I rarely eat Chinese food by choice. Dim sum bores me (to me, it feels like an endless on parade of tiny baskets with fish or pungent meats and chives wrapped in dough), black bean sauce is way too potent and I can’t taste the ingredients. XLB are my favorite but there’s only so many soup dumplings one could eat. A lot of the fish has this slimy texture reminiscent to cheap catfish and a lot of the dishes — irregardless of style of Chinese cuisine — tastes like the pan (or wok?)
The other night I had Szechuan food for the first time in I can’t even recall how long ago and it was so delicious and flavorful. The dishes look extremely spicy because of the red peppers but the heat was subdued. There was one stewed chicken dish that literally blew my mind. I could taste every layer of the ingredients unfolding on my tongue — anise, sansho, soy, and I learned Szechuan peppers have this unmatched brightness, a subtle acid, that brings the dishes to a new level.
The chicken, fish, shrimp, beef, sansho peppers and all the greens are so optimal in Japan that it’s almost unfair. I swear, a cooked box of rocks in Japan would taste good.
Now I am keen on learning more about Chinese cuisines — especially Szechuan. Ahhhh the learning process here is never, ever, ending.
The other day I was just given an address for the spot we were going to for dinner. Looked up directions and got the most unhelpful navigation ever. “Unnamed roads” both on phone and computer in Tokyo (somewhere around Ginza/Akasaka-ish). The directions read like I’m in some farmland deep in the countryside!
“Turn left, cross the road, cross the road, cross the road.”
I meannnnnnnn seriously?! JAPAN, YOU ARE RIDICULOUS!
In 2009, when Michelin decided to uncover Japan’s culinary scene by including us in their guide, two things happened. One: the world got a glimpse of our extraordinary cuisine. Two: it caused absolute chaos to the reservation situation in Tokyo.
Frankly, it’s now shit.
There is way more demand than supply since most spots seat only 8-10 people and for those who aren’t Japanese or speak the language, they are SOL (shit outta luck). Sadly a lot of crappy tourists bail last minute or worse, don’t show up or even call (seriously, who does that?) and have ruined it for others to score bookings. Nowadays, a majority of the higher end and exclusive places are invite only for quality control. This isn’t because Japanese people don’t like foreigners. It’s because when a place is so small they only serve 20 or so seatings a night, it hurts the business a lot when people don’t show up; especially since ingredients are purchased daily.
But as frustrating as the booking situation is, one of the best parts about dining in Japan is the intimate experience. A lot of high-end sushi and kappo (cuisine with heavy kaiseki influence – thoughtful presentation, high quality, hyper seasonal ingredients, open kitchen, usually counter seating where diners get to watch/interact with the chef and his apprentices) spots, the taisho (chef) is extremely generous with his knowledge and every time I dine, I always learn something new.
This visit to Sushi Saito, here’s what I learned:
Male shishamo tastes better than female shishamo. Shishamo is smelt and kokusan shishamo is Japanese smelt. For about 15 or so years now, Russian or Mongolian smelt are served instead of Japanese smelt since there is a shortage and kokusan shishamo is now hard to obtain. Female smelts are widely served carrying eggs (komochi shishamo) but I barely see male shishamo. I’m not sure if I’ve even had it before. Saito-san also shared that male shishamo is served raw (sashimi) and slightly seared in the spring. Amazing.
Kimo is fish liver and the most commonly served fish liver is ankimo (monkfish liver). Fugu (blowfish) kimo is also served — I had no idea. Saito-san told us his first fugu kimo was in a region far up north (I forgot where). When we asked him if it was good, he said: “It’s delicious but I can’t say for certain if it was tasty because it’s so rare or because it is truly tasty. Would I risk my life to eat it again? Probably not.” while laughing. And then he went on to say: “Nothing beats Kawahagi kimo. Ankimo has a kuse.”Kuse, means a distinctness — scent, texture, flavor, what have you — like blue cheese. People either love it or hate it. I kind of think he didn’t really like fugu kimo haha
Saito-san trained at Kanesaka and directly under Kanesaka-san. (Kanesaka is now legendary and has two restaurants in Tokyo, several abroad. I’ve only been to Kanesaka once and didn’t really like it but that’s a story for another day.) Saito-san calls Kanesaka-san, Kanesaka jiisan (Jiisan is old man but for Saito-san to fondly address him by that nickname is a huge sign of respect and signifies their closeness) and told us how Kanesaka-san taught him how to crab and fish. Saito-san also mentioned how they used to go together all the time. So cute ❤︎
Saito-san can tell the difference between a male and female fish; he said he has to feel them though. That’s pretty mental.
“Salt. Fat. Acid. Gyoza is my favorite flavor profile and probably the reason I eat shameful amounts A whooooole mess of latergrams of all the glorious gyoza in my Camera Roll. Some may or may not be taken at inappropriate hours 餃子どんだけ好きやねん。この半年食べた量と種類、、、かなりヤバイw”
I really do eat too much gyoza. So much, I wrote 1,600ish words on gyoza in Tokyo. Do read if you’re interested. The piece is on Eater here.
I get how people visiting Tokyo for the first time go through hell and back planning trips. I can also see why it’s hard to believe when I tell people: relax and just get… lost. But I promise, Tokyo is packed to the brim with good food, booze, and everything in between that all you have to do, is walk a few steps and BOOM. Anything you put in your mouth will taste better than whatever you last put in your mouths in your home countries.
Tokyo is so massive that even after living here for almost four years, I still stumble onto new places to eat and booze. If I don’t notate, I usually forget places I randomly find.
Last Friday, I re-discovered a bar I thought I would never find again because I forgot to notate and, well, my IG caption says it all: “Found this super hidden bar I stumbled onto a while back and thought I would never, ever, ever be able to find again — shocked, delighted, but most of all, elated! My drink of choice: #Yamazaki Mizunara 🥃”
So if you’re planning a visit don’t be afraid to come without hours of research — Tokyo is one of the best places on the planet to wander without a plan. (Unless of course, you are looking to eat at all the Michelin spots).
And just for heck of it, here are some photos from another random bar — every piece of ice is chiseled to fit the specific glassware. So incredible! *pardon the laziness of uploading screenshots of my Insta; as of late, I don’t keep photos on my phone anymore…
It may seem odd to write an ode about McDonald’s, since in America, McDonald’s are filthy (gross, really), smelly, and nicknamed as ‘homeless people food’. In Japan, that is not the case. The store fronts are super clean, the food comes out made to order and usually piping hot. Another neat thing about McDonald’s in Japan is how they have limited time offer items so there is a new burger, new flurry, new pie, etc., If you do a quick Google search, you’ll find all these burgers and such that are basically non-existent in other parts of the world.
The McDonald’s here is so normal there are even people who wear super duper expensive kimonos and order McDonald’s like it’s no big deal. Only in Japan, I swear.
McDonald’s Japan is also one of, if not the last McDonald’s on the planet that still uses beef fat to deep fry the fries, hashbrowns, and pies. And the craziest part is how the oil isn’t smelly so everything actually, well, tastes pretty good.
My biggest addiction are the breakfast sandwiches and I am not even going to lie, I eat there at least once every two weeks.
If you’re ever in Japan, don’t turn your nose up on the McDonald’s here. Seriously, it’s worth trying.
I will leave you with one of my favorite breakfast sandwiches: the Mega Muffin (two sausage patties, bacon, egg, between McMuffins). SO. GOOD.
Last summer, I traveled Fukuoka, Osaka, and Kyoto and during the Osaka leg, a girlfriend I’ve known for decades took us out in her hometown. We walk into this random building in the Umeda district of Osaka, head up to the 12th floor (?) or somewhere super high. Anyway, I would’ve never known about this spot unless she told me about it.
Turns out, this chicken place is a really famous.
Ikkaku, originating from the Shikoku region (wayyyyy down South of Japan) had an outpost in Osaka and because the population is higher in Osaka, Ikkaku became an Osaka staple. The style of chicken in Shikoku is a garlicky, peppery chicken with a kick but it’s not heavy at all and there is a huge cult following of this prep.
Adam (the guy I was traveling with and a super talented chef — he’s opening a spot in SF but more on that when he opens) and I were blown away and we instantly fell in love with the chicken. I thought I’d have to go alllllll the way back down to Osaka or even visit Shikoku but it turns out, there is an outpost in Yokohama!!! (About 30 minutes away from Shibuya.) The other day I of course traveled and it was every bit as delicious as I remember.
If you’re coming to Tokyo and not planning a trip to Osaka, Ikkaku is definitely worth the trip to Yokohama. Plus, the Chinatown in Yokohama is pretty legit and has super tasty foods!
Seriously. A Japan must.
Ikkaku Yokohama (the one closest to Tokyo) Drop this into Google Maps↓
〒220-0005 Kanagawa Prefecture, Yokohama, 西区南幸２丁目１５−１
Look for: TINOビル６F — and it’s on the 6th floor 045-317-1708
Go super early to avoid the long lines or make reservations (Japanese is required)
What to order: oyadori (dark meat) and hinadori (white meat) ONLY then go to other places to fill up. The chicken is the only good thing there, tbh.