Thursday, July 28, 2016

Japan: Rokurinsha

You can't go to the land of ramen and not have tsukemen.  And what better place to have it than Rokurinsha on Ramen Street in First Avenue Tokyo Station?

We arrived at Rokurinsha a bit before 10am, just as breakfast service was winding down.  The restaurant didn't open again for lunch until 11am, so CK and I wandered around First Avenue Tokyo Station, buying snacks in Okashi (confectionary/sweets) Land and browsing through the beyond adorable shops on Character Street.

The shops on Character Street didn't open until 10am and surprisingly, there were quite a few people standing around waiting for the storefronts to raise their metal gates:

We didn't waste too much time shopping though as we knew we had to get back to Rokurinsha well before 11am to do some waiting of our own: 

The restaurant wasn't all that big, so we were lucky to squeeze in with the first batch of people once it opened:

Before we could be directed to a seat, we had conquer the vending machine right at the entrance.  It was a little daunting since it was our first time and there was a whole line of people waiting right behind us, but we managed to figure it out somehow.  We made our selection, inserted our money, and then the machine spit out two tickets for us to hand to the staff once we were seated:

Rokurinsha only offers tsukemen (dipping noodles), so the only choices you have to make are what additional toppings you want to put in it.

We went all out and got the tokusei (special recommendation) tsukemen, which cost 1060 yen ($10.60):

What set it apart from the regular tsukemen was the addition of shredded pork and an egg.

And what a beautiful egg it was:

We didn't feel right waltzing into Rokurinsha and sharing a bowl of noodles, so we also ordered a basic tsukemen (830 yen or $8.30):

The best part of the tsukemen was by far the noodles.  They're a bit thicker than you would expect and have the most perfect texture.  For tsukemen noobs, the way to eat it is simple.  Just take some noodles, dip it into the thick, hot broth, and then slurp away.

When we finished our noodles, we were asked whether we would like to add some soup into our remaining broth.  One of the soup options had yuzu in it, which was super interesting to me, but we politely declined as it was already a struggle to finish the noodles.  We had no stomach space left for anything more.

I regret it though.  I really wish I had said screw it to my painfully stuffed stomach and asked for the yuzu soup.  I definitely need to go back one day to make it right.

All of you out there!  Don't make the same mistake I did.  Get the soup.  Channel your inner Shaun T, dig deeper, and eat through the pain.  And if you think eating in Japan is always expensive, think again.  A meal at Rokurinsha is very affordable and the portion sizes are quite large. 

Oh, and the noodles?  Perfection.  You'll leave satisfied. 

+81 3 3286 0166

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Japan: Tsukiji Fish Market

The one thing we knew we absolutely had to do in Tokyo was visit the Tsukiji Fish Market.  We committed ourselves to waking up before the sun to make it happen.  We were definitely interested in seeing the tuna auction, but once we found out that waiting around for it would mean getting in line late at Sushi Dai (resulting in possibly a seven hour wait), we knew that sacrifices had to be made for the sake of the ultimate sushi breakfast.

We left our apartment a bit later than we originally wanted, at 4:30am instead of 3:30.  (Okay, quite a bit later.)  It was too early to take the subway, so we walked around until we found a major intersection where we could flag down a taxi.  Our taxi driver must have had dreams of being Speed Racer because that was one of the craziest taxi rides I've ever been on.  Red light?  Oh, well.  Speed limit?  What speed limit?

3250 yen ($32.50) and a flashing of my life before my eyes later, we arrived at Tsukiji Fish Market around 5:00am:

Which, as expected, was waaaaaaaaay too late for Sushi Dai.  The wait was already around the corner and estimated to be over three hours:

Maybe if we'd been younger, we would have waited.  But with age comes less patience for such shenanigans.  After weighing the costs and benefits of waiting, we came to the conclusion that it just wasn't worth it.  So we switched over to Daiwa Sushi, which had a much more reasonable wait of 45 minutes:

At least it was 45 minutes when we first got in line.  It was much longer by the time we left. 

There are two rooms in Daiwa, each with its own sushi counter and sushi chefs:

You can order sushi a la carte, but most people just go with the omakase set menu (3780 yen or around $37.80 per person).  The menu changes depending on what is freshest that day. 

Our sushi chef was a young man who spoke enough English to crack some jokes with us.  He placed each sushi in front of us with the most loving care.

We started out with toro or fatty tuna:

While we were swooning over the utter loveliness of the toro, we were brought bowls of miso soup:

Then came the shrimp and the squid:

And a quick break from raw seafood for a grilled shrimp head:

Then a couple of rolls:

Before we were graced with tamago (egg) and uni (sea urchin):

Seriously, uni just tastes different in Japan.  I can't describe it beyond saying that it has none of the salty fishiness that we find in uni in the States.

Next came I believe sea bream and another fatty tuna:

And finally, anago (saltwater eel):

Since I didn't have a chance to actually try Sushi Dai, I can't tell you whether Daiwa is as good or better.  However, I can say that it's pretty damn amazing in its own right and the wait is much, much, much more reasonable.  (Ain't nobody got time to get in line two hours before a restaurant opens at 5:00am.  Hell naw.)  I would not hesitate to go back to Daiwa again.

After Daiwa, we decided to look around the rest of the market.  The actual fish and seafood section of the market wasn't open to the public yet (it opens at 9:00am), but we were able to look around the outdoor part:

We did still see some pretty impressive seafood there:

We almost walked past this little stall:

But then we saw this out of the corner of our eye:

And then there was no budging us until we got ourselves an uni bun (860 yen or $8.60):

Bun blackened by bamboo charcoal with sea urchin cream in the center, topped with fresh uni:

What is this madness?!

Since we tried the Kansai-style dashimaki tamago, we also wanted to try the Tokyo counterpart.  Which is what led us to Yama Chou:

At Yama Chou, you can get tamagoyaki on a stick for 100 yen or $1:

Unlike the more savory dashimaki tamago from the Kansai region, the tamagoyaki is on the sweeter side, though just as soft and fluffy. 

Before we left Tsukiji Fish Market, CK bought herself a set of bowls and a legit Japanese all-purpose knife.  I saw a lot of other little restaurants that I would've loved to try, but my body betrayed me.  We'd hoped that walking around would help us digest enough to eat more, but alas, our stomachs didn't cooperate. 

Sigh.  Next time.

Tsukiji Fish Market is a definite must stop if you're going to be in Tokyo.  And relax, you'll have a great experience even if you don't make it there in time for the tuna auction or for Sushi Dai. 

Just make sure to bring cash.  Lots of it.  And make sure to check the calendar on the Tsukiji Fish Market website to see which days it is open (it's closed Sundays, holidays, and some Wednesdays).  I can't imagine anything worse than trekking all the way out to the market only to find it closed.

+81 3-3542-1111

Friday, July 22, 2016

Japan: Nihon Saisei Sakaba

CK and I were excited about eating yakitori at a gritty bar in Piss Alley aka Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho in Japanese).  But when we got there...we wimped out.

As we walked through the narrow street and peered into each salaryman-filled bar/restaurant, we trembled at the prospect of struggling through Japanese menus, bumbling through ordering in Japanese, and inconveniencing both the staff and other patrons.  The only place that looked like it had an English menu (and actually had a non-Japanese person dining inside), looked on the touristy side and was more restaurant than bar, which wasn't what we were looking for.

In the end, we slipped out of Omoide Yokocho with our tails between our legs and came up with Plan B, Nihon Saisei Sakaba:

Nihon Saisei Sakaba is a tachinomi or standing room only bar.  By the time we finally found the place, it was packed full with people.  We somehow managed to snag a spot for two at a counter on the side of the bar where we could see the grill where all the action was at without being overwhelmed with smoke in our faces:

CK and I don't really drink (like at all), so we ordered a coke and a yuzu drink (300 yen or $3 each):

We weren't there for the alcohol.  Nope.  Instead, we were there for the offal, which Nihon Saisei Sakaba is known for.  You can get anything from diaphragm to tracheal valve, from birth canal to testicle.  The Japanese menu was beyond intimidating, but luckily there was an English version.

When we tried to order, we found out that quite a few things we were curious to try, such as spinal cord and womb, had run out.  DEVASTATION.

We quickly rallied and picked substitutes.  We ended up getting "higher quality" tongue or jo tan and neck meat or P toro (both 300 yen or $3 per skewer):

We also got dekitate (loin) bacon, also 300 yen per skewer:

And marucho or beef small intestine (300 yen per skewer):

And finally, rectum or teppo (150 or $1.50 per skewer):

Of all the skewers, my favorite was the neck meat, which was basically fat.  Yum.  The tongue and intestine were also freakin' amazing.  Rectum just tasted crackly, while the bacon was my least favorite.  Just too...meaty?  As you can probably tell by now, I will choose fat over muscle any day, every day.  The mustard dipping sauce that came with the skewers helped cut through the oiliness.  Kind of.

Nihon Saisei Sakaba seems like a fun place to hang out.  At least everyone else standing directly by the grill seemed like they were having a grand, raucous time.  CK and I, on the other hand, found ourselves awkwardly cornered by an tipsy older Japanese gentleman with sparkly nail polish who insisted on talking to us in stilted English about American politics and the downfall of Japanese society.  It wasn't pleasant to say the least. 

The food was good though. 

If I ever have the chance to go back to Nihon Saisei Sakaba, I would ask for the osusume or restaurant recommendations instead of trying to figure it out on my own.  It's much less stress, deliciousness is just about guaranteed, and you can try things that you might not otherwise have ordered because you didn't understand the (lack of ) menu descriptions.  For those of you concerned about the final bill, trust me, ordering on your own isn't much cheaper.  All those skewers add up.

My ultimate goal is to work my way up to standing right at the grill.  And maybe one day, I'll actually be able to walk confidently into a bar filled with salarymen in Piss Alley.

One can dream, right?

東京都新宿区新宿3-7-3 丸中ビル1F

Monday, July 18, 2016

Japan: Angels Heart

After lunch, CK and I wandered around Yoyogi Park, the Meiji Shrine, and the Harajuku area until we'd digested enough to get in line at Angels Heart for a crepe:

There are actually two creperies located directly across from one another: Angels Heart and Marion Crepes.  We simply picked the one with more people in line.

The menu at Angels Heart is rather overwhelming.  There's a ton to choose from.  At least there aren't any cutesy names for the different crepes.  You know exactly what you're going to get when you order. 

We thought we would get more time to make up our mind given the long line, but it went much faster than we expected.  Getting close to the front of the line, we gave up on looking through the entire menu and just randomly went with the hot custard banana chocolate crepe (400 yen or $4) and the strawberry and cookies & cream cheesecake crepe (590 yen or $5.90), which literally had a slice of Oreo cheesecake in it:

I'm not a huge whipped cream fan, so I preferred the hot custard banana chocolate crepe. 

The crepes were good, but were we blown away?  Not really.  Pretty for pictures and nice to nibble on, but not something we would crave on any given day.

I would still recommend people to get one if they're looking for the full Harajuku experience though.  Just make sure to find a nice corner to enjoy your crepe in.  Eating while walking is apparently a big no-no in Japan.


Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Japan: Tonkatsu Maisen

CK and I arrived in Tokyo just in time for lunch.  We managed to get to our Airbnb apartment relatively easily, but when it came time to navigate our way to Tonkatsu Maisen for lunch, the struggle was real. 

We'd picked Maisen because it is said to have the best tonkatsu in Tokyo and there is a branch in Shibuya, which is where our apartment was.  Even better, the Maisen is located inside a department store connected to the Shibuya station.  It should have been a cinch to find.  Our apartment was at one end of the station, the department store at the other.  How hard could it be?

Extremely hard, apparently. 

First lesson in Tokyo: them train stations ain't no joke.  We fooled ourselves into thinking that if we could handle public transportation in Kyoto and Osaka, we could do the same in Tokyo.  WRONG.

Just trying to get from one side of Shibuya station to the other took lots of backtracking and lots of luck.  The exit for our apartment wasn't connected to other exits, meaning we would have to tag into the station to reach other exits.  Trying to walk around the station was made complicated by the construction that seemed to be everywhere. 

Through trial and error, we eventually found our way (almost entirely by accident) to the correct exit that led to the department store we were looking for.  By the time we got upstairs to Maisen, we were more than freakin' ready for some tonkatsu:

The menu came in Chinese, Korean, Thai, and English.  We ordered the Kurobuta loin cutlet rice bowl set (1600 yen or $16):

The fried pork cutlet was simmered in egg and soy sauce and rested on a bed of rice.  The set included miso soup, silken tofu, and some pickled veggies.

We also ordered the Kurobuta fillet pork cutlet set (3100 yen or $31):

It came with a mountain of shredded cabbage, a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and some pickled veggies.

Expensive, right?  31 bucks for a tonkatsu set?  We certainly thought so.  We couldn't understand what all the fuss was about until we bit into the cutlet:

Cue hallelujah chorus.  I've never had pork melt in my mouth like that.  That breading!  Almost airy in its crispness.  That pork!  So tender and juicy.

Both sets also came with a scoop of super refreshing yuzu ice cream:

Back in Taiwan, when my uncle brought me family to a tonkatsu restaurant, my father fell in love with their sauce bottles.  When he saw that they were made in Japan, he (not so) jokingly told me to look for the bottles on my trip and to bring him back a dozen.  I had no intention of actually doing so, until I sat down at Maisen and found THE EXACT SAME BOTTLE (just a size smaller) on the table.

I asked our server where I could buy the bottle.  Or I tried to.  Confusion ensued.  The server tried to explain to me that the sauce wasn't for sale.  Then I told him, "No, no, no!  The bottle!" while tapping on the container.  The incredulous look on his face when he realized what I was asking?  Priceless.

He laughed.  We laughed.  And I expected that to be it.  Instead, he went above and beyond my wildest expectations.  That sweet, sweet man went over to talk to his coworker.  A few minutes later, his coworker picked up the phone and started reading off the bottle in his hand. 

CK and I watched in shock as our server came back to our table with the brand and make of the bottle as well as the name of the store where we might be able to find it written on a coaster: 

Whaaaaaaa?!  Nobody does service like the Japanese.

Would I pay $31 for tonkatsu again?  Probably not.  My palate isn't sophisticated enough to appreciate the quality of the pork or whatever.  What I can appreciate, however, is the service.  My experience at Maisen is definitely one for the books.

In case you're curious, CK and I did end up checking out not just one, but two Tokyu Hands stores.  Tokyu Hands is like Daiso, but with more expensive and higher quality products.  It's like a freakin' wonderland in there.  You can find everything from kitchen products to office supplies, from stationery to camping gear. 

Everything except for the bottle I was looking for.  I found bottles from the same brand, but not the exact model.  I ended up buying one from a different brand with a different top.

I actually felt bad for my dad until I returned home to discover that you can order the damn bottle ON AMAZON.


東京都渋谷区渋谷2-24-1  東急百貨店東横店西館9F

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Japan: Kyoto Sizuya

While I was figuring out the Shinkansen tickets to get from Kyoto to Tokyo, CK tackled the equally important task of procuring caffeine and breakfast at the bakery across from the ticket counter, Kyoto Sizuya:

We were lucky enough not only to score adjacent seats on the very next train, but also to manage to find our way through the maze that is Kyoto station, get to the correct platform, AND stand in the appropriate spot (there are different lines for different trains on the same platform) just in time to get on our train.

Once on the train, we rewarded ourselves with bread.  All the descriptions in the bakery were in Japanese and I was gesturing at her to hurry up from outside, so CK panicked a little and randomly grabbed a couple of things without knowing what she was getting.  Either Sizuya has got their baked goods down solid or CK has great instinct for what's delicious (or both) because everything CK bought was damn good.

We had some kind of soft, chocolate and raisin masterpiece: 

A fried curry bun:

With magical beef curry filling:

And a smooth melon pan:

That actually tasted like honeydew and had some kind of custard filling:

Ah, as always, Asian bakeries are the best.  Everything was just soft, soft, soft.

The almost three hour train ride was over in a flash and before we knew it, we were in Tokyo and on the last leg of our trip.

下京区東塩小路町8-3 JR京都駅 アスティロード内
+81 75-692-2452

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Japan: McDonald's

All of my friends know (or at least they should know) that I love to check out the local McDonald's whenever I travel abroad.  Scoff all you want, but I've always been tickled by the interesting things I find there.

Our last night in Kyoto, CK and I were lazy and didn't want to think too hard about where to eat dinner.  It was a no brainer to slip into the McDonald's right by our Airbnb:

We'd both heard about the ebi (shrimp) burger and were curious to try it.  We ordered the ebi burger as a combo meal for 670 yen or $6.70:

The fried shrimp patty was filled with chunks of real shrimp:

We were both pretty impressed by it.

While we were in Japan, the McDonald's there was actively promoting their new "giga big mac", which was supposed to have 2.8 times the meat of a regular big mac.  CK and I are both big fans of the big mac.  Back when we were in law school, there was a week where we got big macs (two for $5!) five times in four days.  Yea, we have a problem.

We tried to order the giga big mac, but thanks to the language barrier, we somehow ended up with just the grand one (520 yen or $5.20):

I guess the grand big mac is just a slightly...bigger big mac.  Delicious, but it's no giga.

We were very curious about the Hokkaido milk pie (120 yen or $1.20):

Not overly sweet, the Hokkaido milk pie was quite good.  The super flaky crust hid a creamy, milky filling:

Definitely one of the top McDonald's pies I've had around the world.

I didn't look to see if the McDonald's in Japan had their equivalent of the dollar menu, but I can tell you that the pricing of the regular menu is pretty comparable to that in the States (even though the sizes of the "regular" fries and drinks are smaller).  Though I suppose considering the types of restaurants we were hitting up in Japan, that was one of the cheapest meals we had that trip.

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