Following A Food Expert’s Guidance on Tokyo’s Best:
Tastes of Ramen, Tonkatsu Fried Pork and Late-Night Organic Fare
Every great adventure has a jumping off point, but where does a foodie even begin in Tokyo, the world’s largest metropolis; a city housing more than 100,000 restaurants?
Because of spoken and written language barriers, it’s difficult to immerse one’s self in the local food culture without a guide. It’s nearly impossible (but for luck) to stumble across some divine, out-of-the-way eatery, or to go where the locals go. Master chefs, foodies and even Anthony Bourdain have sought the assistance of one man in particular: Tokyo’s most famous gastronomic guru. His name is Shinji Nohara but he’s known throughout the culinary world as the Tokyo Fixer.
While researching Tokyo’s vast culinary scene, I found the Tokyo Fixer, who agreed to help me seek out some of Tokyo’s best bites. With a passion for all things edible, guiding visitors through the city’s culinary scene is what Shinji does best. I let him in on my particular foodie fantasy – a night of Izakaya-hopping through some of Tokyo’s most notorious gastropubs. For Shinji this was a no-brainer (and a different blog post) but he also insisted that I experience a variety of food and locales that make Tokyo one of the planet’s greatest food destinations.
Classic Japanese with an Organic Twist
For our first meal, Shinji took me to Shunju restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. While Shunju has a variety of locations throughout Tokyo, it’s known for its nouveau-organic take on classic Japanese flavors. By using fresh vegetables and local ingredients, Shunju serves up modern Japanese cuisine in a stunning traditionally-themed interior.
We were seated in a private tatami room, surrounded by gleaming dark wood. An amuse-bouche of crispy mushrooms with daikon and a sublime liver pate is followed by a salad basket of fresh vegetables. The sake flowed as we ordered endless small plates:
Delicate octopus sashimi topped with seasonal mushrooms.
Tender, marinated beef served with mixed vegetables.
One of Shunju’s specialties is something I’d never seen before – the opportunity to make fresh tofu. A warm bowl of soy milk was presented with a cup containing a coagulant. Following Shinji’s lead, I poured the activator into the soy milk and softly stirred the mixture. Once the texture began to change, the lid was replaced and the developing tofu was left to rest for several minutes.
Once the tofu had achieved a soft, yet firm texture, it was ready to be dressed and served. Using the provided ingredients, I added soy sauce, scallions and daikon to the mix. I love any opportunity to play with my food, so this hands-on approach was right up my alley. I can honestly say it was the best tofu I’d ever tasted.
Throughout the meal, we sampled a variety of Japanese flavors, from fresh oysters on the half-shell to crisp, deep-fried chicken. With Shinji’s expert guidance, I finally felt like I had landed on the right culinary path, immersing all of my senses into the real taste of Japan.
A Tonkatsu Pork Feast
Shinji gave me a lunchtime choice between two delicious Japanese classics: fried pork cutlets or ramen. How could I say ‘no’ to an opportunity to eat fried pork! So we headed for Tokyo’s most notorious tonkatsu eatery, Butagumi. Tonkatsu is a pork cutlet, breaded with panko and deep fried. The restaurant, Butagumi, literally means ‘pig gang’ and is known throughout Tokyo for serving some of the best pig in the city.
Butagumi is located inside a small yellow house on a residential side-street near Nishi-Azabu. The restaurant is serious about the quality of its tonkatsu; pork is the only meat on the menu. The restaurant does offer wide range of tonkatsu depending on two important factors: the different cuts of meat, and up to 57 varieties (a rotating selection based on availability) of the world’s best pork, from Japanese Nakijin-Agoo-buta or Eishow-ton, to delicate Spanish Iberico ham.
We jumped right into the golden-brown, fried goodness with an appetizer of minced pork tonkatsu, served with a heaping bowl of fresh shredded cabbage and homemade brown sauce. Though the menu offered a variety of pork sampler platters, we stuck to a few classic options.
Above, a traditional pork cutlet. The copper wiring below the meat ensures complete crispness. The panko breading is surprisingly light, the pork is moist and tender, with a subtle marbling of flavorful fat throughout. Below, we sample a high-quality fillet.
Butagumi takes a traditional Japanese comfort food to the next level, striving for a perfect balance of flavor and texture. In their own words, this is the ultimate fried pork. The philosophy here is: if you’re going to do something, do it right.
Ramen Worth Queuing For
Being from New York City, I know how to judge the quality of a restaurant by the length of the line stretching out the door. In Tokyo, a city overflowing with eateries, there is something special about an out-of-the-way (a 30 minute train ride to an unidentified urban-suburbia hole in the wall with a devoted foodie following. The ramen bar is Menya Shichisai, located in the residential neighborhood of Toritsu Kasei. With visions of ramen in our heads, Shinji and I jump into the back of the line.
“I want to push a button for my ramen!”
This tiny ramen bar offers two kinds of broth, two types of handmade ramen noodles, and a handful of extras (pork belly, egg, scallions). Like many small eateries, the meal selection is made on a computerized vending machine which takes cash and prints out a ticketed receipt. The receipt is given to the chefs, who prepare the requested order, eliminating an exchange of currency. While many of these machines use color photos, this machine was all text. For me, it was like playing ramen roulette. I was more than game.
With a bit of coaching from Shinji (pick one of these, and one of these) I made a leap-of-faith ramen selection and handed my ticket over to the chefs. After some more waiting for a coveted barstool, we were in.
It was incredible to watch the chefs prepare heaping bowls of fresh noodles in the tiny space. Their hands whipped back and forth over vats of boiling broth and crates of steaming noodles. All around me, customers slurped every last drop of the soup – it’s important to suck the right balance of air into each bite so that the flavors are accentuated. Eating ramen is as much an art form as its preparation.
I finally received my very own bowl, my blind selection turned out well: the ramen was topped with orange-colored eggs and a heap of shredded scallions. The deeply flavored broth swam with hunks of delicious pork belly. The noodles were perfectly cooked: al dente, yet delicate. I had never before tasted ramen like this, a culinary experience made possible only with Shinji’s knowledge and translation skills.
For your own mind-blowing culinary adventure through Tokyo, contact the Tokyo Fixer, Shinji Nohara, at: http://www.tokyofixer.com/
Shunju’s Shibuya branch is located at: Dogenzaka 2-23-12, Shibuya Fhontis Bldg 1F
Butagumi is located at: 2-24-9 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
Menya Shichisai is located at: Toritsu Kasei 8
2010 Mileage Total: 98981