It sounds like a charm or a mantra, the name of this Chinese eatery Juu Hachi Ban, Number 18, because of course when you call a certain place or thing or song your number 18, you mean you’ve got something special going with it, sort of like you own it, and maybe they want you to feel that way, the staff here who are so friendly and like family, take for example chef Mr Takayama, from early in the morning although you’ve never met him before, he’s got some time for you even though he’s busy.
8AM you run into Mr Takayama outside his shop diagonally opposite the Nishi Asakusa park where there’s a man practising some martial art like capoeira, upside down above the ground in suspended somersaults. Mr Takayama is putting up the Juu Hachi Ban sign and loading a box of cabbage. He smiles and says go ahead, take your photographs, though feigns embarrassment when it comes to him being in them, so you feign discretion about making him a subject, and you ask his recommendation for lunch, and he points on the door to the poster for San Raa Tan Men, Hot Sour Soup Noodle, 900-yen, and they’re open from 11am and he’ll be waiting for you. Much later in the afternoon by the shrine entirely by chance you run into Takayama again! And he just squeezes into your camera frame as he is passing on his bicycle with his aluminium box of food delivery, and that’s when you decide, you ought to go and eat there now. Like, right now, the cosmos orders it. At Juu Hachi Ban across the counter you encounter another chef, Mr Aoyama, a very common name Aoyama but let’s just say as it literally means Blue Mountain and given what he’s wearing, it seems somehow apt. He looks a little like Mr Takayama and also looks pretty tough but turns out he’s as warm and ready as his wok. He’s heard you’re the one this morning asked about the Hot Sour Soup Noodle and he’s prepared to give it to you after first making sure you know, don’t you, it’s going to be hot and sour. He cooks with assurance, and he plates it with care before Ms Kubozono brings it out with such total concentration you feel honoured. It’s a good dish, the vegetables are comforting and the flavour is rich and savoury yet refreshing with the vinegar. Then Mr Takayama returns after his delivery and together with Aoyama and a small woman in black with a lovely smile, gets cooking for phone orders and the few post-lunchtime diners who look like regulars, a middle aged couple in casual shorts and sandals and summer dress, a man on his own at the counter, with a sports tabloid. You eat it all up and it’s only when you get to the till and are asking about opening times and if it’s okay to write about them, that Aoyama calls out to you that the woman taking your money, the smiling woman in black is Ms Kurihara the company president. Juu Hachi Ban has four restaurants and she’s usually at the one at Kojima, Torigoe. You want to try the others, but there’s a tasty looking menu to get through here, like their original ume-shio salted plum ramen you see written up on the wall, and something tells you the ginger pork, shoga yaki, should be all right too.