Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...
- How FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Saved Anime (For Me) *** SAILOR MOON is for Boys (Too)!
- KINGDOM HEARTS Rescued an Anime Fan *** The Art of the Remake Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3
- The Do's & Dont's of Conventions *** For Under-Rated "Japanimation" *** Capcom vs. Alex!
- America in Anime * Why the EVA Rebuilds are Trivial * It's Not So Fun to be an American Otaku in Japan?
- A Photologue of Nerdy Japan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
- 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.
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.