One of my favorite things about Japan is the “shokunin spirit” embodied by many shops and restaurants—the dedication to craftsmanship and the relentless pursuit of perfecting a single product. I didn’t expect to see it a lot outside of Japan, but I saw it in Tai 2 (太二), the Chinese restaurant chain that specializes in a single craft: Chinese sauerkraut fish, a traditional Sichuanese dish that is popular throughout China.
If there is a God of Chinese sauerkraut fish, he would be delighted by the existence of Tai 2. The restaurant is so serious about sauerkraut fish that eating there feels like a religious experience. The menu features only one main dish—the eponymous sauerkraut fish—and everything else is appetizers. The décor on the restaurant’s walls features educational manga on the ingredients that go into the dish. Their slogan, “the sauerkraut tastes better than the fish,” is written prominently on every plate and categorically declared by every waiter as they bring the dish to your table.
During my first visit to the restaurant, it happened to be hosting a special event celebrating its anniversary. While waiting for a table, I was invited into a special mini-exhibition room dedicated to sauerkraut-making process, complete with immersive videos on the step-by-step process of how a cabbage is turned into Sichuan-style sauerkraut. Like a kid, I got a stamp on a brochure, and won a prize—sauerkraut-flavored ice cream.
When the crown jewel of the meal—the sauerkraut fish—arrived, it was met with gasps from everyone around the table. Never have I seen Chinese sauerkraut fish so artfully presented. The bright yellow chrysanthemum petals, the snow-white fish, the green peppercorns, and red peppers—Together, they form a beautiful picture that completely shatters the stereotypical image of this usually hearty, oily Sichuanese dish.
A standing sign on the table instructs eaters to “pay attention to your fish, not your phone”. I hardly needed the reminder: The fish was so tantalizingly white and tender. What’s more, the fish has no bones at all. (Next time you want to feed authentic Chinese fish to a foreign friend who can’t stand fish with bones, Tai 2 is the place to do so.) The soup is intensely flavorful but not too oily. The Sauerkraut is crispy, with just the right degree of sourness. I can almost taste the care that went into the fermentation process, the 3000 years that generations of Chinese cooks have spent perfecting the recipe.
Even the rice is made with a lot of attention to detail: The restaurant staff uses special techniques while scooping it from the rice cooker, ensuring that the surface of the rice is perfectly concave. According to the signs on the wall, the restaurant’s rice comes from a region in northeast China that’s famous for producing top-quality rice (the same rice, in its raw form, is available for sale at the restaurant’s reception desk and online stores). What’s more, they steam it with purified water using a special Japanese rice cooker which ensures that every single grain is heated evenly. You can really taste the difference. The result is a bowl of fragrant, neatly packed rice that almost as saliva-inducing as the sauerkraut fish soup that one is supposed to soak it in.
The restaurant also has some interesting rules that make you feel like they’d rather sacrifice profit than the quality of each customer’s sauerkraut experience. For example, they don’t do delivery (because it compromises the freshness and taste of the food), and they don’t entertain parties larger than four people (because in a large party, humans pay more attention to other humans than to their food). They don’t allow customers to choose the degree of spiciness, because “we can never satisfy everyone, so we just present customers with what, in our opinion, is the optimal degree of spiciness”.
All in all, I cannot think of a more perfect Chinese sauerkraut fish experience. I love that they invite customers to not just enjoy the food, but also respect the craft that goes behind it. The pursuit of excellence, attention to details, and dedication to delivering a product of the highest quality are what keep me coming back, again and again.