A couple of weeks ago as the stock markets were first starting to tumble I found myself in the state of denial. More specifically I found myself in Tokyo spending mad cash on delicious food. I figured what the hell? If I’m going to be broke, I might as well go down with a belly full of some of the most delectable food this side of the Sea of Japan.
Armed with a list of friends’ recommendations on places to see and things to eat, I arrived to Tokyo with a game plan: see cool shit and eat a shitload. Long story short, mission accomplished. But I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without my partner in crime, willing and able tour guide and gracious host, Ahmad Coo, a buddy of mine from grad school who currently resides in Tokyo. Without his busted up Japanese (as opposed to my nonexistent Japanese) and his impeccable taste, I would not have seen half as many of the cool spots in Tokyo (well, the maid cafe was more weird than cool) nor would I have eaten nearly as well.
Day 1: Ramen
So my first night in town we went to one of Ahmad’s favorite ramen places, an establishment called Ippudo.
As we waited for our ramen we munched on the small dishes of picked seaweed and the most delicious bean sprouts, marinated in sesame oil, a bit of chili oil and a touch of soy sauce. Simple and brilliant.
And then our ramen came. I got the spicy pork ramen while Ahmad got the “regular” version. Oishii! That’s Japanese for delicious and man these noodles were oishii to the max. Maybe it was because my last few meals were courtesy of American Airlines (which I have to be honest – for international flights is a still a good airline), but the ramen hit the spot.
Salty, savoury, porky (I could have taken it a little more spicy, but I don’t think that’s the Japanese way) and the noodles were springy to the bite with a pleasant snap and brought out the flavor of the broth especially when slurped.
Along with the ramen we got an order of gyoza which Ahmad likened to little pork bullets. I understand that description in light of how biting into one of these sends a shot of porky essence straight to your taste buds. But with the light texture and consistency of the meat combined with the delicate skin I would describe them more as delicious clouds of porkiness. The good news? There’s an Ippudo in NYC.
Day 2: Tonkatsu
Nestled in the hipper than thou alley ways of Harajuku lies an old public bathouse that for the last twenty years has been the home of Maisen, a restaurant that specializes in tonkatsu or deepfried pork cutlet. Ahmad and I hit this on the early side so most of the other patrons were older Japanese women who I guess were more health conscious because they weren’t getting the tonkatsu. That wasn’t an issue for us. I got the tonkatsu don (pork cutlet with egg over rice because I feared just the pork wouldn’t be enough – wrong) and Ahmad got the black pork cutlet tenderloin.
Mmmm. As with so much of Japanese food the flavor of the ingredients – in this case the pork – is so well complimented by the added textural component – in this case perfectly fried crust of bread crumbs. If there’s a way to make pork more delicious this is surely one of the best. Now I’ve loved tonkatsu since I was a kid. I dont’ have it that often (because really – it’s probably not that good for you) but every time I do, it’s like hanging out with an old friend. And thanks to this exquisite tonkatsu meal at Maisen, I was reminded that tonkatsu and I are in it for the long hall. I love you, tonkatsu, I really do.
Day 3: Unagi
After touring the Buddhist temple in Asakusa, a district in the old part of Tokyo, Ahmad and I headed over to the Ueno Park area to eat a late lunch at his favorite unagi spot, a restaurant specializing in unagi (but of course) located across the street from the Shinobazu Lotus Pond. We both got the unagi donburi (eel over rice).
The unagi was beautifully broiled with a delicate smoky and rich flavor and seemed less fatty than unagi that I’ve had in the states. So good. Was it worth the $25 for a bento box lunch? Shit! I was in Tokyo eating unagi donburi! Yeah it was worth it.
Day 4: Okonomiyaki and Yakitori
Ahmad took me to this quaint neighborhood with it’s a assortment of cafes, bookstores, book and record stores, boutiques and even hippieish folks selling random artsy things had a vaguely Telegraph Ave. Berkeley vibe except that it was super clean and there weren’t any annoying kids spare changing. But what it had that I’m sure Berkeley for all it’s progressive foodieness still does not have is a restaurant specializing in okonomiyaki, a Japanese omelette/ pizza/ pancake/. Imagine corn beef hash with neither corn beef, nor hash browns, but instead ingredients like cabbage, octopus, any variety of meat, noodles, maybe some fermented soy beans. Oh and don’t forget the mayonnaise.
So Ahmad got his with natto, the slimy fermented soybeans that are somewhat reminiscent of snotty beans, but actually much more tasty. I opted for the a less slimy concotion of cabbage, some sort of meat and various other vegetables. It was good but more of a homey bottom of the pot mish mash than something where one ingredient is the star of the show.
Later that night for dinner we hit another of of Ahmad’s favorite spots, a tiny yakitori place in Shinjunku. The place consisted of a few tables and a counter where we sat right in front of the guy hunched over a smoky grill preparing a variety of chicken and chicken part skewers. I’d never had proper yakitori and this was a real treat. I had no idea that you grill and eat so many parts of the chicken and it would all be so good. We had grilled chicken skin, grilled chicken cartilage, chicken gizzards, chicken wing, chicken sashimi (that’s raw chicken folks) and a couple chicken based soups that were sublime. I mean everything tasted like chicken, but each item was also distinct.
After the random assortment of ingredients that is okonomiyaki, it was nice to eat a meal in which one ingredient took precedence in all the dishes and to taste the many variations along the theme. No wonder the Japanese came up with Iron Chef.
Day 5: Tempura
As my final meal in Tokyo, Ahmad took me to a restaurant in the Marinouchi building with a view of the imperial moat. Unfortunately I didn’t spy any member of the Japanese imperial family. What I did spot right in front of me was a plate full of deep fried goodness because this restaurant specialized in the Japanese culinary tradition of tempura. Tempura is just another example of how the Japanese have taken something introduced from another culture – in this case deep frying – a cooking technique brought over by Portuguese missionaries back in he 16th century – and elevated it, refined it, and made it into something truly Japanese.
Sure it’s deep fried, but it’s also delicate, light and delicious and because it’s deep fried fish AND vegetables, it’s probably totally healthy. The waitress brought out the tempura in stages timing it so as we finished the first batch she brought out the second batch fresh from the fryer. This is how all deep fried food should be served.
So that in a nutshell was my eating tour in Tokyo. It was truly wonderful to be eating Japanese food in Japan. I realized that this is how Japanese food should taste. The only thing I didn’t get a chance to eat was sushi. But that’s more because I don’t really like it. Just kidding! I would marry sushi if I could. Is it legal in New York to marry food? But in the interest of not wanting to bore you and because it was so damn awesome I felt like the sushi experience deserved it’s own page and post. Stay tuned. In the meantime check out more food and nonfood photos from Tokyo.