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"Food carts/ yatai" (屋台)- Fukuoka (Hakata)

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I don't know what is exactly about "yatai" (roughly translated as "food carts") that is so appealing in Japan. The anachronistic juxtaposition of a shanty shack in the foreground of a high-tech metropolis? That sudden, sake sodden camaraderie of cramming a bunch of strangers together in a small space? Or maybe the motherly warmth of having someone cook up stuff for you right there in front of your nose? One thing is for sure, economics don't play a part- yatai can be pretty expensive in Japan. And let's face it, they are popular all over Asia, so it's not the high-tech juxtaposition. For what ever reason though, when in Fukuoka, you've got to head to yatai. See also- http://www.chowhound.com/topics/33870...

The bad news for my buddy and I, was that we arrived on 12/31, which was a Sunday. The combination of the holiday and the day of the week made for relatively slim pickens for open yatai. There are several hot yatai areas around the city and we scoped a few out. The one that was open the entire time, even into the New Year's holiday, was the strip of yatai in Nakasu along the river, on the back side of the Hakata red light district. There were about 6-7 that were constantly open. The two noted in our Japanese guidebook were "Ichi-Ryu" for ramen and "Tsukasa" for tempura, grilled stick items, and seafood. We started our first night at "Tsukasa" thanks to E.Eto's positive reviews, which I piggybacked with our experience here- http://www.chowhound.com/topics/351000 ). We made it back to the area later in the night and spent time at Ei-chan and Matsu-chan, both of which offered grilled seafood and meat items and tempura. At E-chan we enjoyed good sazae and a few other shellfish items. You'll only get bottled beer, even when you order a draft, but all the yatai in this area had potato and wheat shochu, plum wine, and some kind of nihon-shu. These yatai were fun and they're fairly aggressive about calling you in and always happy to shift people around like a number puzzle, to fit as many patrons as possible. This particular group of yatai are really domestic tourist destinations then anything else. Prices were higher and there were tour group insignia on some of the tents. People gripping guidebooks or speaking in Osaka accents weren't unusual. There were a fair number of Asian tourists as well. The later in the night you go though, the more fun as the atmosphere loosens up. I was pretty impressed with the cooking prowess of the "mama-sans" who juggled all kinds of simultaneous orders. I didn't necessarily feel a whole lotta of warmth and kindness from the yatai in this area. They made good food and the location is great, but after a second and third pass, I could see that as a local, I wouldn't patronize these places. That said, we were on a roll and had a good time. We made some nice instant friends and had a blast posting pictures from my buddy's mobile phone on his blog for a minute-by-minute gourmet/ imo-shochu narrative for our friends drinking back in Tokyo.

I was more impressed, atmosphere-wise, with "Mami-chan", a yatai on Meiji-dori, near Tenjin Station. It was the only one on this normally busy stretch that was open on 1/1, so we really didn't have a choice. But the prices here were cheaper than the others and Mami-san and her vocal assistants were both cheerful and goofy improvements from the Nakasu area. We ordered "yaki-ramen" (ramen noodles cooked in a fry pan) and grilled pork belly, along with a couple of beers. This was a fun yatai experience. Crowd turnover was lighter and the banal conversation was held at a group level. In this case, it was a discussion on the quality of tako-yaki (battered octopus balls) throughout various parts of Japan- with Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Fukuoka, and Sendai representatives present.

Along Meiji-dori, were two yatai that we repeatedly searched for to no avail. They were just closed during this time. One is called "Kokin-chan" and the other is "Tenshu". Kokin-chan is known for it's yaki-ramen, which is actually simmered in tonkotsu soup. This yatai has apparently been around for 39 years. Tenshu is more of a western style place, known for it's stewed items. I was dying to try their chicken wing stew and their beef tail stew and was really disappointed it wasn't around.

There were maybe a couple of dozen yatai that we saw going around town and many had specialties- by far the most abundant being Hakata style tonkotsu ramen, with gyoza and o-den tied for second. We were skeptical of the marginal difference of each one from place to place. But mostly, I was dying for something different. Literally steps from our hotel, we found "Shizue", with its front side a tarp in the tri-color French flag. There was a black board menu in front, with a brief note that no ramen or gyoza were served here. We stepped in.

Most attractive on the menu for me, having missed the tail and chicken wing stews, was the beef cheek stewed in red wine sauce. Obviously stewed overnight, all sinew had broken down, the fat had gelatinized and the meat took on a rich, tannic, peppery flavor. We sopped it all up and talked about it the entire next day as our highlight of Fukuoka. Impressively, it was served on a regular wide dining plate, as if we were at a nice sit down restaurant and not some shanty-lean-to carted back and forth every night. Check out this delectable picture of the dish- http://i111.photobucket.com/albums/n1... and now check out the exterior http://i111.photobucket.com/albums/n1... .

Another standout dish was the steamed vegetables, seasoned in just salt and pepper- http://i111.photobucket.com/albums/n1... . Beyond these, I can’t remember what else we ate. The next time I go to Fukuoka though, it won’t be on a holiday and hopefully, not on a Sunday either. There's so many other yatai to check out.

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  1. Great report! That French yatai sounds fantastic.

    I haven't been to Fukuoka in a few years, but after your reports and E. Eto's I definitely want to check it out again.

    1. did you make it to ichiryu? domestic tourists abound and they're always crazy busy, but it has a convivial vibe just fine - especially late at night when the customers thin out a bit. i wound up getting to know some of the people there over repeat visits and of course, beer. their hakata ramen is indeed top notch and they're routinely ranked as the #1 yatai ramen in town.

      it's a shame that yatais aren't going to be around much longer! recent legislation has made it so that once the current generation of yatai owners retire or pass away, no new carts can spring up to take their place. i'll eventually be launching a campaign/petition to 'save the yatai' on my website; it'll be slurping for a good cause!

      1. Posting some more pics from the yatai...First one is beef tongue steak, second one is an array of seafood, third one is o-den, and fourth is an encore of my beef cheek.