If you’re looking for a place to splurge on an amazing lunch or want to do something different than soba noodles in Matsumoto, then head over to Matsuka, an insanely popular unagi (grilled eel) restaurant here in the city.
I had heard rumors Matsuka a while ago—It was opened way back in 1868 (!) and because people rave about how good it is, it’s always packed with customers. Compelled by the stories, I had to check it out.
I got to Matsuka at 10:30, an hour before it officially opens, because besides tales of the delicious unagi, I had also heard that you’d better be at Matsuka by at least 11 a.m. or it’s going to be sold out. Boy, were those rumors true! Even at 10:30, a line of people had already formed on the street at 10:30 when I got there.
The restaurant itself is housed in a beautiful, old Japanese building (perhaps it’s the original from 1868?) and the inside is completely covered in tatami mats so you’ll have a nice Japanese dining experience.
Luckily, Matsuka is nice enough to let you inside the restaurant just after 10:30 so you can wait at your table. You’ll have to wait a while for the food, but if you order beer or soft drinks, they’ll bring it to your table earlier.
The menu consisted of only two main items: «Unagi-don» and «Unagi Bento.» Unagi-don is a rice bowl topped with two hearty filets of grilled eel, while the unagi bento is three filets served over rice in a lacquered wooden bento box. These come with a little side of pickles and soup.
Price-wise, the unagi-don was ¥3,200 and the bento was just over ¥5,000. Yep, that’s going to take a small chunk out of your wallet.
After much anticipated waiting, my meal, the unagi-don, arrived in a cover rice bowl. The waitress will ask you if you want some «sansho,» which is a Japanese spice made from the Japanese pepper tree. It goes very well with the unagi, so give it a try!
I think part of the excitement is just opening up the lid to reveal your eely prize.
I took one bite and the unagi’s juicy, rich, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, yet charcoal-grilled crispiness was all I needed to convince me that wait and small whole in my wallet was all worth it. This was best unagi I had had in Japan!
I think the fact that the unagi is grilled over charcoal is one thing that sets it apart from other restaurants. The texture was also better than what I had before.
Two pieces seemed like it might be too little at first, but because each filet was quite plump and rich, I was super stuffed after finishing (and glad I didn’t get the larger portion!). The pickles, rice, and soup were a welcome addition to balance out the unagi’s richness. The soup, by the way, has pieces of the eel’s innards (liver, I believe) in it, which sounds kind of scary at first, but it really doesn’t have any weird flavor, or much of any flavor for that matter, at all.
If you do have time and a budget to have some unagi while you’re here, by all means, do it! Matsuka is located about 10 minutes from Matsumoto Station along Takasago Street, which is near Nakamachi Street. I did not see an English menu, but the price of the main items will give you enough of an idea as to which unagi set you want to order. Note that they only serve lunch.