Eight Can’t-Miss Dishes in Tokyo
Characterized by an unrelenting attention to detail and the persistent pursuit of excellence, the megalopolis of Tokyo is known as one of the world’s best eating cities. Here, a handy guide to eight of the city’s essential dishes, how to say their names, and where to find them.
Krista Simmons is a culinary travel writer based in L.A. You can follow her bite-by-bite journey around the globe on Instagram.
Dashi (dah-shi) at Hinokizaka
This deceivingly simple broth made from kombu (dried seaweed) and umami-rich katsuobushi (dried skipjack, or bonito flakes) is a genesis of all Japanese cooking. It’s used as the base for miso soup and to poach fish and veggies, and like a properly prepared stock or brodo, clarity is king. As part of the kaiseki menu at Hinokizaka, chef Matsamisu Taima uses rare vintage kombu (which is naturally dried and aged for three years and fetches for about $100/kilo) and adds that to water with a highly specific alkalinity plus a hint of diluted Okinawan sea salt, making for a clean, clear broth that tastes of the purest essence of the sea.
Tokyo-Style Ramen at Harukiya
Any self-respecting noodle freak will find himself slurping down bowls of ramen while in Japan, and when in Tokyo, it’s essential to try the regional specialty, made from medium-thick, wavy noodles in a shoyu (soy) broth that’s fortified with dashi. Typically a bowl of Tokyo-style ramen, which was originally brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants more than 100 years ago, will come topped with scallions, nori, chasu (roast pork), and bamboo shoots. At Harukiya, established in 1949, there’s also plenty of niboshi (dried sardines) in the broth to make for a particularly moreish bowl. Added bonus: you can also sample tsukemen, another local dish, with thick noodles in a rich, saucy pork broth, at the Ogikubo location.
Espresso at Bear Pond
Japan is the world’s third-largest importer of coffee, with a robust café culture to prove it. In small, old-school cafés (kissaten), you’ll find baristas meticulously preparing siphon brews and pour-overs while customers leisurely drag on cigarettes, perusing manga and listening to jazz, while fans of the newly arrived Blue Bottle are willing to wait hours in snaking Disneyland-length queues for a brew. Die-hard coffee cognoscenti flock from around the globe to Katsuyuki Tanaka’s Bear Pond for his uncompromising approach to espresso, pulled in the ristretto fashion using a custom-built La Marzocco machine. Tanaka is the only one allowed to prepare espressos, the shop closes daily at 2 p.m.; there’s no photography allowed inside; and if anything’s off, he won’t open. All the fuss is worth it, as evidenced by Tanaka’s perfect Gibraltars and rich, almost inky shots.
Matcha (mah-cha) Pastries at Sadaharu Aoki
Matcha may be a brewing trend here in the U.S., but its roots in 12th-century Japan mean that the prized, finely milled green tea powder has evolved to be used in all sorts of creative applications. You should definitely take the time to consume matcha in its liquid form at a traditional tea ceremony, or chanoyu, but in a city where French-style patisseries dot practically every corner, you can try it in sweets, too. There’s perhaps no better place to sample it than Sadaharu Aoki, where you’ll find stunning matcha–adzuki bean layer cake, matcha croissants, matcha cream-filled eclairs, green tea macarons, and more.
Modern Japanese Cocktails at Bar High Five
Hidetsugu Ueno has garnered a cult following among bartenders and mixologists for his use of classic Japanese ingredients and seamless technique. Obsessive may be an understatement when describing how Ueno approaches his craft, going so far as to use a thermometer to test some of his precisely hand-carved “ice diamonds,” which are used as cubes in his signature drinks like the White Lady and Japanese Garden. Arrive early in order to wrangle a spot at his intimate, eight-seat Ginza space located on the fourth floor of an office building, and prepare to be wowed not just by the drinks but by the convivial vibes that warm as the Nikka single malt flows.
Ekiben (eh-key-ben) at Matsuri Tokyo Station
The massive and shockingly streamlined railway system in Japan is a marvel in and of itself, but food lovers will be equally blown away by the railway’s culinary culture. When traveling through the country on the Shinkansen, or bullet train, you’ll notice regional variations of ekiben, or grab-and-go bento boxes meant for train travel. (The “eki” in ekiben means “train station,” “ben” is short for bento.) At Matsuri, in the hub of the bustling Tokyo Station, you’ll find 170 different types of elegantly arranged boxes for sale, from tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets) and oshizushi (pressed sushi) to boxes with self-heating mechanisms similar to MREs. There are thousands of different types of ekiben that vary from region to region, and for those looking to get a taste of it all, Matsuri’s got it, complete with maps of where each is from.
Chirashi (chee-rah-shi) at Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba
Tokyo’s massive fish market, which serves as the hub for distribution worldwide, is a must-stop for eaters curious about where an iconic spot like Jiro—absolutely worth a visit if you can secure and afford a reservation—purchases its wares. Many will queue up for a sushi breakfast at the popular Sushi Dai after the bluefin tuna action, but for those who mightn’t be adaptable to the Japanese phenomena of waiting in long lines for food (or who don’t want to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to see an endangered fish auctioned off), stroll through the market around 9 a.m., then stop for an early lunch of mixed chirashi—sushi rice topped with a variety of sashimi (raw fresh fish, shrimp, scallops, and a heap of Hokkaido uni), tamagoyaki (egg pancake slices), and pickles—at Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba on Shinohashi Street. Like many other chirashi spots on the block, it serves local office workers and families the ultimate breakfast bowl.
Yakitori (yah-kih-tor-i) at Omoide Yokocho
Anthony Bourdain’s disciples have likely seen his booze-addled strolls down what’s known as Memory Lane or, less-charmingly, Piss Alley, a series of densely packed, narrow alleyways slinging yakitori in the Shinjuku district. A fire burned down a large chunk of the area in 1999, and much of the hood’s black-market dealings disappeared with the rebuild. A bit of that grit still exists in the form of food, though, which is best consumed at night. Closet-size restaurants offer a plethora of exotic sizzling street meats on a stick, including chicken gizzards, brains, hearts, pork parts, and more. All of the offal is grilled over an open flame, shellacked with special sweet teriyaki sauce, or simply seasoned with salt. You won’t find much in terms of sides, but no matter. What you really want is a Kirin and—if you’re so inclined to smoke inside like the rest of the salarymen who just knocked off work—a cigarette.