Hello fellow 'hounds!
I'm back from our time in Japan sussing out the best cheap (yet delicious) eats the country has to offer.
Original post: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/379801
Per one poster's suggestion, I emailed Jim Leff for his article on eating in Tokyo and he was kind enough to email me a copy on the condition that I reported back to him. This this is a copy of my email to Jim.
I will make further posts down the line of specific recommendations from other posters who were kind enough to help us in our search for cheap-yet-delicious eats throughout Japan.
Well, we're back from Japan, and here's your report as promised.
First let me say that your analysis of Tokyo as Chowhound Heaven/Hell is really an incredibly accurate view of Japanese culture. We stayed with local people throughout our trip (courtesy of hospitalityclub.org and couchsurfing.com) and so we received quite a lot of insight into the Japanese way of thinking. Whereas in America we appreciate things that take a great deal of skill and effort that manifest themselves as BIG (think a rags to riches story of a child gymnast who realizes her dream of winning Olympic gold), the Japanese have the same appreciation for those that manifest themselves in a small way. Take, for example, the infamous perfect $100 melon, which likely was produced hydroponically by an wizened old man who rotates the melons every half hour through their growth cycle in order to maintain perfect shape, color and texture. Or think of the geisha whose dance movements are so minute and precise she could perhaps be the latest Honda android. Or think bonsai trees-- small, accurate, precise, with great deal of care an attention. It's really a fascinatingly stark contrast to the "bigger is better" philosophy of American culture where that bonsai tree would be trampled by a 300 lb guy in overalls on his way to the 2-fer-1 big mac attack sale.
We did check out quite a few of your suggestions. I know I've been keeping you in worried anticipation re my last email about Heaven, so I am here to tell you that Volga is in fact still very much up and running. In fact, we went there twice. First, a clarification. The restaurant is in fact called VOLGA, which is in fact a Russian word (according to the waiter, the owner fought in Russia near the Volga river at one time), but the Japanese pronunciation of Volga is BORUGA (hence the disparity). We were told by the waiter (perhaps the same one you had), a skinny, yougish-looking middle aged guy (last 30's, early 40's maybe) with round owlish glasses and a perpetual smile, who spoke a very broken but understandable English (much better than my Japanese). We took a photo with him but sadly I can't seem to find the pic... however I have attached a photo of my lovely wife with an absurdly large glass of beer, which we shared. The tsukune were really, really good. However I must say, my knees did not wobble and the earth did not open. I didn't even have an orgasm. But they were very tasty, and our Japanese friend Megumi (who we brought on our second visit) agreed. We ordered various skewers and all were adequate to tasty, with nothing mind blowing. We tried to order the potatoes and bacon, but instead we were brought potatoes and sausage, which was quite tasty, but was not bacon. "He must have misunderstood," I muse, as I flip through my Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook, and see that the word in Japanese for bacon is pronounced "be-kon". Hm. Eventually we realize that the potatoes and bacon is part of the rotating menu, and today is not the day for it. "When will the potatoes and bacon be on the menu again?" I ask. My question was responded to with a shrug and a smile. Ah well.
Apparently however JUNSAI had not been rotated off the menu. If you may recall from an old post of mine where I went to Urasawa in Beverly Hills, I reported that Junsai was an appetizer course.
At Urasawa, it was served in a shot glass, in a kind of vinegary, briny murk. You freaked out at the prospect of our having been served junsai in America. This was actually my big reason to come to BORUGA (after the tsukune). I had to see if your experience and mine were in any way similar.
Well, first let me say that I don't believe that Junsai is quite as rare a find in Japan as you may have assumed. We actually saw junsai on a couple of menus, not the least of which was a cheap 100 Y per sushi restaurant (yes, junsai sushi!) So perhaps it is not quite as hifalutin a dish as it once was. It was definitely the same stuff we had at Urasawa, with the biggest difference being that at Urasawa it was delicate-- just a few little pea-sized morsels floating in the brine. At Boruga it was a gigantic dish of the stuff, slimy, crunchy, in your face. I realize that at Urasawa I had hardly any idea what it was that I was eating whereas here at Volga I was forced to stare it down in all of it's slimy glopulence. I did my best to chow down about half of the stuff, but I could hardly do any more. My wife, being a tried-and-true chowhound, picked up my slack.
So that, in a nutshell, were the highlights of our visits to Volga. By the way, every food dish, from tsukune to potatoes to junsai, costs 500 Y. Beer is variable-- that gigantic beer Eva is drinking cost 1500 Y I believe.
A few more highlights....
We were on a serious quest for ramen deliciousness and we must have eaten at least 40 bowls during our time there. It is true that never, ever do Japanese people finish the soup (for salt reasons, as you describe). Similar to Chinese people (and Taiwanese people, as my wife is Taiwanese) they do not see the liquid part of the soup as being the real food. In fact this is brought to new heights of amazement (at least in Taiwan and certain authentic Chinese restaurants in LA-- I'll show you if you come to LA) that if you run our of soup, you can actually ask for a refill, so that there's enough to finish your noodles with. In Japan I don't know if you can get free soup, but certain ramen shops jive with this philosophy by allowing you to order more noodles, usually for 100 Y.
One utterly fascinating phenomenon is the Japanese phenomenon of the "ramen street". We found these all over Japan-- a series of 7 - 10 different ramen shops, all located within the same narrow hallway of a strip mall or shopping center, and each shop specializing in a variety of ramen from a different area of Japan. The most easily accessible of these "ramen streets" can be found on the 10th floor of the massive and ultra modern Kyoto station. You buy your ramen ticket at a vending machine and wait in line until a table is available. Often we would just order one bowl to share so that we could try 2 or 3 different shops.
The ultimate insanity of the ramen street culminated in a visit to Yokohama, just outside Tokyo.
There they actually have a Ramen Museum- complete with plastic models of the different types, sizes and textures of noodles used in ramen throughout the country, and a gigantic wall map of japan with photos illustrating the different types of ramen. Sadly it's entirely in Japanese, but it was fascinating nonetheless. However we were bowled over by the ramen museum's two-level basement..... a theme park style recreation of a 1950's tenement neighborhood, complete with city sound effects piped in, vintage movie posters and street signs, a cast of characters (the goofy policeman, the wacky street vendor, the candy shop guy, etc.) and people's laundry hanging from open windows through which you could see ramen chefs plying their trade through plumes of fragrant steam. They actually weaved 7 real ramen shops into the storefront facades, with each preparing a different regional kind of ramen.
However the hands-down absolute BEST ramen we ate in all of Japan (including Hakata) was a dively little place called KARAKO on the NW corner of Nijo-Dori and Higashioji-Dori in Okazaka-Tokusei-cho (closest subway stop is Higashiyama)... go west on Sanjo Dori and then right on Higashioji-Dori until you cross Nijo-Dori and look for the red lantern on the left side. The mustachioed ramen master's image appears on menus and signage all through the restaurant. It's not entirely our find as we got it from the Lonely Planet Japan guide. Apparently the special here is the Chashu (pork slice) ramen served kotteri ("extra rich"). And by rich let me tell you, this was rich. Generally when we order a soup kotteri it comes out with either a layer of oil pooled at the top, or lots of little tiny chunks of soft fat fill the soup. This version of kotteri was uniformly smooth and rich, so much so as to nearly rival a light sauce or gravy with its decadence. Although thickly sliced, the chashu was outrageously melt-in-your-mouth tender (apparently they sell whole loaves of the stuff to serve at home). We couldn't get enough of the stuff-- we went at least 5 times. However we did notice a sort of interesting phenomenon at this place (which is not listed in the LP guide).... it seems that many of the other patrons would order fried chicken with their ramen and then DIP the fried chicken into the soup before consuming! Of course we had to try this.... fried chicken is a Taiwanese speciality and as such my wife is a glutton when it comes to the stuff. (I coined the term "crispy chicken love" based on the look in her face when she gets her first Taiwanese fried chicken after a long absence from home). The fried chicken at Karako was a revelation. Outrageously light, barely there batter and the meat had a juicy succulence beyond our wildest expectations. On its own it was ambrosia but when dipped in that sinfully rich soup it made us both go bleary-eyed with gluttony. We hardly knew what to eat first. The best part is that a huge bowl of the ramen costs 650Y and the chicken a paltry 300Y ! We would share one order of each and be full for the rest of the day.
OK, I think I've written enough for now-- my back is starting to hurt! I'll write some more later when I get around to it.