Monday, November 18, 2013

Freshness Burger's burger sleeve mask

This is the second time in the last two weeks I've read stories about the burger sleeve mask at Freshness Burger.  While we go to Freshness Burger fairly often, we haven't seen anyone using the burger mask yet.  The Freshness Burger at Hamamatsu Station didn't have them the last time I was there, but that was over a month ago.  There's a chance they had them but no one was using one because no customers had bought any of the Classic Burgers.

Except I always order a Classic Cheeseburger and I didn't receive a sleeve mask.  Maybe because I'm a dude.

I think the main reason the Classic Burger sales were flat (if they truly were) isn't that women are embarrassed to be seen eating them, it's because compared to your basic McDonald's or Mos Burger burger, a Classic Burger from Freshness is huge.  As much as I love them-- they're the best chain burger you can get here in Hamamatsu-- I have to admit they're a bit awkward to eat.  I have a pretty big mouth, too.  I can easily imagine your average Japanese consumer not being able to come to grips, as it were, with a Classic Burger. 

Also, in general, restaurant portion sizes tend to be smaller in Japan and a Classic Burger just might be a few grams or calories over what both women and men want here in Japan.  If you talk to someone who's lived abroad there's a good chance you'll hear some variation on, "The difference between McDonald's in Japan and in America is our meals are smaller.  Americans have bigger sodas."  Is it true?  I don't really think so, but I haven't gone around weighing burgers and checking soda volume at home and in Japan.  It sounds good, so let's go with it.  If you order a hamburger set at a Japanese McDonald's, you're getting a lightweight burger and a decent amount of French fries, but if you order a Classic Cheeseburger set at Freshness, you get a burger that's heavier than a Quarter Pounder and an order of thick wedge-cut fries with the skins still on them.  It even fills me up, and I'm a decadent pig.

Freshness is a bit pricey, too.  I've read business reports about McDonald's same store sales being down in Japan as well, but the McDonald's here still remain packed with customers during peak hours.  Sometimes Freshness Burger is as well, but the prime location at the station is a pretty small restaurant so it may be a matter of perception.  But if you want a cheap burger meal, McDonald's is the place to go.  The point is, I'm pretty sure McDonald's has Freshness Burger beat as far as prices go, but there's no way they can compete in taste.  That suggests people prefer paying less for things even if said things aren't quite as good as slightly more expensive things.

And finally, there's convenience.  I can't imagine a more convenient location for a burger joint than right at the station, but there's also a McDonald's there, too.  If you order at Freshness Burger, you have to take your drink and tray and a little plastic number and go sit down for a while before they come out with your basket of food.  At McDonald's, you're halfway finished eating by that point.  Unless you find yourself caught up in a crush of high schoolers, McDonald's is going to be your faster option.  That means more time to catch the train, more time to shop at May One, more time to fiddle around with your cellphone.  Okay, you can to the last at Freshness Burger while you wait, but you're still going to be in the restaurant for a while longer than you would be at the McDonald's.

Anyway, that's all anecdotal stuff.  According to the report, Classic Burger sales are up 213% and Freshness Burger corporate seems to think the new burger sleeves get the credit.

Here's how I rank the burger chains--

1) Freshness Burger.  Expensive, but the tastiest.  They do seem to use fresher ingredients.  The only drawback to the Classic Cheeseburger is they cook the onions and I prefer cold, crisp, raw onions on top of my hot beef burger patty.  Freshness offers a delicious mushroom burger seasonally, too.  It's a large mushroom cap turned upside down and filled with some kind of teriyaki sauce (I think) on a bun with veggies.  Mmm!  My wife favors Freshness' fat wedge fries above all others, too.  Yes, they're good.

2) Mos Burger.  They also bring your food to you in a basket, but they're a little cheaper than Freshness Burger.  The Mos Burger teriyaki chicken sandwich isn't quite as good as the one at Freshness, but it's still a step up from the chicken filet sandwiches at McDonald's.  I like Mos Fries, too, and you usually get them hot from the fryer.  My favorite Mos Burger comes with a fat slice of tomato and some kind of chili topping, which is interesting from a taste-and-texture standpoint.

3) Burger King.  There aren't any in Hamamatsu, so I go to one in Shibuya, Tokyo.  It's pretty much what you get back home.  There may be a lot of Big Mac fans here and back home, but I find the Whopper the superior taste experience.

4) McDonald's.  To me, there's really not much difference between Japanese McDonald's and U.S. McDonald's.  Sure, Japan's features the teriyaki burger, which is pretty good if a little heavy on mayo (they somewhat make up for that with fresh lettuce) and the seasonal Tsukimi Burger (which is absolutely nuts), but the taste is the same for the standard menu.  I think the sizes are comparable, too, but I'd need to do the research and honestly, I don't care to.  Feel free to clue me in, if you like.

5) Lotteria.  I have yet to meet a person here who prefers Lotteria to any of the others.  The one time I ate at a Lotteria, it was kind of like eating reheated Mos Burger.  Sad and limp burger.  Poor Lotteria.  My heart goes out to you!

I would have included Wendy's in second place, but they're gone and I'm not sure if they're ever coming back.  And I'm not ranking any specialty burger restaurants where people craft their sandwiches with love.  Or any of those pop-up burger stands that sometimes appear during festivals and offer huge "American Burgers."  I haven't tried any of those, but I have a feeling they would totally blow my list sky-high.

Friday, November 15, 2013

You (should) learn something every day-- "The secrets behind 10 Japanese food pairings"

I came across an article on (you guessed it) Japanese food pairings today at the Japan Today website, which also linked it to where it's called "Why you should eat wasabi with your sushi-- the secrets behind 10 Japanese food pairings."  This is something I've never thought about, but Casey Baseel has the scoop and it's interesting and informative reading.

Now I don't eat all of these things, but I do eat most of them.  Right at the top of the list is one of my favorite Japanese dishes.  Wasabi has been the bane of my sushi eating life for approximately most of it, but over the past three or four years I've come to appreciate and enjoy the feeling of lit matches being shoved into my nostrils from the inside via my nasal cavities deep within my skull.  I never considered there might be a practical reason for linking pleasure and pain, but apparently there is.

The tip on seaweed in miso soup is helpful, because I love miso soup and eat it as often as I can, which, in Japan, is very often.  It's nice to know the role radish paste plays in its match with saury, but I'm going to go ahead and assume that's also why it's attached to other kinds of fish and meat as well.  We eat a lot of unagi in Hamamatsu, but ours tends to have some kind of sweet barbecue-type sauce on it, so I'm not sure if the info in this article applies in my locality.  Maybe.

Finally, and most importantly, the link between cabbage and pork cutlets.  When I eat a certain chicken dish at a certain family restaurant (it will probably be my lunch today), it comes on a bed of grilled cabbage.  And when we go to Kushitomo, the restaurant downtown where you can order a non-stop meal of various fried meats and vegetables on thin wooden sticks (in other words, heaven on earth), the main event comes with a bowl of raw cabbage leaves as an opener.  I always thought this was so you could say you had at least a little roughage with your mound of fried animal flesh, but now I understand the true reason.

Vitamin U, huh?

You might want to avoid the comments on the Japan Today version, or else pair your reading of them with a reading of Calvin and Hobbes or something similarly soothing.

We're having roast chicken for Christmas

Or, more accurately, I am, because I'm taking Christmas Day and the next day off work.  I have to use paid holidays because Japan isn't the United States and Christmas Day is just another work day where people are counting down to the real holidays, which run around New Year's.  That's fine.  My job offers enough paid days off and they know I'm a foreigner-- although I swear I never told them-- and expect to take a day or two at Christmas.  My wife, being Japanese, is not so lucky but then she doesn't celebrate Christmas, either, so she'll have to wait until her various jobs take their winter break for some time off.

This means I'll be spending the Christmas holidays alone with our Christmas tree, some gifts from home and a roast chicken ordered from Seiyu.  Seiyu is kind of like a Japanese Wal-Mart, so much so they even offer re-usable Wal-Mart shopping bags so you don't have to buy plastic and clog the plastics bin at home, make the trash collectors work an infinitesimal amount of effort harder and ruin the world with toxins and things that don't bio-degrade and all that scientific stuff I have only weird, ill-informed, piecemeal knowledge about.  We're not going into whether or not Wal-Mart has already ruined enough of the earth that this doesn't matter.  The point is, we can get a whole roast chicken for the equivalent of about eight USD.

Still, roast chicken is only a substitute for smoked turkey.  Or even oven-baked turkey.  I'll more than likely make do with yellow chicken tikka for Thanksgiving, but Christmas dinner will be said bird.  It looks from the colorful brochure as if it's coated in some kind of thick, shiny sauce-- which I could just as well do without-- but it will probably serve its purpose and make dinner that night at least a little seasonally festive.

On the Christmas shopping front, there's no such thing as "Black Friday" here.  You know, no Thanksgiving Thursday.  Shopping continues all year round, but things will reach a crescendo before the New Year's holidays.  I'm doing most of my shopping for my wife and family back home online.  It's stress-free, other than the usual "Don't buy me anything" protestations.  We're going to blend our cultures a bit, which excites me.  It means a longer holiday season, so more chances for fun together.  Also, this broadens the number of people I have to shop for.  And there are few things I enjoy more than giving gifts to loved ones.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving turkeys in Japan

Japan does Halloween, Japan does Christmas.  Japan does a kind of weird version of Valentine's Day that seems like a scam to me.  But what Japan doesn't do is an American-style Thanksgiving Day.  That's understandable, but understanding does nothing-- nothing-- to soothe the annual turkey addiction withdrawal jitters I suffer from so fiercely at times I want to roast and eat my own feet.

Just last night I was lying in bed after a busy day, reading a book when suddenly and vividly the sense memory of my dad's turkey-juice covered fingers on Thanksgiving morning came to me and filled me with a nostalgic ache fierce and hopeless.  My dad had massive fingers, his entire hands brown and battered and strong, usually with a plastic bandage somewhere.  Each Thanksgiving he would wake up early (he woke up early most days, even in retirement, come to think of it) and take out the turkey he'd left thawing overnight in the refrigerator.  He'd prep his grill, get the coals just right and start the long process of smoking our holiday dinner.

Later in the morning, I'd go outside with him-- usually the weather would be cloudy and cool, sometimes windy as well-- and we'd open the grill and gaze at the shiny, crinkled turkey skin just a shade or two darker than dad's own and our mouths watered.  The Macy's parade was just a distraction that couldn't completely conquer the growing need for everyone in our family to devour that bird.

When Dad judged it had smoked long enough, he'd go out with a black baking pan and pull the turkey from the grill and bring it inside where it'd cool a bit and he could slice it.  Unjoint the legs and wings and set them on a white porcelain platter with pink roses and green leaves that matched our dinner plates.  Stab it with a two-pronged fork and trim along its back where the white meat sat.  Dad would cut some dark meat-- my mom's preferred selection-- from the thighs and my brothers and I would come in and peel strips off and eat them.  Juicy strips oiling our fingers and sometimes chins if we didn't pop them in our mouths just right, a kind of furtive quick motion because anything you could get away with short of actually cutting off a hunk of meat was fair game-- bits of skin, meat threads dangling, bits that fell off Dad's knife.  These you could poach.

And finally, around noon, the meal.  The sights, sounds and smells stay with me.  The taste of the stolen scraps, the moment of absolute fulfillment when we were allowed to eat-- to gorge, really-- on our legitimate portions.  But mostly I think of my father, who loved smoking a turkey for the four people who meant more to him than anything else in the world, and who had strong, weathered hands like a landscape unto themselves.

Well, you can possibly get turkey in Japan, but I haven't been able to yet.  One year I ate grilled squid for Thanksgiving after working all day at a conversation school.  One of my roommates had at the time what I still consider a brilliant idea: cooking traditional sides and substituting KFC.  That seemed as good as you could expect in Japan.  Another year, another school and some friends and I went to an all-bird meat izakaya and had chicken and duck, which was an even better substitute but still not the thing I jones for.  Turkey, dammit, real turkey. 

Others have managed it, but they seem to do mostly the oven-baked variety.  This is fantastic if that's what you grew up with.  I've tried it because my sister-in-law does her turkey that way and yeah, that's good stuff.  My brother always smokes one, too, because in this he and I are traditionalists (our middle brother experiments with fried turkeys, also nice) and what we crave is our father's smoked turkey.

The Meat Guy sells a ton o' turkey, including it seems "turducken," which should please John Madden should he ever decide to relocate here.  I don't know how many drumsticks the Meat Guy's turducken sports, though. There are also turkey subs at Subway.  In this city, at this late date and because we don't have a grill or an oven, it's looking like my choice is the izakaya, KFC or Subway.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Must go here: Harajuku lures foodies to the smoked BBQ pit | The Japan Times

I tried to read this article on a barbecue restaurant in Harajuku (Harajuku lures foodies to the smoked BBQ pit | The Japan Times) yesterday, but the Japan Times site wouldn't let me.  Now I have.  And now I have a new Tokyo destination!

While I'm largely ignorant of its culture other than in the eating of it, barbecue looms large in my family.  My mom's branch comes from North Carolina, where people take their regional sauces very seriously indeed.  I remember one family reunion up there where a distant uncle or cousin or something or other of mine (I can't keep track of all the family relationships there because they're pretty far away) brought out several jars of homemade barbecue sauce and described each.  He really knew his sauces, but I have to admit my eyes glazed over and I didn't pay much attention.  Tasting them is all that matters to me, not history or ingredients or whether or not there's vinegar or mustard or whatever as a base.

Both my older brothers really know their way around a grill and a smoker, and they've competed in a few contests.  They've never placed.  As good as they are, there are tons of people who are even better.  That boggles my mind.  My sister-in-law hosted a charity BBQ cook-off a few years back and I tried the second place dish and it just about blew my mind.  It was one of the best bits of food of any kind I've ever put in my mouth, and it was cold and had been sitting out on a table for hours.  I can't even imagine what the first place barbecue must have tasted like.  We've long enjoyed our home cooking, but a person who is seriously into barbecue is a food artisan who takes this art to a higher level.  We can only gaze up longingly and hope some shreds of pork fall off and into our mouths.

Anyway, my wife and I are supposed to be planning our New Year's trip for this year.  She doesn't have many days off and we've discussed Kyoto or Atami.  I don't know.  It may require some major concessions on my part in the coming year, but I'm thinking... Harajuku... barbecue...

Life is compromise.

Homeless in Japan

A new article in the Japan Times (McDonald's store pulls, apologizes for homeless sign | The Japan Times) has me thinking about the homeless here.  Like all industrialized countries, Japan has an income disparity.  Most people are middle class, I guess.  But a number of people-- and they seem to be largely invisible at the moment, at least to my limited perception-- have little or no income beyond what they can beg or borrow, and no homes other than a cardboard pallet in a train station or a flimsy cardboard bunker or lean-to in some back alley in the city.

Just outside Shibuya Station in Tokyo, under the train tracks near the famous Shibuya Scramble and the Hachiko Exit you can find a row of paper shanties like melancholy children's play forts, some covered over with blue plastic tarp and some open to the sky.  They're in a narrow concrete lane fenced in and a little sheltered by the raised tracks and the surrounding buildings just a minute or two from the famous 109 building, that silver cylinder packed with kids buying the latest fashions, not far from H&M and all kinds of fabulous boutiques.  But they might as well be on another planet in terms of income and viability.  When I walked that path the boxes lay uninhabited, but piled with possessions like tea pots and manga.  I went down some steps and found more boxes where people actually live.

I'd been wondering where the homeless were.  On our first trip to Japan, as I hit Tokyo solo via shinkansen, there were blue tarp shanty towns under the river bridges in Kawasaki and other neighborhoods I don't know the names of-- not exactly a welcoming sight, but pretty easy to put out of your mind when you're drunk in the electric frenzy of Kabuki-cho later at night.  When I went to Mitaka Park to visit the Ghibli Museum, there were a few men in layered clothes sleeping in the chilly October sun next to the fences around some tennis courts.

Even in Hamamatsu, there were regular faces you'd see if you lived here.  One bald guy, his head a brown, tanned dome, sitting on his bucket near Zaza City.  The woman in glasses who looked incongruously like the stereotype of a librarian but would engage others in angry shouting matches outside our school.  The friendly old man with bad teeth who would sit next to you, strike up a conversation, then ask for money in broken English.  And the old man who rushed around punching the air and muttering to himself; he always wore a hooded parka and bundled himself up in so many winter clothes in all kinds of weather he looked like an astronaut who had narrowly survived a fiery crash-landing.

Now that I'm out in the suburbs, I don't encounter so many homeless people.  Or any at all.  That's what I mean by "invisible," although they're probably invisible in other ways as well to most people.  Finding that encampment so close to the Shibuya Scramble came as a surprise and brought a bit of reality to my touristy experience.  Even now it's strange to consider these multiple worlds.  I sit here in my office as parents arrive for a big meeting about upcoming class trips. Somewhere else there's that guy sitting on his bucket, or others wandering around Shinjuku Station, displaced for the day by all the hustle and bustle and people who have places to be in a hurry.