Where? Saito’s Japanese Cafe & Bar, 2120 Second Ave., 728-1333, www.saitos-cafe.com.
What does $13 get you? Not what I wanted: a killer mantis shrimp.
It’s not often you get a chance to consume something that, if improperly prepared, could punch its way out of your stomach. Yet there it was on Saito’s menu: shako, aka the fearsome mantis shrimp.
The diminutive sea dweller, which averages a few inches long and looks like a cross between a lobster and a centipede, is what aquarium enthusiasts call a “thumb splitter.” When hunting or just plain unamused, they can cover 30 feet in a second and inflict blows commensurate with the impact of a .22-caliber bullet. I didn’t know people liked to eat mantis shrimp; I was more aware of their hooliganism. In 1998, for instance, a 4-inch mantis dubbed “Tyson” pounded through quarter-inch-thick glass at England’s Sea Life Centre.
When one of these critters attacks, it can look like a street fighter holding up his victim with one hand while pounding the stuffing out of him with the other. Needless to say, aquarium-care Web sites warn against getting close to the little beasties when extracting them from tanks. Perhaps because they’re penned by hobbyists with split thumbs, removal tactics evince the diabolical genius of Wile E. Coyote—for example, using scissors rigged with string to decapitate the shrimp or jabbing their rocky hidey-holes with sharp needles.
Putting a mantis shrimp inside my mouth would give me bragging rights on eGullet. It would also involve the fantastical possibility of the fresh shrimp jumping off its bed of rice, giving me a black eye, and scurrying off to entertain reporters about how I screamed like its wife and how it wanted to eat my children. Bragging rights won out. I signaled the waitress to put in my order.
It wasn’t to be. Shako is seasonal, although my waitress couldn’t tell me what that season was. An authoritative source—some stranger’s blog—says it’s “April to summer.” So instead I ordered what you see here, a lowly Japanese cockle ($5.25) plus miso soup ($2.25) and salad ($3.75).
In every bite, this leathery, wet strip of muscle reminded me of how it wasn’t a mantis shrimp. It wasn’t cool, wasn’t deadly, didn’t have an Internet fan base that put its snuff videos to metal music. The first Google hit for “Japanese cockle” links to an article in a microbiological journal about enteroviruses. To eat a cockle is to understand the life of a cockle—a cold, marginal existence, marked by the pounding of surf and the knock-knock-are-you-there? of hungry crabs. It’s also nearly flavorless. At one point I thought I detected the faintest whiff of something like flowers, but it was probably my still-excited mind playing tricks.
Saito’s menu is dotted with uncommon-in-America sushi cuts: halfbeak, a syringe-shaped fish; sand borer, which resembles an eel; ebodai, or butterfish. I’ll come back when the mantis shrimp does.