The Hungry Man's Tokyo
There's so much more to Japanese food than sushi, but you have to be willing to stick crazy-looking things in your mouth. Fortunately for us, that describes Adam Sachs to a T.
What you'll find in this story: affordable Tokyo restaurants, Tokyo cafés, descriptions of Tokyo cuisine, Tokyo neighborhoods
The cake had a strange but familiar taste to it. Ah, yes: plastic. Somewhere in an upscale subterranean food hall, I'd mistaken an all-too-realistic display for a sample and eagerly popped it into my mouth. Hastily unpopping the ersatz green-tea treat, I returned the plastic lump to the counter and smiled like a fool at the nice lady behind it. She smiled back forgivingly. She understood. This, after all, was Tokyo, where dining is always an adventure. You might not know what you're putting in your mouth, but you can't be blamed for trying it.
Eating habits tell you a lot about a place. In Japan, the clear message is: Plastics aside, no culinary obsession shall go unindulged. Most restaurants serve essentially one kind of food. Looking for a place that specializes in a particular regional variety of ramen? Name your noodle. Want a restaurant where everything on the menu is octopus? In Tokyo, you are not alone.
From the vending machines on every corner to the reverent care shown in traditional formal meals to the perfect $200 melon, it's obvious that this is a country that takes eating very, very seriously. No wonder I never learned the Japanese word for museum.
London has Harrods and Milan has Peck, but in Tokyo there are literally dozens of bright and bustling depachikas, high-end food halls packed into the basements of the city's many department stores. I've been to Tokyo a few times, and I invariably begin and end my visit at the depachikas--first to fall back into the rhythm of just wandering wide-eyed and agog (a good approach to this most overwhelming of mega-cities), and then, at the end of my trip, in a frenzy to buy all the stuff I can't get at home. The culinary bazaars sell an astounding array of things to eat, drink, and gawk at, both of local provenance and airlifted from around the world. (Harrods and Peck, in fact, are each represented by stalls within Tokyo depachikas.)
At the Matsuya depachika in ritzy Ginza, I graduated from plastic lumps to real raw tuna, crisp seaweed crackers flavored with eel or sour plum, and rosé champagne in miniature plastic cups. I had a tasting tour through the endlessly adaptable world of dango, deliciously gooey rice balls skewered and then dressed up in sweet edamame paste, dusted with soybean powder, or smothered in soy sauce and mint and other unlikely things. I ate kanten, a seaweed Jell-O with a split personality. In one role, cut into cubes drizzled with black-sugar syrup and adzuki bean paste, it played dessert. In another, it was a salty snack, sliced thinly to resemble noodles and served with soy sauce, vinegar, ginger, and tangy karashi mustard. These were just the free samples being handed out, and it wasn't even lunchtime yet.
The depachikas are as dizzying and fun to explore as the city itself. I passed museum cases of traditional Japanese confections next to precise replicas of Parisian patisseries, Viennese bakeries, and Italian gelaterias. There were fishmongers; dumpling makers; acres of orderly bento-box lunches, with sushi and tempura; and stalls serving indoor versions of street food like tako-yaki, the addictive, eggy little balls with pieces of octopus inside. Contentedly lost in this well-curated playground of global food obsessions, I thought, not for the first time, that Tokyo is the most exciting place to eat on the planet.
I have always liked fried pork cutlets, but it was only after coming to Tokyo that I realized you could make a full-time fetish of them. Restaurants devoted to tonkatsu--a crispy piece of pork encrusted in bread crumbs--tend to offer two cuts, the leaner hire and the fattier rossu. To say that the rossu is juicier than your average pork cutlet is like saying an orange is juicier than your average baseball.
You could probably spend your entire life trying to determine the best tonkatsu restaurant in Tokyo without ever exhausting your options--though it would be a shorter-than-usual life. The black pork at Hirata Bokujyou comes from the restaurant's own pig farm and is worth however many years it shaves off.
Charcoal-broiled eel is another one-note specialty with its own legions of followers and dedicated restaurants. There are cheap, satisfying unagi places all over town (many are identified easily by plastic eel displays in the window). For a more refined treatment, I poked around the maze of streets near Tokyo Tower until I found Nodaiwa, a 200-year-old restaurant in an old wooden house. The eel is caught wild and has a truly delicate, sweet, and smoky flavor. Everyone in the dining room was eating the exact same boxed lunch. The communal feeling reminded me of being in a jazz club, with a group of people quietly and reverentially enjoying the same music.