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Real Japanese Cuisine for the Traveling Anime Fan - - OTAKU COMING HOME

Adventures in stomach-stretching! Check out all the sexy Japanese food we ate, direct from the motherland: fresh fish from Tsukiji, ramen made with delicious Hokkaido cheese, Kobe beef from... well, Kobe. McDonalds, MOS Burger, and a mountain of exclusive Kit-Kats await. Read on, but you might wanna eat something first.

Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...

I love food. I guess you could call me an amateur foodie. My vocabulary is still developing, as are my taste buds, but I’ll try most anything once. When I find something I like, I eat a lot of it. Why I don’t need a crane to get out of the house is totally beyond me. I especially love Japanese food.

One of my favorite food websites is a tumblr called EATAKU, kept by my foodie-idol, C.B. Cebulski. Aside from traveling the world in his work as a Senior VP for Marvel Comics, C.B. is an avid foodie who frequently finds himself in Japan. When we were planning to go back I consulted EATAKU extensively. I started jotting down places to eat and food to look for months in advance.

Not everything in this post comes from EATAKU, just a few really, but I want to give C.B. both credit and thanks for his hard work. He’s got tips and recommendations for eating all over the world, so be sure to give the site a look and a bookmark if you’re even half as interested in food as I am.

I’m not going to wax philosophical about every delicious bite I took while I was away (though I certainly could go on about them all... Maybe on my own blog if enough of my fellow food lovers want to hear more!) but I am going to show you pictures and tell you what was awesome and, on one rare occasion, what wasn’t. If you find yourself in Japan, here are some must-have meals for your ever expanding nerdy stomachs. Take notes, kids.

SUSHI DAI - - Tsukiji

For anyone unfamiliar, Tsukiji is one the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world. They deal in everything, and if you choose to eat near there you’re likely to get the freshest seafood you’ve ever tried.

The freshest tuna I'll ever eat. Suck it, Charlie.
The freshest tuna I'll ever eat. Suck it, Charlie.

Enter Sushi Dai, but be prepared to wait. We showed up just after 6 AM and didn’t get in until 9:30 AM. Don’t worry though - - it’s totally worth it.

Octopus. Our chef assured us he'd wrestled it to death himself.
Octopus. Our chef assured us he'd wrestled it to death himself.

The friendly chefs serve you fresh nigiri as they finish it, putting it right on the bar in front of you. They tell you what it is and the best way to eat it - - with or without soy sauce, with or without a little wasabi, et cetera - - and they’re dedicated to making sure you enjoy every bite. And I did. Hands down, one of the best eating experiences I've ever had.

TSUKUMO RAMEN - - Ebisu

Ramen (the real stuff, not the five-minute supermarket crap that I’m quickly losing my taste for) is both delicious and plentiful in Tokyo. And while it’s taking off in major cities like NYC and LA, I don’t know that anything could top what we found here.

These came out first as a teaser...
These came out first as a teaser...

What you see right below, my friends, is fresh-grated Hokkaido cheese on top of an already delicious broth. The soup is so hot that it melts the cheese, giving you both a great, gooey top as you fish out your noodles, and some nice surprises as you slurp whats left of your broth.

THE MAIN EVENT!
THE MAIN EVENT!

If you like ramen and wind up in or around Tokyo, you owe it to yourself to seek this shop out. Just make sure you go for lunch - - they sell out of the cheese ramen before dinner!

511 - - Akasaka

You may think you’ve had Kobe beef before, but unless you can verify the source or were actually in Japan, it’s pretty likely you just had “Kobe-style” beef, as exports from Japan are extremely restricted. Unfortunately, there’s nothing stopping people from using the term and just jacking up the price on a regular steak here in the states. For us, this was our first chance at getting the real deal.

I can die happy now (just like the cow in front of me).
I can die happy now (just like the cow in front of me).

We hit 511 in Akasaka on our last day in town. Because their dinners were incredibly expensive (though I’m sure worth every penny) we instead opted for the shockingly affordable set lunches.

I only took a bite out of this, but is almost seems like a crime to call it a burger. This, my friends, was art.
I only took a bite out of this, but is almost seems like a crime to call it a burger. This, my friends, was art.

Jackie and I ordered the Kobe steak, while our friends ordered the Kobe burgers. There wasn’t a crumb left on the table when we were done. The steaks were perfectly seared and crispy on the outside, with tender, rare meat on the inside. The burgers, served without buns, were smothered in delicious mushroom sauce.

It was, without any exaggeration, the best beef I’ve ever had. Plus, the restaurant itself was super swanky with an incredibly kind waitstaff. I’m still dreaming about this meal.

OWARIYA - - Akihabara

Quite possibly the worst picture ever taken of us. But it features our new family, so how could I not post it?
Quite possibly the worst picture ever taken of us. But it features our new family, so how could I not post it?

When your very own Tom Pinchuk found out some of his pals were headed to Japan, he did what you’d expect him to: he hooked us up. You see, Tom’s friends with a guy who runs a ramen shop in LA [Editor's Note - - it's Ikemen "Dip" Ramen!]. And that guy has family back in Tokyo, along with a friend who runs a soba shop. When he heard we were going to Tokyo, he gave Tom his card and said we should look up his buddy’s shop. How could we not?

Kanpai!
Kanpai!

Our Japanese was weak. So was their English. But when we rolled into the soba shop late on a Wednesday night we were treated like family.

Shown to a quiet upstairs room and served sake by Tom’s friend’s mentor along with some delicious tempura and soba, we were absolutely floored by... Well, everything! The food was delicious, featuring some of the best tempura veggies I've ever had --flaky, thin batter around crisp, fresh vegetables and mushrooms -- and some fantastic soba, it goes without saying, the company was great, and it was a fantastic final sit-down meal for our trip.

McDONALDS - - Everywhere (even in Japan)

Normally I steer clear of “fast food” at home. The occasional trip to Subway, and somewhat more frequent trips to Five Guys aside, I just haven’t had the taste for McDonalds that I used to. Still, they were everywhere and when we were craving just a slight taste of home, we figured we’d give it a whirl.

But I wasn’t going to fly to the other side of the globe and get a Quarter Pounder! No way. So I went with the two Japan-exclusive sandwiches they had on the menu: a teriyaki burger and some kind of horse radish chicken sandwich. And you know what? They may not look like much, but both were shockingly good!

The teriyaki burger wasn’t overwhelmed by the sauce, giving plenty of play to all the basic toppings on the burger. The horse radish chicken sandwich had a subtle spice that played up the cheese and complemented the crispness of the chicken. It may sound silly to rave about McDonalds but, for me, it was one of the more surprising of our eating adventures since it was so unexpected.

MOS BURGER - - Almost Everywhere

MOS Burger, on the other hand, was a bit of a disappointment - the only time EATAKU has ever let me down! Something about this Japanese chain makes C.B. a happy panda, but I just couldn't get into it. To me, it was sort of like a White Castle, which is already pretty low on my fast food radar, but made with fresher tasting ingredients. Unfortunately, that's about the only complement I can muster. I tried two burgers - - a curry burger and, according to EATAKU, a limited time only Atsugiri Bacon Burger with thick cut Hokkaido bacon - - and neither one impressed.

I don't even like curry when I know I'm ordering it, so it's probably unfair to judge this burger so harshly.
I don't even like curry when I know I'm ordering it, so it's probably unfair to judge this burger so harshly.
But this one was just gross. I barely finished it, if I'm being honest.
But this one was just gross. I barely finished it, if I'm being honest.

Admittedly, I ordered the curry by accident - - I’m not really a fan to begin with - - but the bacon/onion burger was just a mess. Not enough sauce, which was the most pleasant part of the burger, and the overpowering flavor of the bacon made this stop a big ol’ zero in my book. Ask me? Stick with the taste of home if you’re looking for fast food burgers in Japan.

HOLY CRAP! ARE THOSE KIT-KATS?!

Your eyes do not deceive you. For one reason or another, Kit-Kats are released in region-specific, limited edition flavors in Japan. And seeing as plain chocolate Kit-Kats are pretty much my favorite candy (it jockeys for pole position with M&Ms), finding as many of these bad boys as possible became a personal mission for our group. And we did not fail.

We found...

  • Strawberry (Great)
  • Raspberry (Good - tart!)
  • Vanilla Ice Cream (Okay)
  • Cookies and Cream (Good)
  • Brown Syrup (Great)
  • Wasabi (Eh - should’ve been more savory)
  • Rum Raisin (Great)
  • Blueberry Cheesecake (Great)
  • Strawberry Cheesecake (Good)
  • Sakura Matcha (Good)

And there was even plain ol’ chocolate in a special Shinkansen (bullet train) commemorative box.

I’m going to be very sad when these are all gone.

Japan destroys my wife and my friend Kate in an eating contest, but Alexander reigns supreme. I lurk in the shadows, contemplating my next meal.
Japan destroys my wife and my friend Kate in an eating contest, but Alexander reigns supreme. I lurk in the shadows, contemplating my next meal.

A cleared plate or an empty bowl is the best complement you can pay to a chef. I use it above as a complement to Japan for its delicious food. Eating adventures with friends are some of my favorite, and getting to partake in them for two weeks straight was one of the biggest joys of our trip for me.

Whenever the next trip to Japan comes around, you can bet we’ll be hitting all these and more for Round 2. Until then, I can dream myself back into the sodium shock I so enjoyed.

Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.

Acura_Max moderator on Nov. 29, 2012 at 3:19 p.m.
One of my favorite food websites is a tumblr called EATAKU, kept by my foodie-idol, C.B. Cebulski. Aside from traveling the world in his work as a Senior VP for Marvel Comics, C.B. is an avid foodie who frequently finds himself in Japan. When we were planning to go back I started jotting down places to eat and food to look for months in advance.

and the chance of me being productive today goes right out the window

Marshal Victoryon Nov. 29, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.

Linking this to friend of mine to show him the food there.Some of that looks pretty good.. others not even on a bet.Kit kat who knew?

Aleashaon Nov. 29, 2012 at 4:20 p.m.

This should have a warning label "Will induce increased hunger."

sickVisionz moderator on Nov. 29, 2012 at 5:53 p.m.
I want that Naruto ramen bowl! I've gone to a few Japanese restaurants but I never see ramen quite like it. I think burger king had a whopper made from squid ink. Sounds interesting. Glad you ate good.
EamonBDocon Nov. 29, 2012 at 9:03 p.m.

Excellent post idea. All looks delicious or interesting. I need to take for pics when I travel.

NickTapalansky staff on Nov. 30, 2012 at 8:33 a.m.

@Acura_Max: Yeah, EATAKU is awesome. And since C.B. gets all over the country, and the world, for work, odds are you'll find some amazing things on there that you can enjoy in your travels (or, if you're lucky, your own backyard!).

@Marshal Victory: Haha! I'm curious - what wouldn't you try on here? I can be a pretty picky eater on U.S. soil, and there are some things that I actively avoid no matter the presentation, but when my feet hit foreign ground I'm suddenly Andrew Zimmern. In the last year I've been trying to apply that adventurous attitude at home, too, with some pretty great results, but I can totally understand steering clear of certain things.

@Aleasha: I know... I wrote this up a few weeks ago, right after we got back. Now that it's live, my SAD STOMACH WANTS ALL THE FOOD AGAIN.

@sickVisionz: Was this what you were talking about? http://kotaku.com/5945770/burger-king-is-launching-squid-ink-ketchup-and-a-black-hamburger It sounds interesting... Sorry I missed it!

@EamonBDoc: Aww, thanks bud. I figured people might get a kick outta this stuff. And for sure, when you're traveling, hit up EATAKU for suggestions. You wouldn't believe how many cool dinners I've found in NYC thanks to C.B. and his love of delicious, exciting food!

Aleashaon Nov. 30, 2012 at 8:40 a.m.

@NickTapalansky: lol yeah I feel for ya and it has to be worse for you as your stomach remembers all the yummy goodness.

NickTapalansky staff on Nov. 30, 2012 at 9:04 a.m.

@Aleasha: It's the worst! The best... But the worst.

Marshal Victoryon Nov. 30, 2012 at 2:50 p.m.

@NickTapalansky: Well ya goit the right idea. Life is to be lived.Adventure is great in moderation. But with food i have to be picky.Health reasons an what not.Ya asked what i would have tried?

"The horse radish chicken sandwich had a subtle spice that played up the cheese and complemented the crispness of the chicken" That sounds like how i fix mine actualy some times.

"the Kobe steak" Could not afford it but heard its good.

"tempura and soba" that sounds an looks good.

The rest is just not for me.Rice is not my thing .Squid well i might try .. maybe.

takechanon Dec. 6, 2012 at 8:41 p.m.
Hi. Next time you'll come here, please leave Tokyo, visit Hokkaido. It is a delicious island. You can find many good food in every local region in Japan. However Tokyo has no. It just a shore of delicious sea of Jpanese country side. I think Yonezawa beef is better than Kobe beef. Yonezawa is 2 hours far from Tokyo by Yamagata Shinkansen. http://www.kongoukaku.com/ (sorry in Japanese) enjoy it!(^_^)
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