Tokyo and its offerings of delectable, yet affordable, eats
When in Tokyo, it does not really matter if the eating establishment has been awarded three Michelin stars or the little hole-in-the-wall offers simple, hearty udon noodles: You can expect the food to be prepared with loving obsession, such is the meticulous nature of the Japanese.
Tokyo is also a city which gives new meaning to ‘specialisation’. In all likelihood, there is no other place in the world which focuses on one key food, but in Tokyo, shops that just do udon, soba, eel, fugu, tempura and breaded pork cutlets (tonkatsu) are common. And of course, sushi – which has gained a status of reverence since the acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi showed the world what exactly goes into sushi creation.
Here is rundown of where to enjoy some popular Japanese dishes:
To get the freshest sushi meal in Tokyo, make your way to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market. Many sushi counters are situated side-by-side along two to three narrow streets in the restaurant area of the huge fish market. Located near the fruits and vegetable section, each sushi restaurant is small, sitting at most 20 people at a go, making for a lively, cosy sometimes noisy culinary experience. If you are planning a trip there for a fresh sushi breakfast, bring a small bag as there will not be ample space to put your large clunky items.
The two most popular sushi restaurants which see the longest queues are Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa. Expect to wait 30 minutes to an hour before getting a seat. Hungry customers patiently wait in line under the sun for a coveted sushi meal, with the queue sometimes stretching to the back of the street.
At Sushi Daiwa, there are four chefs who prepare fresh sushi right in front of customers after they place their orders at counter-only seats. The sushi set meal is the most popular, consisting of seven types of sushi (at the chef’s discretion), miso soup and tea. The cost of $50 is offset by the generous portions of insanely fresh sushi.
A sample of what you may possibly be served: Ikura and tuna maki, followed by a clear and sweet shrimp sushi. Chu toro (fat tuna) sushi and the uni (sea urchin roe) sushi are highlights. The cut of chu toro is fatty, buttery and so fresh that it melts in your mouth. The bright orange uni is sweet, cold, and creamy all at the same time.
Be sure to head there early as the restaurants close at around 2pm.
Address: Sushi Daiwa, Tsukiji Market Block 6. 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
One famous Tonkatsu restaurant in the Ueno area is Horaiya, opened since the 1910s. An innocuous-looking eatery hidden at the corner of a small street in Ueno, the small popular restaurant is always packed with locals and tourists, especially during lunch. Horaiya can only sit up to 20 people at a time, and they do not take reservations, so go early at about 11am during to avoid the long queue.
Horaiya is one of the first tonkatsu restaurants to use the more tender pork fillet besides pork loin. While it is easy enough to pick a choice on the menu, since the restaurant only has four dishes, the best-seller is the pork fillet cutlet set that comes with rice and soup. Covered in bread crumbs and double deep-fried in hot boiling oil till a sizzling golden brown, the meat cutlet is oily, juicy and tender.
Address: Horaiya, 3-28-5 Ueno Taito-ku, Tokyo
Grilled unagi lovers flock to to Irokawa, situated at a quiet street in Asakusa away from the crowded busy touristy area. The nondescript restaurant is visited by countless tourists who have read about it. There is always a long queue during lunchtime and dinnertime and customers are expected to wait up to an hour to have a taste of the delicious char-grilled eel.
Forget about fancy fare in this small, cramped restaurant where the strong aroma of grilled unagi greets customers as they enter. The waitress who serves the customers is a middle-aged grouchy woman who hands tourists a simple menu consisting of only a few items: Choose from four sizes of unagi-don (small to extra large).
The grilled unagi is set atop fragrant short-grain white rice, accompanied by appetisers and a dainty bowl of soup. The fresh unagi is cooked perfectly, the soft, fatty flesh giving off a smoky-sweet flavour.
Address: Irokawa, 2-6-11 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku, Asakusa, Tokyo
Also known as the Japanese-style pancake, okonomiyaki is usually ordered to go with sake or beer on a cold, rainy night. There’s the oft-repeated culinary pearl of wisdom to go where the locals go for the best food, and for okonomiyaki, Buchiumaya is it.
The tiny, restaurant is hidden in a quiet, almost invisible alley in East Shinjuku. The time spent searching for it will be worth it.
Buchiumaya has a distinct character of its own, with vintage posters and signboards adorning the walls of the restaurant, transporting customers back to the 1960s. The okonomiyaki is cooked on a large iron plate by handsome chefs right in front of you, and served straightaway onto your table.
Order the okonomiyaki with cheese, or the okonomiyaki with mochi (or both). Cooked with a generous serving of cabbage, pork belly, beansprouts, soba noodles, sweet sauce and the ingredient of your choice (cheese, mochi, eggs or simply green onions), the piping hot pancake is a taste of paradise. The cheese gives the okonomiyaki a savoury taste, which complements the sweet sauce and the cabbage, while the mochi adds an unusual but likeable sticky, chewy texture to the soft noodles and crispy batter.
Address: Buchiumaya, 7-22-34, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo