Sunday, October 30, 2016

Cheap, Cheerful, and High Quality: Fast Food in Tokyo

Step aside McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway. When it comes to fast food in Japan, those places are dead to me. I was in Tokyo last month, and trust me, their fast food is nothing like the fast food here.

First off, Tokyo is friggin' amazing! I can assure you that the long and painful 13-hour plane ride is totally worth it. Actually, ever since coming back home all I could think about is "When can I go back?". And it's funny, even before my trip, friends who have been to Japan would all tell me "You would love it there!". Literally everybody would say the same thing, and I never doubted them either. If anything, I was pretty certain I would love it there too :) There is just so many fun things to do in Japan! And the food, my goodness, all the delicious food! What I love most about eating in Tokyo is that you don't have to spend a lot to get great food. Most of my meals were cheap, quick and tasty, yet were made with quality ingredients. 

In North America, the words processed, unhealthy, and obesity are often associated with fast food, and rightfully so. However, fast food in Japan are really just places where food is served quickly for cheap. That's it. There are no negative connotations to it. During my two weeks in Tokyo, my fast food meals never consisted of anything that's highly processed or made with artificial ingredients. I hardly ate anything fried or oily, and I wasn't even trying to eat healthy! I never felt "gross" after a meal nor experienced the "Why did I eat that?" regret. Fast food is simply too good to resist in Tokyo. At almost every corner, you are bound to find a decent spot where you can be in and out within 10 minutes without having to spend more than $10. The best thing, you won't hate yourself afterwards. In fact, you would feel completely satisfied and happy that you just had a cheap, cheerful and high quality meal! I also want to add that although most fast food places in Japan are large chains, just like in North America, nothing negative is associated with them because in general, food quality is held at a much higher standard in Japan, fast food chains included.

I've gathered all my fast food eats from Tokyo here. They consist mostly of noodle joints (with some rice). They are all the fast food places I visited in order, minus the restaurants, snacks and dessert spots in between (those will be on another post).

ラーメン凪 - NAGI

- Nagi was on our list of places to try.
- Nagi is a ramen chain with nine locations in Japan and more than 15 locations in other parts of Asia.
- Each location serves a different type of ramen.
- This Golden Gai location serves a unique broth made with niboshi, or baby sardines, combined with chicken. It is the most popular location amongst the chain.
- Guests line up outside the door and staff will come out to let you know whenever seats are available. The door opens to a long and steep staircase, which leads into a very tiny space with 10 seats at a narrow bar. 
- Ordering and paying are done via ticket machine at the top of the stairs.
- On the counter you'll find everything you need including chopsticks, water, soy sauce, vinegar, spice powder, and toothpicks.
- I ordered Nagi's signature ramen made with dried sardine broth served with a soft boiled egg, pork char siu, nori, bamboo and chopped scallions.
- I never had fish broth before and I instantly fell in love. The baby sardine broth was smooth and rich, yet not heavy. It was full of umami and had a slightly smoky flavour, too. The thickly sliced pork was very soft and tender, and had a texture similar to ham. The cha shu was not the highlight for me. The noodles were thick, wide, curly and chewy, so they complemented the viscous, velvety broth perfectly. It is unbelievable how much flavour was in this one bowl.
- Nagi was our first ramen spot in Tokyo, which also turned out to be my favourite from this entire trip.
- If I remember correctly this niboshi ramen was around ¥900 ($11.51).

Shinjuku (Map)


- Ichiran was on my list of places to try.
- The Ichiran chain serves only Tonkotsu style ramen and was founded in the 1960s.
- If it's your first time there it can be a bit intimidating since after paying at the ticket machine, you have to find a vacant seat from a digital panel on the wall, and once you sit down you are given a sheet of paper where you customize your ramen (noodle texture, flavour strength, spice level, extra noodles, toppings, etc). After you're done, you press a button to call the staff and he/she will take your instructions and ticket (this is all explained here).
- The piece of paper we received was in Japanese, and thankfully, they had an English one.
- You sit in your own little booth where there's a tap for water with cups and wet naps.
- I picked strong flavour strength, high richness, one clove of garlic, green onion, sliced pork, regular Ichiran's original red sauce, and firm noodle texture. 
- This bowl was good, but not exceptional. The broth was a too oily for me. I later realized that underneath the "Richness" option it says "(oil content)" and because I like my broth rich, I circled "rich", which now I realized it just means more oil (to me "richness" and "oily" is not the same thing but whatever). I prefer thick noodles over thin noodles, so I didn't particularly love the noodles here (I generally find thin noodles more dense and heavy, and harder to slurp). Made with 30 different types of spices, the Ichiran red sauce gave a good heat to the bowl (it's supposedly a secret recipe and only three people in the world knows it).
- I accidentally ordered extra noodles at the vending machine so I gave it to my friend since I was already full (mainly because of the oil). With the extra red sauce and garlic that I added later at the booth, I don't remember how much this bowl was.

Shibuya (Map)

蕎麦 冷麦 嵯峨谷 - SAGATANI

- Sagatani was on our list of places to try.
- Sagatani is known for its inexpensive soba, which is made with 100% buckwheat flour and ground in-store using a traditional mortar.
- Their basic soba cost ¥280 ($3.58)
- Payment is made via ticket machine. This is the only place in Tokyo where we had trouble ordering because the ticket machine didn't have any English. Rather, we found out later that the alphabets on certain items on the machine correlate to the fake food display at the front of their store. 
- I don't remember what I ordered nor how much it was, but I remember it being under ¥500 ($6.40) for sure.
- The earthy broth was light but really rich in flavour, and the soba was exceptional. They were thin with the perfect chewiness to them. Very slurp-able!

蕎麦 冷麦 嵯峨谷
Shibuya (Map)


- Curry House Coco was on our list of places to try.
- It is a Japanese style curry restaurant chain with over 1,200 locations in Japan and another 150 outlets in other parts of Asia.
- Their menus all have large pictures and English but it can still be overwhelming because there are many choices. Even though they feature only curry rice, there are a lot of varieties, such as classic, pork cutlet, hamburger, egg, vegetable or cuttle fish. You can also pick your curry bases (two varieties of pork, two varieties of beef), the amount of rice (200 – 600g), spice level (mild, regular and spice levels 1 – 10) and a dozen of additional toppings like hard/soft boiled egg, garlic bits, cheese, fried quail eggs, natto, omelette, eggplant, onions, tomatoes and corn. There is also option to add naan bread (plain, cheese, or garlic).
- I pretty much gave up with all the options and ordered their "Good luck hand-made minced beef cutlet curry with spinach" for ¥1035 ($13.25). It looked tasty enough in the photo that I didn't bother with all that customization. I also had a mango lassi and my friend had a beer.
- The beef cutlet was really juicy. The panko breadcrumbs wraps around the minced beef evenly and adds a delicious crunch to each bite. The curry was also delicious with just enough spice for me.

Shibuya (Map)


Tokyo Kokugikan Mai at Aqua City Odaiba features six regional ramen brands/restaurants that collectively bring together flavours from across the country: Sapporo, Hakata, Saitama, Nagoya, Nagano, and Tokyo. Each restaurant features a special ramen exclusive to Tokyo Ramen Kokugikan Mai, as well as old favourites.
- Looking around, I found the ramen here to be generally more expensive than ramen shops elsewhere. This was not surprising since Odaiba is a tourist attraction.
- It took us awhile to pick which ramen shop to try, but we finally decided on Setagaya. It wasn't a really calculated choice or anything, they all looked good! We just needed to pick one because we were getting hungry.


- Setagaya features a flavourful seafood broth using niboshi (dried sardines), soudabushi (dried bonito flakes), and konbu seaweed. Together with a chicken and pork-based broth, and a soy sauce-based sauce, the end result is a broth packed with umami.
- Their noodles are made from Hokkaido flour.
On the counter you'll find chopsticks, water, a variety of sauces and toothpicks.
- My friend and I both got the Setagaya-style tsukemen, and as promised, the broth was spot on. The wavy noodles had a medium thickness with a soft, chewy texture. I loved the noodles and the broth. 
- I do not remember how much the bowls were.
- We were going to walk around Odaiba and come back to Tokyo Ramen Kokugikan Mai for more ramen but it did not happen; I was way already too full from this tsukemen.

Aqua City Odaiba (Map

すき家 - SUKIYA

Sukiya was not on our list of places to try. It was a one minute walk from our Airbnb.
Sukiya is a Japanese fast food chain serving gyudon (shredded beef over rice), donburi (fish, meat, or veggies over a bowl of rice), and curry. It has over 1800 restaurants in Japan and can be found in all 47 Japanese prefectures. They have also expanded abroad into countries like Mexico, Brazil, China, and Thailand.
- This location has counter seating as well as tables.
- Prices are cheap, and you can expect to fill up for between ¥500-¥800 ($6.40-$10.23).
- Your order is served within five minutes or less upon ordering. The entire place seemed to be manned by one person.
- My first breakfast there consisted of rice, miso soup with pork and veggies, salmon, natto, egg and seaweed. All this was ¥630 ($8)

- My second breakfast there was gyudon with miso soup, pickled veg and egg. This was ¥710 ($9)
- In case you haven't noticed I try to order raw egg with everything if it is an option because you can have eggs raw in Japan without fear of salmonella (eggs are specially checked to make sure that they are safe to eat raw).
- Rice + meat + raw egg + soy sauce is the best thing ever!

Shibuya (Map)


Sanuki Hanamaru Udon was not on our list of places to try. We walked by it while sightseeing in Akihabara.
- Founded in 2001 in Kagawa Prefecture, the Sanuki Hanamaru Udon chain now has over 350 restaurants in Japan, with additional outlets in China and Malaysia.
- They boasts their healthy udon which have more dietary fiber, as well as their tempura batter which uses rice flour and less oil.
- No ticket machine here. You start by picking up a tray and choosing a variety of tempura and fritters (you can skip this if you want). Next, you will arrive at the udon cooking station where someone will cook the udon for you. This takes less than a minute. This is also where you choose your other toppings such as nori or egg. You pay when your noodles are done.
- There's a station where you pick up utensils and napkins. They also have a variety of seasonings, sauces and crispy tempura bits which you can add to your bowl.

- I wasn't too fond of the taro tempura since it was cold. However, the udon was really good. Thick, chewy, and flavourful. Soup was light, nothing amazing.
- The tempura was ¥150 ($1.92) each and the medium udon was ¥400 ($5.12) if I remember correctly. This converts to roughly $7 in total.

Akihabara (Map)

富士そば - FUJI SOBA

- Fuji Soba was not on our list of places to try. It was a couple of minutes walk from our Airbnb and we walk past it a lot.
Fuji Soba has around 100 restaurants in Japan, with locations in Taiwan, Indonesia, and Philippines.
- The menu is fairly conventional with a range of options from plain soba with soup for ¥300 ($3.84) to sets with tempura and mini donburi for ¥720 ($9.21).
- You buy your meal ticket from the machine, then you give your ticket to the chef. He will then ask if you want soba or udon.
- Your food is ready at the pick-up window within three minutes.
- This soba bowl with shredded pork, scallions, seaweed, nori and egg cost ¥480 ($6.14). We went to Fuji Soba twice for breakfast. So delicious and cheap!

Shibuya (Map)

恵比寿 - AFURI

- AFURI was on our list of places to try.
- AFURI has seven locations in Japan, and what makes them different is that their signature ramen contains yuzu, which is incorporated in their light chicken broth as well as garnish.
- They are named after a mountain: Mount Afuri in Kanagawa prefecture.
- All their ramen comes with a slice of grilled pork, half a seasoned egg, bamboo shoots, mizuna leaves and nori. The water used is said to be from the wells of Mount Afuri.
- Apparently AFURI attracts a lot of female customers relative to other ramen places because their soup is a lot lighter than others.
- You are asked whether you want your soup "tanrei" or "maroaji". The ‘tanrei’ is the classic base, a full flavoured chicken based soup infused with various seafood, konbu seaweed and vegetables. The "maroaji" version has a thicker, more robust mouthfeel. My friend and I both chose maroaji
- I got the Yuzu Shoyu Ramen. The broth is definitely a lot lighter than what I'm used to. I noticed the yuzu but it was not over-powering. I can't say I loved the yuzu; it's different but I could do without it. Not too crazy about the citrus-y flavour in general with my ramen. The grilled cha shu was quite charred at the edges but was really tasty and tender. I prefer thicker noodles, so I did not enjoy these super thin noodles at AFURI. My ramen preference is thick, rich broths with thick noodles so AFURI was therefore, not a standout for me.
- My friend had the Yuzu Shio Ramen and it didn't taste that much different than mine besides the fact that mine was a little bit saltier.
- Both bowls were ¥980 ($12.54). Portions were on the small side.

Ebisu (Map)


Gogyo was on our list of places to try.
- Gogyo has three locations: two in Tokyo (Nishiazabu and Ginza) and one in Kyoto.
- Same owner as Ippudo.
- This Gogyo location has a really chic and modern decor compared to the other ramen places. It was also the only ramen spot that does not use a ticket machine and has actual servers taking your order (this is very uncommon in Japan). So, in actuality, Gogyo should be categorized as a ramen "restaurant" instead of a "fast food" ramen place.
- What makes Gogyo stand out is their kogashi (“burned”) ramen. For each ramen bowl, lard is heated up to 300℃ in a wok and the charred residue is added to the broth, giving the shio or shoyu flavoured ramen a black hue.
- I ordered the Kogashi Miso Ramen which was served with a layer of black oil, specks of char, cha shu pork, half poached egg, nori, fish cake, ground pork and cabbage. It didn't look really appetizing but it did come out pipping hot. 
- The broth was rich and heavy, and has a smoky, burnt/charred flavour. It is quite smooth and not too salty. The noodles were thin and had a nice chew to them. 
- It's a very memorable bowl because it's unique and different but I'm not a fan. Not because it was rich and heavy, but because I did not enjoy the charred taste.
- This bowl was ¥890 ($11.39).

Minato (Map)


- Shinbusakiya was not on our list of places to try. It was close to our Airbnb and one time when I was at work, my friend checked it out and liked it. We went again on our last day in Tokyo before heading to the airport.
- Shinbusakiya is part of the Samurai Group. It's a Hokkaido ramen brand that specializes in aburi miso.
- There were many toppings on my ramen, which included green onions, bean sprouts, minced pork, cha shu, fermented bamboo shoots, grated ginger, and white onion. 
- The soup was thick, smooth and rich, with a bit of smoky flavour and a strong miso taste.
- The noodles were thick, firm and wavy. I love that.
- My favourite topping was the thick fermented bamboo shoots. 
- I don't remember how much this bowl was. 

Shibuya (Map)

All these places in Tokyo were "fast food" in the literal sense of quick, casual and cheap. Again, fast food in Japan does not imply that it is unhealthy or of poor quality. Not to say that all fast food in Japan is healthy or made with high quality ingredients, but for sure fast food there is way better for you than the ones in North America. There is a reason why Japan is home to the world's oldest population...because people eat well there!