Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fine Dining in Tokyo

So you made it to Tokyo and you've been wandering around, seeing the sights, groping people on the Yamanote Line, snapping photos of little old hunchbacked women wearing t-shirts that read "Crazy Sick Bitch" and now you're hungry. Starving even! What do you do?

You come with Hiro the World's Angriest Chef TM and me on a tour of some of Tokyo's culinary delights.

Hiro: You look at me funny, I knock your ass out.

First, a tip. Because you probably don't speak or read Japanese, many restaurants feature window displays of very realistic plastic food. Do not eat the plastic food. Instead, if you're really stuck for how to order, simply ask the staff to come outside and point at what you want. Actually, you probably won't have to do this because the menus are usually illustrated with color photos. You can just point and say, "Kore!" and you'll probably get what you want.

But be careful. Unless you have a good idea of what the dish is in the photo, you might get something surprising. If you're lucky, you'll discover some new wonderful taste. If not, you're out 20 bucks and still hungry. Here's a recommendation- you can't go wrong with tempura shrimp and soba:

Hiro: That's a good basic meal, but may leave you fat Westerners with more hungry. We Japanese don't eat big dishes like Americans. That's why Americans are so fat!

Most people associate the words "sushi" and "Japan" the way others associate "Gimme" and "some damn money." There are all kinds of sushi and sashimi (sashimi is delectable, by the way... that's the sliced raw fish you probably think of as "sushi"). When I was in Tokyo in August 2007, I finally got to try something I'd heard about. Horse sashimi.

That's right- I ate raw horse meat. I got it at Shirokiya in Shibuya. And let me tell you, it wasn't bad at all. It tasted like very rare roast beef with just a little undertone of something unusual.

Hiro: You eat this, you can run real fast. But when you try to do math, you have to stomp your foot to give answers.

I love sashimi and sushi, which surprises many of my Japanese friends. To be honest, I think Japanese families consume more curry rice than they do raw fish, but if you ask various people what their favorite food is (and due to my job, I have to ask this question a lot), most of them will probably tell you it's sashimi. And sashimi has become one of my favorites, too. Here's an example of a Tokyo sushi bar:

That's Standing Sushi Bar, a chain that you can find in quite a few neighborhoods around the city. I'm pretty sure I saw one in Shinjuku as well, but this one is in Shibuya not too far from the 109 building. I didn't go in because I eat a lot of sashimi in Hamamatsu and I was in the mood for things like steak and pizza while I was in Tokyo, those being difficult to come by here. I assume in Standing Sushi Bar you actually eat standing up, which is perfect for the gyaru on a shopping spree whose skirt is too short to sit on a stool, or the salaryman who doesn't want to get all wrinkled.

Notice the nice person in the foreground trying to duck out of the frame.

Hiro:
Too late! Shashin daijobu desu ka?

Speaking of pizza, one of the best bargains in Tokyo for the truly hungry is the Shakey's Pizza lunch buffet. There's a small Shakey's above a convenience store in Shibuya, but expect long lines and wait times during lunch rush on the weekends. If you're in Ikebukuro, however, you can go to this Shakey's, which is about a 5-minute walk from the station on Sunshine-dori:

It's pretty roomy inside. I went there at 12:30pm on a Saturday and while it was busy, there were a few empty tables. The buffet is around 1050 yen or so... sorry, I can't remember exactly. But it's cheap and you can sample all kinds of pizzas with Japanese style toppings- octopus, seaweed, mayonnaise and potatoes.

Save some room for this:

This photo doesn't do justice to the size of this ice cream behemoth! The handle to that mug is roomy enough to fit a hand and a half of a normal-sized man. That's probably 3 or more pounds of delicious, frosty heart attack.

Hiro: Anyone who eat that is crazy! Maybe you feed an elephant that much ice cream. Human being? No way!

For people with a taste for home, Japan is one of the most McDonald's-laden nations on earth. Just in Kabuki-cho alone there are 532 McDonald's restaurants. In Japan, there's little or no stigma attached to eating at McDonald's, or McDo as it's sometimes called because the katakanization of the name is practically impossible for foreigners to pronounce. Businesspeople, high school kids, moms, dads... few if anyone's read Fast Food Nation but surprisingly, people you meet may have watched Super-Size Me. People here think American portions are insane. No joke.

But you can still get some crazy-big Big Mac varieties in Japan. This McDonald's is in Harajuku, right on Takeshita-dori:

Hiro: McDonald's is okay, but I prefer MosBurger. MosBurger is healthy.

One place I like to go to in Harajuku is Wendy's. My dad and I had a ritual of stopping at the Wendy's in Madison, Georgia, whenever we passed through there around lunchtime. Plus, sometimes I crave Wendy's hamburgers, which I find much more edible than McDonald's. Here's the Coolest Wendy's on Earth:

The upstairs dining area is a bit cramped, but there's a larger one in the basement. Actually the first Wendy's I saw in Japan was in Kyoto, but I didn't eat at that one.

Here's what this Wendy's looks like at lunchtime on a Sunday:

There were a lot of worn-out looking foreign tourists in there that day. None are pictured here. Good luck finding a place to sit, people!

What I love, though, is Mexican food. Right after I ate lunch at Wendy's, I found a Mexican restaurant just a few meters down this side street. I wanted to slap myself in the face.

If you're seriously short on funds, you can find some lunch boxes at the convenience stores. Or, if you're in direst straits, onegiri. A triangle of rice with tuna and mayo inside, the blue-labeled onegiri is usually only 105 yen. Two of them will keep you going until you can find an ATM.

Sometimes you find some interesting things. Take for instance this Dr. Pepper can I got out of the vending machine at Hotel Kent:

I don't know who she is, but looks like she made someone's can spew. I really don't know what to tell you about this. People ask me about hentai manga (porn comics) all the time and I try to explain there's a lot more to Japan than stuff like that. Huh.

Hiro:
My girlfriend see that and make me quit drinking Dr. Pepper.

If you're not feeling adventurous enough to go into a real restaurant, there are various chain places around that offer mediocre but edible food for prices that aren't too outrageous. Like the Hub, which can be found all over the place. Here's a location just behind Hotel Kent, and within sight of Koma Stadium:

I included this photo because two years ago on New Year's Day, I did a solo tabe hodai/nome hodai (all you can eat/all you can drink) for about 3000 yen and ended up with food enough for 4 people. A salad course, french fries, fried chicken plus a lot of other stuff I can't remember. Why can't I remember? The nome hodai part kicked my ass. I'm lucky I was able to walk the 1 minute distance from the front door of this place to my hotel.

Hiro: Americans like to drink beer. How often do you drink alcohol? Every night?

But my favorite restaurant in Tokyo is this place, a shabu-shabu restaurant not far from the Hub:

The food is a bit expensive, but the staff there is very friendly. Not overly friendly, because that's not the Japanese style. But each time I've eaten here, I've been the only foreigner and I've made horrible messes with my shabu-shabu and yet they kept cleaning up after me and smiling. That's perseverance. The last time I ate there I was much improved though!

The upstairs section is small, but I believe there's a downstairs. My guess is upstairs is non-smoking and downstairs is smoking. Unlike in America, restaurants here maintain smoking sections. And in classic style, you usually end up sitting at a table immediately adjoining the smokers where you can breathe in the fine cloud of smelly, burnt particles of ash exhaled from someone's lungs.

This is the window display at the restaurant:

In Japan, dining out usually means quaffing alcohol. And beer makes a fine accompaniment for a course of shabu-shabu.

This is what shabu-shabu looks like, thinly-sliced beef that you bowl in a large pot of water along with vegetables and noodles:


If you ever come visit me, I'll take you to my favorite shabu-shabu restaurant here in Hamamatsu, a superb place where tabe hodai is affordable and the staff is briskly professional and friendly to just the right degree!

Hiro: I would visit but you piss me off by being smart ass! Go back to America!

4 comments:

Nenena said...

Ah, horse sashimi. One of the local specialties in my village. The other local specialities would be wasp sashimi and honey-dipped crickets.

The horse sashimi is definitely the most tasty of the three.

Joel Bryan said...

Nenena- I'd be interested in trying the insect sashimi but yeah the horse sashimi is probably the most edible!

RAB said...

This is the best blog post ever.

Joel Bryan said...

RAB- Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. My preference is for my fashion post but this one was fun to write.