Tokyo, Japan. Two of my favorite words. Wait, no, there’s food too. So there’s three of my favorite words.
Yes, there’s sushi but Japanese cuisine is so much more – the array of cuisine available to you on your next Tokyo trip is astounding.
And yes, Tokyo is an ‘expensive’ city – but it can be done on the cheap as well, and be done deliciously. I’ve spent $3 on the best unagi (fresh water eel) I’ve ever had, and $300 on a 3 star Michelin rated place which turned out to be probably the best meal of my life. It’s all there for you, it’s just a matter of seeking it out.
So here are some of our recommendations on the must do’s – famous or otherwise, and some other ‘hole in the wall’ hidden gems that are well worth the visit in what is one of our favorite culinary destinations in the world.
Let’s grab some grub in Tokyo, shall we?
Are you a normal person and like fried stuff? Because the Japanese do it very well, and this place does it amazingly well. This restaurant basically only serves Tonkatsu – fried cutlets. They serve it in a variety of styles, cuts and types – there’s Spanish Iberico pork, or cuts of meat from the north of Japan in Hokkaido, or yet other cuts from other countries in Asia such as Taiwan, Singapore or Thailand. In fact, you can choose from over 20 different types – always a great thing for folks who prefer the more savory fatty cuts or the healthier less oily lean cuts.
What struck me most was just how well the pork was breaded and perfectly fried – the accompanying sauces were all on point as well and suits both people who prefer the spicy or the more tame.
Keep in mind, this place is difficult to find, it’s basically in a house – and does not have a website nor do the staff have a good grasp in English (so calling is kind of moot) – it’s part of the charm, but it might prove to be a bit of a challenge to get there. But trust us, it’s well worth the effort.
Champion Yakiniku (Ebisu)
Yakiniku means charcoal grilled stuff (goes great with some Japanese beer) – and this place offers really good cuts of beef, pork and chicken to grill in front of you and serve up for yourselves. And when it comes to the beef (especially) they offer up the best. Simply the best. We’re talking about A5 Wagyu from the south of Japan.
It’s also a place where you can get some rarer cuts of beef. You MUST get the Zabuton and Tongue/Tan-Shi
I think my favorite roast/grill was the gyu-tan – the tounge. It was moist, perfectly sliced and marinated. We played around with it a bit too – we grilled up some to be crispy, whilst other times we ate it rare. It’s fun to be able to mess around like that.
Champion is an umami bomb but it’s an amazing umami bomb. It’s next to the Ebisu subway station so it’s also convenient to get to. The restaurant is not a big place so reservations are highly recommended.
Fukamachi Tempura (Kyobashi)
Hands down, best tempura in Tokyo. Prawn and other seafood tempura will be served plentifully, along with other great seasonal vegetables. What’s great about the tempura is that while it’s deep fried, it’s not too oily. This is a real hidden gem that while not the cheapest ($60 for lunch) it’s well worth a trip out to visit.
They also have an amazing fried uni tempura that’s both rich and flavorful. They also have lunch sets that you can avail of to try a variety of the dishes that they serve up on a daily basis.
And I’ll admit I’m biased – I’m a fan of eel, and their Anago tempura (salt water eel) – especially delicious in the hotter summer months – is a must do. It’s not as sweet as it’s fresh water counterpart Unagi but it’s meatier and richer. Love it!
Again, it’s a smaller place so reservations are recommended.
Sushi Sho-Masa (Nishi Azabu)
Do you like sushi? Good cuts of fish that are all wild caught and brought on the same-day? Well, this place might be your Mecca.
At 7 seats we were a bit hesitant to let out the secret on this place – we’d hate not to be able to get a reservation here on our next Tokyo trip but we have to say just how good this place is.
Sorry Jiro, Iwa, Sushiko, Ikkyu, Matsumoto – Sho Masa takes the cake here. What’s even better is that the ambience is perfect and low key: there’s no time limit, there’s no pretension…there’s just the love for fresh cuts of fish. It’s for this reason that they’ve shunned any relation to Michelin, despite the organization’s best efforts. They just want to do good sushi, and they do it well.
If it’s the winter season, you might get rare fishes like Kinmedai no-aburi (seared flat fish), Nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch), special Ikura (caviar) and even maybe Anago (salt water eel). But you’ll always get his signature, ‘Toro Mille Fieulle’, or simply 3 layers of Toro stacked together. How amazing does that sound? Now hear me when I say it tastes even better than it sounds.
So open disclaimer: this place will set you back a bit. About $250 per person not including booze. But let this be your ‘cheat’ meal on the trip….can’t say enough of how great this place is.
Kadowki Juban (Azabu Juban)
So one of the musts for any visit to Japan is a traditional Kaiseki meal – as in a set meal that comes in a good amount of (albeit) small servings – something that ranges between 13-15 courses. They are beautifully presented, varied and perfectly portioned. The Japanese really do know how do this tradition perfectly.
This place does it best. As in, one of the best in the world.
It’s not completely traditional – it’s got a bit of a modern twist, much like the famous Nihon Ryugin (also an amazing option) but this restaurant was a great option in the absence of being able to getting a reservation at Ryugin (requires about 6 months of planning).
It’s mostly a local place which I think increases it’s appeal and is more low key than their other Kaiseki counterparts – it’s also much more reasonable at $200 a pop (comparatively speaking, that is) but doesn’t skimp on its offerings, taste and service.
Their Ankimo (cod fish liver) and truffle rice were the highlights but every course was on point. Reserve in advance and ask your concierge to request for a seat the bar – that way you get to interact with the chefs as they do up your meal.
The Big Takeaway
Listen – you’re not going to go wrong with food on any trip to Japan. I think you’d have to try to actually get it wrong.
These were just some of our 5 favorites that we took away that don’t have the high profile of the Ryugins and Jiros of the world nor the high price tags (well, not all of them).
We know that Skiji (not for much longer, unfortunately) is a great place to go (head to Daiwa and give Dai a miss), but Sho Masa is an amazing alternative if you don’t want the 5am wake up call.
For Tonkatsu, Butugumi is the place to go to, skip out on Isetan. And Champion Yakiniku is a fun night out if you want to imbibe on some Kirin Ichiban and have great greasy food.
We’ll do more features on food in Japan (in Tokyo and elsewhere) but this was a start on some places that you might not know about but should (read: must) try – let us know how they turn out for you and keep us in mind the next time you find hidden gems of your own!
Sharing is after all, caring. Kampai!