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Contrarian Tours of Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Houston, and New York City

By Kate Appleton
updated September 29, 2021
0602_enron
These timely tours ditch the typical spiel and confront issues like lobbyists, levees, and lowlifes head on—often with a dose of tongue-in-cheek humor.

Gross National Product's Scandal Tours
Members of the comedy troupe GNP expose the Capitol's seamier side by regaling tour-goers with cheeky, costumed impersonations and sordid tales of politicians from George Washington to George W. Bush. First on the bus route is the Watergate Hotel, naturally, followed by the Kennedy Center (a easy segue to extramarital affairs and conspiracy theories), the Vista International Hotel where former D.C. mayor Marion Barry was arrested on drug charges, the Willard Hotel where Ulysses S. Grant dubbed those pestering him in the lobby "lobbyists", and more sights that are prime fodder for poking bi-partisan fun. "There's a constant supply of new material," quips GNP member John Simmons. Gross National Product, 202/783-7212, gnpcomedy.com/scandaltours; $30, $20 for students and seniors; reservations required; Saturdays at 1 P.M.

Hurricane Katrina: America's Worst Catastrophe; City Disaster Tour
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, tourism-starved New Orleans has spawned two narrated bus tours of its ravaged neighborhoods and the uncomfortable concept of disaster tourism. The operators, Gray Line New Orleans and Tours by Isabelle, were driven largely by the need to revive their businesses and to inform visitors. The three-hour Gray Line tour passes a breached levee, the Superdome, Canal Street, the New Orleans Convention Center and the Lakeview area, where the company's vice president Greg Hoffman and many others lost homes. Isabelle Cossart's "City Disaster Tour" is slightly longer and more expensive. It begins in the French Quarter, and covers many of the same sights along with the badly hit St. Bernard and New Orleans East districts. Both highlight the area's history and development, and offer personal takes on the hurricane's timeline. (Passsengers are not allowed to exit the Gray Line motorcoach during the tour, and photography is discouraged.) Gray Line New Orleans, 800/535-7786, graylineneworleans.com; $35, children 6-12 years of age, $28; $3 donated to one of five local non-profit organizations; 9 A.M. and 1 P.M. daily. Tours by Isabelle, 877/665-8687, toursbyisabelle.com; $49 per person; 8:30 A.M. and 1 P.M. daily, provided there are at least four passengers

Lifestyles of Houston's Rich and Infamous: The Enron Tour
Yankee Sandra Lord has been leading tours of her adopted Houston since 1988, and the latest riffs on its greatest homegrown scandal: the rise and meteoric fall of Enron. While founder Kenneth Lay and chief executive Jeffrey Skilling pass the time on trial for fraud at a local courthouse, the curious can hop a bus for a five-hour, lighthearted look at offices, churches, restaurants, and jails they and other employees have frequented. Lord weaves together facts, anecdotes, biographical information, and historical precedent—a view of the 1928 Kirby Mansion calls for a quick lesson on Houston's first tycoon, John Henry Kirby, an oil man who went down in a high-profile bankruptcy. Discover Houston Tours, 713/222-9255, discoverhoustontours.com ; $30; public tours in Mar.-Apr. 2006, ongoing private tours available

Surveillance Camera Walking Tours
Each of the Surveillance Camera Players' walks begins with a general introduction on the workings and evolution of surveillance cameras, and then zeroes in to identify numerous often-discreet cameras in a single Manhattan neighborhood—some have close to 400! Far from spouting a left-wing screed, the Players present their findings and encourage healthy debate over the pros and cons of our increasingly public lives. Take a peek at their hand-scrawled online maps of cameras in Times Square and other neighborhoods. Surveillance Camera Players, 212/561-0106, notbored.org; free; Sundays at 2 P.M.

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Inspiration

A Heartfelt Good-bye to a Fellow Traveler

One of the most popular pages of Budget Travel is our masthead. People are always saying how much they enjoy our answers to a particular question. Two years ago, when we revamped our masthead, we figured the questions were a way to add a bit of fun to a page that readers don't generally find interesting. That people like it as much as they do still surprises me, as it's not as if you actually know us, and there's never room to explain our answers. If you'd been paying particularly close attention over the past year and a half, you'd have learned the following about Associate Art Director Michael Liddy:   He was a fan of the burgers at New York City's White Horse Tavern.   He would have liked to be on the set of the movie Chocolat.   One day, he hoped to make it to the Milwaukee Art Museum.   His first time on an airplane was during a trip to Fort Lauderdale.   His drink of choice was Dewar's on the rocks.   If he could tour anybody's house, it would be Frank Gehry's.   The scariest place he'd ever been was Space Mountain, when he first went to Walt Disney World. In December, Michael died in his sleep, at the age of 34. What the masthead never told you was that he was not only a terrific designer--he touched every page of the magazine, solved problems that no one else could, and had an impeccable eye for color--but a very talented illustrator. (We've reproduced one of his paintings on the last page of this issue.) Art wasn't just a job: He also spent much of his free time at galleries and museums. MikeL--as he signed his e-mails--was such a sweet, gentle guy. I don't think I've known anyone so extraordinarily patient. Mike's unfathomable passing has been hard on us, and while I'm wary of speaking for everyone here, I think it has probably reminded many of us never to take anyone for granted. We know to value our families and our friends, but perhaps we're all a little guilty of not being as grateful as we should for the folks with whom we spend most of our waking hours. Because whether or not you enjoy your job probably has more to do with your coworkers than the work itself. The goal of this magazine is to celebrate places, but the most memorable part of travel isn't really the places, is it? It's the people--your traveling companions, and the people you meet along the way. The photographs of those people are the photographs that you end up cherishing. Life is no different. At Budget Travel, we're fortunate to spend our days among wonderful people, and we're unfortunate to have lost one. Here's to you, MikeL. We loved you, and we miss you.

Inspiration

Exploring Virginia's Chesapeake Bay

What you'll find in this article: trip planning advice, restaurant recommendations, hotels, driving directions, and other activities near Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Day 1: Richmond to Reedville My friend Sam and I land in Richmond just after noon and head northeast. The Northern Neck was named after its shape: It's a long, narrow peninsula that looks somewhat like a chicken's wobbly throat. Bordered by the Potomac River to the north, the Rappahannock River to the south, and Chesapeake Bay to the east, the Northern Neck has been well preserved, thanks to dedicated conservation. We cross over the Rappahannock on a simple two-lane bridge, leaving behind strip malls and tract houses for wide expanses of farmland. It feels as though we've traveled much farther than 50 miles from Richmond. Virginia is proud of its history, and vocal about it, too. Markers along the side of Route 3 declare it historyland highway. The Historic Christ Church, a 1735 Georgian church outside of Irvington, has a particularly interesting story. The man responsible for building it, Robert "King" Carter, was a busy guy, as we learn in a museum next door. Carter was a member of the House of Burgesses (Virginia's colonial assembly); acting Governor of Virginia; and ancestor of "three signers of the Declaration of Independence, two presidents, eight Virginia governors, a Supreme Court chief justice, and Robert E. Lee." The list grows every day; in fact, a guestbook asks if visitors are Carter descendants. An increasing number of people from Richmond and D.C. are buying second homes in the Northern Neck. To furnish them, they go to the antiques stores in the town of Kilmarnock. We arrive just before 5 p.m. and race to the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery before it shuts for the day. Gallery is an understatement. The large warehouse has dozens of stalls selling everything from costume jewelry to antique oyster plates. I pick up a set of 1950s anodized aluminum ice-cream cups for my mom. GrandView, our B&B for the night, is about 20 miles up the road. The large house sits on the Great Wicomico River, and water laps against sand in the backyard. Inside, an earnest but precariously cute aesthetic prevails. My bedside lamp is in the shape of a lighthouse, and a plaque on the wall reads a boat is a wood-lined hole in the water in which you pour money. The owners, Chris and Sandye Mills, bought the property in 1984 and spent weekends sleeping in an old Richmond city bus that came with the land. "Eventually we decided it was too cold in the winters and too hot in the summers," says Chris. So they ditched the bus and built a B&B in its place. After checking in, Sam and I play fetch on the beach with the Mills's enthusiastic mutt, Survivor. We go to dinner in Reedville. The town was founded in 1874, and it did well for itself thanks to a small, oily, bony fish called menhaden. (It's used in the manufacturing of everything from animal feed to lipstick to bread.) The catch made sea captains so wealthy that they built Edwardian-style mansions, many of which still line Main Street. At the Crazy Crab on Reedville's marina, I introduce Sam, a Connecticut Yankee, to the Southern goodness of hush puppies (deep-fried balls of seasoned cornmeal) while we sit on the deck and watch the sun set over the water. Our night ends at another marina, Great Wicomico, where we toast locals with $2 Buds at the Boathouse Lounge. Lodging GrandView B&B114 Riverside Ln., Reedville, 804/453-3890, from $80 Food Crazy CrabReedville Marina, Reedville, 804/453-6789, crab cake dinner $16 Boathouse LoungeGreat Wicomico Marina, Burgess, 804/453-3351 Activities Historic Christ Church420 Christ Church Rd., outside Irvington, 804/438-6855 Kilmarnock Antique Gallery144 School St., Kilmarnock, 800/497-0083 Resources Northern Neck Tourism Council800/393-6180, northernneck.org Day 2: Reedville to Kinsale After the B&B's breakfast of homemade coffee cake and scrambled eggs, we drive back into town to go to the Fishermen's Museum. Before this trip I'd never heard of the menhaden, and now I can't stop hearing about the bony little fish. We learn that they're still very much alive and swimming. "This is a success story!" crows the narrator of a video presentation about the menhaden fishing industry. A house at the museum was restored to reflect the daily life of an average 1900s local fisherman. Our docent, Bob Matthews, says he and his wife, Natalie, are originally from the Boston area. "We're come-heres," he says. It's clear from the looks on our faces that Sam and I don't understand, so Bob explains. "There are born-heres, come-heres, brought-heres (such as kids or spouses), and come-back-heres. Reedville, itself, is named after a come-here, Elijah Reed, a sea captain from Maine." After the tour, we don't have much time to linger--we've got a ferry to Tangier Island to catch. Two things make Tangier Island tick: soft-shell crabs and tourists. Three ferry services bring about 20,000 visitors each year to the self-proclaimed soft-shell capital of the world (quite a title for what's all of three square miles). A display between souvenir shops shows live crabs in tubs with placards explaining the industry. Fishermen set traps, keep an eye out for crabs about to molt--the edges of the paddle fins turn dark red--and place them in holding pens until they shed their shells. Once they're soft-shell crabs, they have to be removed immediately or their hard-shelled neighbors will eat them right up. The island has a days-gone-by charm: Clapboard houses with white-picket-fenced yards line the shore. Golf carts are the main vehicles used to get around, though locals drive them like they're sports cars. We hop on a cart waiting by the dock for a tour by Tangier Island native Sylvia Parks of Parks Tours, a guide for 31 years. "There aren't many secrets here," Sylvia says, lead-footing it around the narrow dirt roads. "Everyone knows everyone and everything." Locals don't even pretend they're not watching your every move. Later, as Sam pets a dog, two men on a golf cart pass by and, without stopping, shout, "The dog's name is Milli--as in Milli Vanilli." We have lunch at the Fisherman's Corner restaurant, run by three fishermen's wives. "They can be sure their catch is fresh," says the hostess. "It comes directly from their husbands, after all." I have my first-ever soft-shell crab sandwich. The two deep-fried crabs, wedged between slices of Wonder bread, look and taste as though they crawled straight from the bay into the fryer. Sam and I walk past crab traps on the piers and stop at a bulletin board. A handwritten sign reads $1 for 10 tangier island recipes, and there's a bucket for money tacked to the frame. (Aunt Nellie's Crabmeat Casserole and Mom's Coleslaw both require generous amounts of mayo.) The Reedville ferry, which usually makes only one trip a day to Tangier, departs soon. It's a 90-minute ride to the mainland, and we get back around 7 p.m. Since things close early on the Neck, we have to make good time to get to Kinsale, 45 minutes away, in time for dinner. Transportation Tangier Island FerryBuzzard's Point Marina, Reedville, 804/453-2628, tangiercruise.com, round trip $25 Food Fisherman's Corner4419 Long Bridge Rd., Tangier Island, 757/891-2900, soft-shell crab sandwich $9 Activities Parks ToursTangier Island, 757/891-2261, $5 Reedville Fishermen's Museum504 Main St., Reedville, 804/453-6529, $5 Day 3: Kinsale to Westmoreland Park Sam and I have signed up in advance for the 10 a.m. departure of a kayaking tour on the Potomac, at Westmoreland State Park. Our destination is Horsehead Cliffs, a section of the coast that used to be under a prehistoric sea. The area was popular with sharks, and the predators' fossilized teeth can be found in the sand. When we arrive at Fossil Beach, visitors are sifting the sand through screens and pocketing their discoveries. Park policy, surprisingly, is that you can keep whatever teeth you find--which would've been cool, if we'd found anything. Westmoreland Berry Farm, about 15 minutes away, has a similar keep-what-you-find policy. In addition to u-pick strawberry and blueberry patches, there's a petting zoo and barn with fruit preserves and berries for sale. Instead of picking, Sam and I opt for a tour around the property on the kiddie train, which is pulled by a tractor. Sam tries to bail mid-route, claiming his spine is going to snap from all the bumps, but by the time he's about to jump off the train, the eight-minute ride is already over. A slice of fresh-baked berry pie à la mode helps speed his recovery. On the other side of Westmoreland Park, Stratford Hall Plantation was home to several generations of Lees, the most famous being Robert E. At the visitors center, photographs and excerpts of the family's personal correspondence highlight the accomplishments of a litany of Lees, but the plantation history itself also grabs me. Stratford Hall was built after another house burned down, killing a servant. (The fire is believed to have been set by indentured servants.) We're staying the night on the property: Our simple guesthouse has Northern Neck ginger ale in the vending machine and a back patio overlooking the woods. Before the trip, I'd heard good things about the Driftwood, a restaurant in Coles Point, 25 miles away. I order the fried oysters and a chardonnay from a local vineyard, Ingleside. I'm rewarded on both counts. The wine is sharp and satisfying, and the lightly breaded oysters from the Chesapeake are salty and slick. After coffee, Sam and I retire to the back patio of the Stratford Hall guesthouse to stargaze. Good Eats Café is a gourmet restaurant in a former gas station outside Kinsale, and it's more great than good. Star lanterns hang in the windows, and bright ceramic suns are mounted on the yellow walls. Most of the decorations are souvenirs from regulars' travels. I understand why the place inspires such affection when I taste my dinner: pan-seared scallops and potatoes baked with rosemary and Parmesan. Sam has pork loin in Thai basil sauce with broccoli, pecans, and cranberries. We're so full that dessert is doomed. Lodging Stratford Hall Plantation483 Great House Rd., Stratford, 804/493-8038, stratfordhall.org, from $115, house tour $10 Food Driftwood StateRte. 612, Coles Point, 804/472-3892, oysters $19 Good Eats Cafe , 12720 Cople Hwy, 804/472-4385, goodeatscafe.net Activities Westmoreland State Park1650 State Park Rd., near Montross, 804/493-8821, car fee $4, two-hour tandem kayak tour $22 Westmoreland Berry Farm1235 Berry Farm Lane, Oak Grove, 804/224-9171, pie à la mode $2.50, train $1 Day 4: Westmoreland Park to Richmond We're the only ones at breakfast in the plantation's dining hall. It looks like a mess hall from summer camp, but the buttery biscuits, moist corn bread, and strawberry preserves, all made on the premises, are anything but camp quality. Maybe 11 a.m. is a little early for a wine tasting, but when we pass a turnoff for Ingleside Vineyards, in Oak Grove, I remember last night's chardonnay and decide to go for it. During a tasting of eight varietals, our guide explains that Virginia's conditions are ideal for grape cultivation. The Petit Verdot grapes thrive more on the Northern Neck than in either California or France. Even the vineyards in Virginia can claim historical significance. During the Civil War, Union soldiers used Ingleside's property as a fort. At the winery museum, displays show how the local roadways follow routes of old Native American trails. My wine buzz wears off around the same time I read about how Pocahontas was supposedly kidnapped from this very area. On our way to Richmond, we stop at Goolrick's Pharmacy in Fredericksburg. The decor hasn't changed much since the '40s. Aluminum stools are lined up along a Formica counter, and vintage Coca-Cola signs hang on the walls. The menu hasn't changed either: The soda fountain has always served rich milk shakes in only one size (large). Sam orders a large coffee shake. I ask for a small nonfat vanilla. Sam sighs, and the waitress looks at me blankly. I quickly amend my order to a large chocolate. In these parts, tradition is to be respected. Food Goolrick's Pharmacy901 Caroline St., Fredericksburg, 540/373-9878, milk shake $3.50 Activities Ingleside Vineyards5872 Leedstown Rd., Oak Grove, 804/224-8687, wine tasting $2.50 Finding your way The Northern Neck is a seasonal destination: Many restaurants and services have reduced hours or close completely October through April, so call ahead before visiting. The ferry from Reedville to Tangier Island begins its summer service May 15. As for the driving, the main roads around the Northern Neck are Routes 3, 200, and 360. The best scenery, however, is on the side roads, such as Routes 649, 644, and 657--all in the tip of the Neck around Reedville. You can pick up free detailed maps of the area at the Crazy Crab in Reedville and many other local businesses.

Inspiration

True Bollywood Story

I'm sitting in a swank New York City nightclub sipping champagne with one of the biggest film stars in India. Except the champagne is actually sparkling apple juice, the club is a Mumbai set, and the superstar has no idea I'm here. I'm one of 50 or so foreigners who've been hired to be extras on a Bollywood movie. Bollywood--a hybrid name combining Hollywood and Bombay, as Mumbai used to be known--is the epicenter of India's film industry, and visitors can play a small role in making movie magic. "When a script calls for a scene to take place in a foreign country, we find Westerners to appear as extras for authenticity," explains Khan Shaban, the extras coordinator for Casting Planet, a three-year-old agency hired by several Bollywood production companies. Shaban suggests that aspiring extras should get in touch with him as early as possible; I e-mailed Casting Planet six weeks in advance with my available dates (011-91/98-20-86-42-96, polo_k83@yahoo.com). He also says that he and his colleagues pick up tourists last-minute near the Gateway of India in Mumbai's main tourist area of Colaba if assignments arise on short notice, which is often. However they manage to land a part, extras are paid $11 a day. I only learn what my movie's about when I get to the Filmistan Studios at 9:30 a.m. My role is to play a disco dancer attending a bachelor party in a romantic comedy called Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (or Never Say Goodbye), due to be released this summer and costarring the Indian host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Once in costume--hot pink shirt, black velvet jacket, jeans--I'm escorted to the set, which has red and yellow neon lights on the floor, chaise lounges, and a long wooden bar. The assistant director spreads us all out evenly, cautions us against stealing the focus away from the real actors, and then offers this instruction: "Pretend you're at the best party ever!" Each time the director yells "action," we all dance like crazy while the sound engineer records dialogue--the music is added later during the editing process. It looks fairly ridiculous pretending to bust a move in complete silence, not to mention the fact that old-school steps like the Robot seriously fall flat when I'm not able to add on my own whirring noise. After three hours of listening to the actors repeat the same lines (in a combination of English and Hindi), we're all a little punchy. In the balcony, a cluster of Canadians has perfected the Electric Slide when the director finally calls for the lunch break at 1:45 p.m. "It's loads more interesting than going to see another museum," says Swedish visitor Petra Borg, 22, while at the lunch buffet. By the time 9 p.m. arrives, we've completed only four scenes, but it's a wrap for the day--and for most of us, an end to our entire Bollywood careers. I ask Ben Emslie, vacationing from London, if he'd sign on to be an extra again next time he visits. "It was a unique experience, and I'm glad I did it," he says. "But if I want to become a movie star, there's got to be a faster way."

Inspiration

The Hungry Man's Tokyo

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. For every subcategory of cuisine, a subculture of obsession accompanies the food. Consider something as seemingly simple as a bowl of ramen. Countless noodle shops around the city serve more than 40 regional varieties of ramen. And for the armchair ramen aficionado, there are competing ramen-rating guidebooks, ramen awards, ramen TV shows, and a heated ramen debate that seems to boil like a broth just under the surface of polite society. (Worldramen.net is a good place to follow the debate in English.) I never understood all the fuss until I went to Kyushu Jangara Ramen. After one slurp of the rich tonkotsu (pork bone-based) soup, I realized I had largely squandered my noodle-eating life. A little quality time at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum helped me atone for years of ramen ignorance. The ground floor is home to a gift shop, displays on the history of ramen, and, this being Japan, photo booths where you can get stickers printed up with an image of your face poised to eat a bowl of your favorite style of ramen. I now have stickers of myself with the Kyushu style, which has a rich broth and braised pork belly, and also often includes chopped scallions. Whenever the weather is below 100 degrees, some small part of my brain is always thinking about this soup. Downstairs at the Ramen Museum is where the real action takes place. Two basement floors have been transformed into a virtual 1958 streetscape (a significant year, if only because that's when "instant noodles" hit the shelves). The neon-lit scene--with bars, street vendors, and lots of steamy ramen stalls--feels like a movie set. No matter how surreal the spectacle, however, nothing can top the truth: It's a museum dedicated to noodles. In between working my way through the Japanese culinary classics, I enjoyed paying my respects to some of the less heralded oddball variants. Monja-yaki is a kind of food found in Tokyo that probably won't be the next hot trend anywhere else. For one thing, it's difficult to define. Imagine a liquid that becomes a solid that will probably end up in a gaseous state sometime later in the evening. (A Japanese friend described it as "like a sauce that's the meal.") Monja-yaki is as much an activity as it is a dish: The tables in a monja-yaki restaurant all have a hot griddle onto which a mishmash of batter, cabbage, and other implausible toppings are spread out and cooked until the concoction reaches a consistency somewhere between a pancake and fried cheese. There are hundreds of toppings to mix and match--squid, spicy cod roe, various meats, a blob of food called "pizza" that was hard to place. Diners at the table cook their own bits and serve themselves using tiny metal spatulas. You'd think maybe one or two monja-yaki joints would be enough for any city, even one as big as Tokyo. But a few blocks from the Tsukishima subway stop is a long, narrow avenue called Tsukishima-Nishinakadori, surrounded by the impossible-to-forget sight of 70 nearly identical little restaurants that all serve this strange, fun, collective treat. And then there's chanko, the food of sumo wrestlers. Sumo wrestlers feed themselves heartily, and after their championship days are over, some of them open restaurants with enormous, anything-goes hot pots engineered to bulk us all up to fighting weight. At Chanko Dining Waka, run by the retired sumo wrestling star Wakanohana, a diminutive non-wrestler tended to a pot of boiling vegetable broth in the center of our table. He used wooden tongs to shape chicken meatballs that he plopped into the bowl, and he returned every few minutes to add more protein and vegetables to the broth. It's unpretentious late-night food, perfect for those moments when the exquisite subtlety of sashimi is not at all what's called for. I have eaten some strange things in this town. Chicken sashimi. Raw horse. Whale steak. Even cod sperm-sac sushi. (1. Puddinglike. 2. Never again.) Come to think of it, I've also ordered in some strange ways. Te (pronounced tea) is a cool little lunch counter in Roppongi Hills where you order and pay via a retro-futuristic vending machine in the front of the store. Then you go inside and wait for your meal. A filling plate of spaghetti with mentiako (spicy cod roe) is about $7. But for all the wild fun they have with their food, the Japanese are exceptionally serious about quality and freshness. The obvious place to see this devotion on display is Tsukiji, the biggest fish market in the world. Hauling giant, blood-red tuna carcasses, carts whiz down aisles lined with what appear to be every last one of the world's exotic sea creatures, laid out on ice. Beyond a small section of plastic cutlery stalls near the Kaikou-bashi entrance (in the general direction of Ginza), two long lines snake outside two sushi restaurants located three doors apart. One is Sushi Dai (with a green shade in the window), the other is Sushi Daiwa. Both of the restaurants are very small and very good. I prefer Sushi Dai--for the extraordinary taste of the fish and the rice, the tight quarters of the twelve-seat bar, the steaming bowl of fishy miso soup, the little balls of pink salt lining the counter, and the fact that, a full year later, the chef remembered that I'd been in once before. I'm not really sure how to describe the fish except to say that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the best sushi I've ever eaten. And at about $30 for a substantial omakase (chef's choice) meal, it's a terrific deal in a town where high rollers can drop as much as $800 per person at one of the more famous sushi bars. One evening I went with friends to the Kappa-bashi district, where restaurants (and amused gaijin, as foreigners are called) come to buy those perfect plastic food specimens. As tempting as it is to pick up a suitcase worth of the stuff, any decorator will warn you that it's not easy to find a fitting place to display a plate of fake pork ribs. We had dinner plans at a place across town and intended only to take a short walk. But before we knew it we found ourselves around the corner, ordering a snack inside a boisterous robata-yaki called Tanuki. Robata-yaki are simple bar-restaurants where all the raw ingredients are on display. You point at whatever you want to eat--such as stingray fin, octopus, soft green tofu, even ginkgo nuts--and then take a seat at a big, long bar that faces a grill. Once the food is cooked, waiters pass it over the grill to the customers by using wooden oars. The oars also deliver mugs of beer, and before we knew what happened, we'd forgotten about our other plans for the night. Only a few blocks from the fake-food district, we'd stumbled yet again onto something delicious. For me, the night captured the very essence of Tokyo: It's at once masterfully artificial and beautifully real. Food   Matsuya Ginza 3-6-1, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3567-1211   Kyushu Jangara Ramen Jingu-mae 1-13-21, Shibuya-ku, 011-81/3-3404-5572, tonkotsu ramen $5.50   Hirata Bokujyou Coredo Building 4F, Nihonbashi 1-4-1, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-6214-3129, pork cutlet $15   Nodaiwa Higashi-Azabu 1-5-4, Minato-ku, 011-81/3-3583-7852, boxed eel lunch $22   Chanko Dining Waka Roppongi 4-1-9, Minato-ku, 011-81/3-3568-4507, bowl of chanko $22   Tanuki Nishi-Asakusa 1-8-9, Taito-ku, 011-81/3-3845-1785, dinner $26   Sushi Dai Tsukiji 5-2-1, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3547-6797, omakase lunch $31   Oshio Tsukishima 3-17-10, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3531-7423, monja-yaki dinner $16   Te Metro Hat B2F in Roppongi Hills, Roppongi 6-4-1, Minato-ku, 011-81/3-5413-9591, spaghetti with cod roe $7 Activities   Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum Shin-Yokohama 2-14-21, Kohoku-ku, 011-81/45-471-0503, $2.50