his company’s performance cars, we expected this level four eel dinner to be called something like the Unagi Type R, but actually it has the much more understated moniker of simply toku, or special.

▼ The lid of the box it comes in does have kind of a reddish tint to it though, which reminds us just a little bit of the red Honda emblems that grace the auto manufacturer’s top-of-the-line models.

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After removing the cover of our 3,700-yen (US$36.16) toku order, we were greeted with the sight of two expertly grilled cuts of unagi, nestled atop a bed of rice like a rider hunched over a sport bike

▼ Vroom!

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As you may have guessed from our frequent articles on Denny’s menu items and canned beer, we’re not generally in the habit of going out and dropping this kind of money on a single meal (unless it includes some kind of all-you-can-drink package). We’re glad we made the exception, though, since the flavor of the grilled eel at Unagiya is on a completely different level from what we’ve had at other restaurants.

It’s also amazingly tender, and it melted in our mouth like powdery freshly-fallen snow. Powdery, freshly-fallen snow made out of eel.

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Surprisingly, even this wasn’t the pinnacle of what Unagiya has to offer, as there’s one more rank above even the toku we ate. The toku jo, or “more than special,” will set you back 6,000 yen ($58.60), but ordering it allows you to say you ate the exact same dish as Honda ordered when he came in.

In the end, though, we’re happy we settled for the toku. Fans say that once you eat at Unagiya, you won’t be satisfied with eel at another restaurant ever again. There’s a very good chance they’re right, so we’re happy we at least still have the toku jo to look forward to.

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Restaurant information
Unagiya / 鰻家
Address: Tokyo-to, Toshima-ku, Minami Nagasaki 5-8-17
Open 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
Closed the second, third, and fourth Friday of each month

Photos: RocketNews24
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