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Where to find the definitive list of must-eats (cheap eats) for Tokyo?

  • Luther Dec 23, 2009 11:58 AM
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I am sure this is a FAQ but as there is no sticky FAQ post, I didn't know how to find the answer.

If I am staying in Tokyo for about 5 days and I don't know any Japanese, is there a guide/list/blog/post that will tell me what are the absolutely life-changing, must-eat experiences? To be more specific, I am from Boston and I am not interested in any kind of fine dining. I am most interested in food that would be described as "cheap ethnic eats." Quintessentially Japanese food would be best- no need for Western or Chinese-style food.

Is there any kind of universally respected guidebook (in English) that covers all the basic elements, and serves as an educational starting point, such as Singapore's Makansutra?

Thanks for any info or clues.

EDIT: Any comprehensive websites that have reviews/photos/maps for food establishments would be great. I'm thinking something like Yelp for the USA or OpenRice for Hong Kong.

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  1. Chinese Cafe 8 in Roppongi. 24 hours. Common tables, fun people. Super spicy Schezuan available as well as a whole Peking Duck for about $35. Better by a factor of 5 than ANY Chinese restaurant in Boston. This isn't like US Chinese so should meet your requirements

    Best burger in the World- Grail Pub in Nishi-Azabu. The chef doesn't even make burgers certain months of the year as he feels the humidity is not right for the buns to rise properly.

    Any ramen place in Ebisu-look for loads of geeky guys heading towards one at around 11 pm. Just go. Point your way through- should be under 10 bucks.

    Pizza- PizzaKaya in Roppongi for American NY style. Napule at Tokyo Midtown or Omotesando for think crust authentic Naples style.

    Sushi- Most sushi train (kaiten sushi) restaurants in OK neighborhoods.

    Indian- Go for lunch to Sitaara on Koto Dori in Minami-Aoyama. 15 bucks -same food at dinner is close to $75. The lunch buffet at Nirvana New York in Tokyo Midtown for $20 is also quite good.

    Classy night bar with two kinds of food only: These (pronounced Tay-Zay) on a side street in Nishi Azabu (big mafia area but upscale). Go after 10 pm. the bar is inside a little library with about 20 hidden seats. Get the French Toast or the Curry special.

    Italian is better than anything you have had outside of Italy. Pasta is always al dente- sauce is always fresh. Japanese Italians can be quite pretentious. Go for lunch. Southern Italian- Elio Locando in Hanzomon (a lot of fun- saw the owner of the red Sox there last year). Northern Italian- any upscale suburb like Jiyagouka, Ebisu, Naka-Meguro.

    Shibuya is fun; good food is hard. Pricey but good with a great view bar is Legato.

    The best restaurant in Tokyo that is affordable is Cicada in Minami-Azabu. High end Mediterranean Tapas and a great environment. Half Japanese customers/half high end foreigners. Works for everybody; Dates, business, families, celebrations......New York chef, Japanese servers all with great English ability and nothing touristy about it. CAN"T GO WRONG HERE.

    Japanese Pork Cutlet- (Tonkatsu)- Meisen near Omotesando. Big place. A classic serving a classic dish. Great for Sunday night with a beer to decompress and go over the past weekend.

    27 Replies
    1. re: jet lagged

      Unfortunately, there aren't any guidebooks like you mentioned. Here are my suggestions:
      - Search for cheap stuff on this board, there is some good info
      - Bento.com
      - Sunnypages.jp (the quality of the reviews is VERY spotty but it is more cheap-oriented than others)
      - Metropolis magazine's website has mostly cheap eats reviews as it caters to a younger crowd

      As for above, I'd stay away from:
      --Cicada - it's an American restaurant - it's a wasted meal for a foreigner from Boston
      --Grail Pub - do you want a US/British style burger while on vacation? http://www.grailbar.com/food.html
      --Pizzakaya - why would anyone from Boston want this? It's generic east-cost american pizza with Tokyo prices. Again, a wasted meal.
      Be careful with Ebisu, it's popular for ramen lovers but I've tried a few 'famous' shops there and found them to be generally one-note dishes. Research on here for a ramen shop.

      I'd recommend a cheap, fun izakaya. I took a few out-of-town visitors to Sangendou #2 in Akasaka last night and they exclaimed, "I never knew there was so much variety in Japanese food" and "this is the best tofu I've ever had" (agedashi-dofu)

      1. re: lost squirrel

        Agree with mayoteiru risu on his riposte. Cicada is quite meh, even for a foreigner living in Japan, and some of the other choices make me go huh?

        However, I do agree with Maisen, a good overall standby, not top-notch anymore but still quite the experience. And extra points to jisa boketeiru for lining up These. Indeed an unsung favorite of mine, and the curry is quite good.

        If you are looking for a good guide to cheap gourmet Japanese, look no further than here: http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/japan/...

        I am "Pickles" in that thread.

      2. re: jet lagged

        Maisen for tonkatsu near Omotesando.
        Tenmatsu for tempura (lunch) at Shibuya or Nihonbashi.
        Ivan Ramen
        Nihonbashi Yukari for kaiseki (splurge if you want to go for dinner, I think starting at $100, but he also does a casual, yet upscale lunch starting at about $20)
        Tons of great places in Tsukiji Market. I love Tenfusa for tempura, Nakaya for donburi, and Inoue for ramen
        Tamai for anago
        And, do not miss going to depachika. Isetan is the best, followed by Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi. Some of them have eat-in restaurants.

        Enjoy!

        1. re: Yukari

          Big vote for Tamai. They serve anago kabayaki style. And once I had anago that way, unagi kabayaki doesn't even come close.

          1. re: Uncle Yabai

            Cheap Japanese hang-out district, I will say Shimbashi, Kanda, Asakusa- Ueno, Ningyocho, Tsukiji, Yotsuya. A walk on these districts will put on your nose some challenging.

            *As referred in the book “neko to sakana no deai”’, cats know horse mackerel after coming to live a life with human beings. The conclusion is that human beings may not yet have encountered their favorite food as compare to the cats horse mackerel favorite. Can it be understand as change of food habits ? For example, an unexpected encounter is the ‘’Unagi’’ (=eel)…

            1. re: Ninisix

              This thread is going great! Thanks everyone!

              1. re: Ninisix

                I would add Okachi-machi south of Ueno for the Ameyokocho area which has tons of cheap restaurants and street stalls as well.

                1. re: Silverjay

                  Agreed - my favorite kebab shop is there as well. It's not Japanese, but it's yummy.

                  Luther, where will you be staying? Perhaps we can give you some ideas based on your location.

                  1. re: lost squirrel

                    No idea yet about location. I was hoping that the suggestions here might motivate me to stay in a particular place. I have also been looking at some old threads about "best food neighborhoods" and these were the places suggested:

                    Azabu-Juban
                    Akasaka/Tameike-sanno
                    Meguro
                    Ichigaya/Yotsuya
                    Ningyocho/Nihonbashi
                    Shimo Kitazawa
                    Shimbashi
                    Kanda
                    Tsukiji
                    Yotsuya
                    Ameyokocho

                    1. re: Luther

                      I personally prefer staying in Ginza as it is quite central and not everything there is expensive (okay, a lot of things there are super expensive but you can still eat well around 1000 yen for lunch).

                      1. re: Luther

                        Gaienmae (Tokyu Stay) or Yotsuya (a few different mid-budget hotels) might be interesting places to stay - mixed residential/office neighborhoods with lower density than the usual hotel hotspots (Shinjuku, Ginza, Shinagawa) and interesting dining options.

                        Akasaka is interesting too, but a bit seedy.

            2. re: jet lagged

              gotta add my 2 cents here.

              cafe 8-i would stay away from cafe 8. it's an interesting atmosphere, but food isn't fantastic. i went on tuesday and some dishes were so salty almost inedible. also, OP said chinese wasn't necessary.

              pizzakaya- have never had a good experience here. sub-par american pizza. not worth the trip or the money in my opinon.

              cicada is ok, the hummus is nice, but it's not Japanese, so I don't think the OP is looking for this. Also it's not cheap eats.

              i second yukari, and def go to a depachika, then you can sample lots of japanese cheap eats!

              also check out bento.com as geoff said below.

              1. re: jet lagged

                Also some of the art on the walls of cafe 8 may not be to some people's taste.

                1. re: kamiosaki

                  True, but that's just the Roppongi location. Akasaka doesn't have any genitalia (to the detriment of my enjoyment *wink*)

                  I'd suggest picking a hotel by train station, not food. Long term residents might pick a place to live based on variety of restaurants but a visitor should choose a location with many train lines. You'll be on the trains anyway, and the less time you spend transferring and getting lost - the more time you can spend eating.

                  1. re: lost squirrel

                    I think this seems like the best advice. My strategy right now is to find the top-rated food places in my budget (from Tabelog and Supleks, which I'm shocked nobody told me about in this thread), plot them on a map, and then get a sense of what train trips I'll be making to get there.

                    1. re: lost squirrel

                      The Ebisu location has it too, all over the place. I've been to the Roppongi one but not the Akasaka one, that's good to know actually.

                      Also here's a halfway-decent ;-) English site for ramen:

                      http://www.ramentokyo.com

                      1. re: kamiosaki

                        I'm decidedly undecided on sending non-Japanese speakers to restaurants solely based on tabelog reviews since I have no clue how they (as in the restaurants and my people) would cope with the language barrier. So Luther, I'd be curious to know about your outings

                        One book I like and it should work if you have a good concierge is this:

                        http://www.amazon.co.jp/東京下町うまいもん-エイ文...

                        It's a bit dated but their listing is still solid as many of the places are considered textbook classics and it makes a good visual reference (food porn!) to the food culture in shitamachi Tokyo.

                        1. re: kikisakura

                          You make a good point. I have never been to Japan and have no knowledge of the language (aside from a maybe 50-word vocabulary of food words and general politenesses). I don't plan on going to most of the places unless accompanied by someone who speaks at least a little.

                          I would probably attempt a ramen place alone though, if I knew it had a vending machine that eliminated the need to converse with waitstaff or read a complicated menu.

                          1. re: Luther

                            The ramentokyo site above will generally indicate whether the shop has a ticket machine or not. If it doesn't say either way, then feel free to ask and we'll see if we can remember. A ticket machine is a good chance but not a guarantee that you won't be asked anything else, it's a bit of a crapshoot but in a fair number of places the staff will probably know at least enough basic English to be able to ask you any remaining question, e.g. "thick or thin noodles", "hard or soft noodles", etc.

                            Just go for it, I'm reasonably confident that if you pick a good place you'll have a good experience, alone or with someone else.

                            Edit: also I presume that the reason no one mentioned Supleks, Tabelog etc. (separate and distinct from whether anyone thinks they are worthwhile or not) is because you said initially that you spoke no Japanese.

                            1. re: kamiosaki

                              Thanks for your help. It sounds like the risk is that communication might be difficult, not that restaurant staff would be rude or mean directly to me if I didn't have the ability to communicate.

                              I guess my questions weren't clear, because I did say that I don't speak Japanese, although the last bit about "comprehensive websites" was a general question, not specific to English sites.

                              1. re: Luther

                                Yeah, I can barely get by with my Japanese and searching on tabelog is such a pain - I can't imagine anyone else doing it, haha.

                                Also, supleks is fine once in awhile but I find the reviews and rankings to be so far off my preferences. I only use it when I'm bored at work and want to find a place close by - I just don't trust them.

                                When you do go to a ramen shop, try to check the menu prices online beforehand because sometimes the ticket machines can be confusing. Before I could read, I'd figure out which ramen I wanted and how much it cost/where it was on the machine and then head out. It helped sometimes.

                                1. re: Luther

                                  There can be a lot of rudeness in Tokyo even from eatery staff. I've been yelled at, scolded at, and such. I laugh it off as arguing with them really doesn't help.

                                  I still remember an older woman yelling at us in a rice porridge shop in Hong Kong. She just kept on yelling at us louder and louder in Cantonese then finally, she physically moved our chairs as we were still seated! She wanted us to move over a little but hey, how were we supposed to know? That was funny then, even funnier looking back. So it's all good at the end.

                                  If you can navigate tabelog, one way to get around the language barrier is to print out the pictures of dishes you want from the particular restaurant. Perhaps not the most elegant way of placing an order but it's better than missing out on what you really want to eat. Kishidaya's listing comes with 111 pics (and the cat isn't for eating):

                                  http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/A1313/A131...

                                  1. re: kikisakura

                                    I took DelucaCheesemonger and Uncle Yabai to Manten in Jimbocho two weeks ago and Mr Deluca brought two friends along.

                                    You should have seen the guy's face when all of us walked in. At one point, he had to come over and tell two of the party to quit talking and start eating faster - a cultural experience that was.

                                  2. re: Luther

                                    Correct - I think that communication failure itself is the bigger risk, not rudeness. As I said just go for it and let us know where you go and what you thought.

                                    1. re: kamiosaki

                                      OK. I'll probably post my list of intended targets in a few weeks, then report back later in the spring.

                                      1. re: Luther

                                        Here are some of my favorite bargain eats in Tokyo. I am still adding to the list, but hopefully it is a good start.

                                        http://foodsaketokyo.wordpress.com/ca...

                                        1. re: Yukari

                                          And forgot, this was an article I wrote recently for Metropolis magazine that lists some other great, affordable restaurants in Tokyo:

                                          http://metropolis.co.jp/dining/local-...