Auckland Restaurant Review: At Tanuki’s Cave, An Underground Yakitori Bar On Queen St, Skewers & Vibes Are Served

By Jesse Mulligan
A selection of skewers at Tanuki’s Cave in inner-city Auckland. Photo / Babiche Martens


Cuisine: Japanese

Address: 319b Queen St, central city

Phone: (09) 379 5151

Drinks: Fully licensed

Reservations: Large groups only

From the menu: Skewers (beef and soy $10, pork belly $9, beef tongue $8.50, chicken thigh and pollock roe $9.50); chicken mince balls $8; kūmara and almond $10; chicken

Rating: 15/20

Score: 0-7 Steer clear. 8-12 Disappointing, give it a miss. 13-15 Good, give it a go. 16-18 Great, plan a visit. 19-20 Outstanding, don’t delay.

Tanuki’s Cave is a restaurant that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. The food is … well, I can see the appeal but I’m afraid I didn’t love it. What was exciting was the unique offering of this great room, a below-ground Queen St secret that makes you glad you came here as soon as you descend the stairs.

How many other restaurants have lasted 30 years in Auckland? Tanuki’s will reach that milestone in a couple of years, and a big crowd on the Thursday I visited (with new diners still arriving well after 9pm) suggests they’ll have the economic thrust to get there. It’s not hard to see why this place is popular: each night several hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people arrive with tickets to theatre shows and concerts on this very street block. These people need somewhere to eat beforehand, and for that very specific need nothing beats a low-commitment, fast-cook restaurant where everything is exactly how you remember it.

Tanuki’s Cave is a below-ground restaurant. Photo / Babiche Martens
Tanuki’s Cave is a below-ground restaurant. Photo / Babiche Martens

It’s a rectangular room with a bar in the middle, and the majority of seats are on stools facing in towards it. The staff are busy, making drinks and delivering food, and it took longer than expected for one of them to offer me a beer. The menu is spread over a few pieces of paper and it takes a little while to organise your thoughts, but ordering is made easier by the fact that this is only, really, meat on skewers, with a couple of sides if you need some variety (by the end of the meal you will).

Those staff though. Young, beautiful, charismatic: If you can’t afford the ticket price to the Town Hall just come watch this show for an hour (as at the Basement Theatre downstairs, you’ll leave feeling old and uncool by comparison). The waiters and bar staff have a great energy with each other — I mean, it definitely looks like work, but they are clearly all in it together — and from the moment they poured my Orion lager they didn’t put a foot wrong. The guy serving me was particularly striking: Handsome, tattooed and wearing a white headband.

Would I look good in a white headband? That’s what I found myself wondering as the Orion slowly disappeared. I thought it through. The photos on social media. The call from Ricardo Simich at the Herald on Sunday. The front page splash. Golriz Ghahraman-style security footage of me trying the headband on at Wah Lee’s. A Spinoff think-piece on the harms of cultural appropriation. My tearful apology on the 6pm news. The Prime Minister’s summons to the Japanese Embassy. Nah, I thought, ordering another beer. Probs not worth the risk.

The food started to arrive and it looked pretty good. The pork belly was chopped and flattened into an elegant column on the stick and was a mouthful of fatty goodness nobody could complain about.

Pork belly, beef tongue and chicken thigh skewers; chicken mince balls and the kūmara and almond balls. Photo / Babiche Martens
Pork belly, beef tongue and chicken thigh skewers; chicken mince balls and the kūmara and almond balls. Photo / Babiche Martens

To call the chicken wings “wings” was really an understatement. I grew up thinking of them as a single hinge, though increasingly chefs chop them off at the elbow and discard the skinny piece so that you just get one length of easy-to-eat bird-on-the-bone. But here they’ve been butchered super generously, each wing containing two joints and three fleshy segments, and even one of these things takes a whole lot of eating. The coating is perfectly crunchy and there’s a little sticky sauce underneath.

Inevitably, I had ordered too much. So I ate one skewer each of the scotch — dripping in soy-infused butter and worth ordering as an indulgence — and the tongue, which was sliced thin and a little tough to chew. I quite like eating beef in this way though — I’m not a huge meat guy so don’t often feel like 400 grams of the stuff. A couple of little tasters are good.

From the vegetarian options, people seem to like the kūmara, which is cooked and mashed I think, then formed into a ball, coated with loads of almond slivers and deep fried. It ended up tasting a bit desserty for me but go for your life.

I probably should have ordered more non-meat options, but none of it sounded super exciting. I’ll get the cabbage with mayo next time; apparently it’s a classic.

“No matter what sort of night out you’re looking for, Tanuki’s will be a pretty good start,” says Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens
“No matter what sort of night out you’re looking for, Tanuki’s will be a pretty good start,” says Jesse Mulligan. Photo / Babiche Martens

One of the monthly specials — chicken thigh with pollock roe — was an interesting idea but to me it felt like a bit of a clash, and with the nori too I could smell it as soon as it was placed next to me. I enjoyed the chicken balls (balls of mince that is, birds aren’t built that way) served juicy with plenty of grainy mustard.

And I mostly enjoyed looking around the room at lots of happy people. According to media reports, Tanuki’s was good enough for Jack Black and Jason Momoa out on a party night recently, but when I was there I also ran into one of my daughter’s 14-year-old friends, out for a birthday dinner with her family. It might be one of the few restaurants where those two occasions don’t feel incongruous. No matter what sort of night out you’re looking for, Tanuki’s will be a pretty good start.

More restaurant reviews

From dining out editor Jesse Mulligan.

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Okome is a petite neighbourhood Japanese spot with plenty to love. At the Eden Terrace restaurant, you’ll find sublime sushi, yakitori and much more.

The North Shore has a little gem, and it’s an alfresco pasta spot. It is a food truck, with handmade gnocchi and excellent individual tiramisu portions.

New Epsom restaurant doubles as ‘somewhere James Bond might drink if he was priced out of Herne Bay’. It’s the right kind of neighbourhood spot — suburban but sophisticated, classy but casual.

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