Japan’s B-class food is an A-grade sensation
Although Japan is blessed with an entire constellation of Michelin stars, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well here. In fact, some would argue that the country’s cheap, hearty B-kyu gurume, or B-class gourmet cuisine, is where the foodie action is at. Many B-kyu eateries dedicate themselves to a single dish; all of them take pride in delivering quality food. From steaming bowls of ramen to fresh-from-the-grill yakitori, here are some of the best places in Japan to feast on B-kyu favourites.
The dish: ramen
Ramen, one of Japan’s most simple but tasty dishes, also offers endless variety. Noodles are thick or thin, broth is primarily flavoured with salt, soy sauce, pork-bone or miso; toppings are as varied as eggs or shredded shallots, fish cakes or braised pork (chashu).
Where to eat it
Tokyo: Ramen Jiro is the king of Tokyo’s ramen chains, with more than 30 branches. The portions are huge, with thick noodles, chashu and sautéed cabbage. For something lighter, Madai Ramen Mengyo near Kinshicho Station offers ramen with a delicious fish-based broth.
Ramen Jiro, Mita, 2-16-4 Mita, Minato-ku
Madai Ramen Mengyo, Inoue Bldg 1F, 2-5-3 Kotobashi, Sumida-ku
Kyoto: The Ichijoji neighbourhood is Kyoto’s ramen hub, with countless stores offering different versions, including Menya Gokkei, which serves a classic, creamy Kyoto ramen. Another favourite is the Ippudo Ramen chain, known for its pork-bone-based tonkotsu soup.
Menya Gokkei, 29-7, Ichijoji Nishitojikawaracho, Sakyo-ku
Ippudo Ramen, 653-1 Bantoya-cho, Higashinotoin, Nishikikoji higashi iru, Nakagyo-ku
Osaka: For a taste of Hokkaido-style ramen, with its distinctive pork and seaweed flavours, try Hokkaido Nagurikomi Ramen Betsubara, which dishes up just 100 bowls a day. Osakan taikada ramen – thick noodles in chicken and kelp broth – is served at Men-Ya 7.5Hz+.
Hokkaido Nagurikomi Ramen Betsubara: 3-7-5 Shinmachi, Nishi-ku
Men-Ya 7.5Hz+, 1-1-4, Dotonbori, Chuo-ku
The dish: curry
Since being introduced by the British during the Meiji era (1868-1912), curry has become one of Japan’s national dishes. More like a stew than a traditional curry, and sweeter and milder in taste, it is usually served as curry rice, curry udon (over noodles) or soup curry.
Where to eat it
Tokyo: Bondy Curry, near Jinbocho Station, takes the idea of the hidden entrance to absurd levels: the only way to see the entrance is to step inside a second hand bookshop. Sapporo Dominica Ginza serves a range of authentic Hokkaido-style soup curries.
Bondy Curry, Kanda Old Books Centre 2F, 2-3 Kanda-Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku
Sapporo Dominica Ginza, TM Ginza Bldg 2F, 3-4-1 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku
Kyoto: McDonalds has a laughing clown; Go! Go! Curry! features a gorilla on its yellow signage and offers curries with shrimp, chicken or pork katsu (deep-fried cutlets). Alternatively, try the curry udon at Udon Wada, a small place on a back street near the University of Tokyo.
Go! Go! Curry!, 75 Nakajima-cho, Kawaramachi-sanjo, Nakagyo-ku
Udon Wada, Pine village apartment 1F, 80, Tanakasatonomaecho, Sakyo-ku
Osaka: Tucked into Umeda Station, the quirky Camp serves vegetable-laden curries in cast iron skillets. For something a little more conventional, try Oretachi No Curry Ya, near Namba station. The creamy pork katsu curry is recommended.
Camp, Eki Marche Osaka food centre, Umeda Station
Oretachi No Curry Ya, 14-13 Namba Sennichimae, Kawanishi Dai3 Bldg. 1F
The dish: okonomiyaki
There is no set recipe for the moreish Japanese pancake known as okonomiyaki, as it literally translates to ‘grilled-as-you-like-it’. Pork, egg, shredded cabbage and noodles are common ingredients, but ingredients from squid to bacon to cheese are not uncommon. There are two types of okonomiyaki restaurants; the ones where you cook it yourself and those where you can have it cooked in front of you.
Where to eat it
Tokyo: Tokyo has a whole street dedicated to monja, the local okonomiyaki variant, runnier in consistency to its west Japanese counterpart; try Monja Kondo, which offers more than 90 different toppings. Alternatively, hipster haven Sakura Tei offers 22 unusual toppings including everything from corned beef to potato chips.
Monja Kondo, 3-12-10 Tsukishima Chuo-ku
Sakura Tei, 3-20-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Kyoto: At Donguri, they think local, sourcing all their ingredients locally, from the flour and rice to the vegetables and the soy sauce. Also worth a visit is Kiraku near the beautiful Nanzen-ji Temple, a great place to refuel in between sightseeing stops.
Donguri, Karasumadori, Bukkoji Agaru, Nishigawa, Shimogyo-ku
Kiraku, 208 Nakanochō, Sanjō-Shirakawa, Higashiyama-ku
Osaka: When it comes to longevity, Mizuno takes some beating, having been going for more than 70 years. Another tried-and-tested outlet is Tengu, near Nakatsu station, where chef Waka is the third generation of his family to work the grill.
Mizuno, 1-4-15 Dotonbori, Chuo-ku
Tengu, Toyosaki 3-15-19, Nakatsu
The dish: yakitori
Strictly speaking, the name yakitori refers only to grilled chicken skewers. However, most yakitori restaurants will also serve up skewers of everything from vegetables to offal.
Where to eat
Tokyo: A narrow lane west of Shinjuku Station, Omoide Yokocho – also known as Memory Lane – is a slice of old Tokyo, with smoke pouring out of tiny open-fronted yakitori restaurants. For a more upmarket experience, Ginza Torishige offers everything from chicken meatballs to quail skewers.
Omoide Yikichi, 1-2-11 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
Ginza Torishige, 6-9-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Kyoto: Don’t bother rocking up to Yakitori Hitomi without a reservation; this little gem is usually booked out a week in advance. Another terrific option is Wabiya Korekido, in the heart of the Gion geisha district, with its sumptuous multi-course menus.
Yakitori Hitomi, 96 Ōkikuchō, Sakyō-ku
Wabiya Korekido, Gion-machi, Higashiyama-ku
Osaka: There is no end of eateries along Dotonbori, one of Osaka’s most inviting thoroughfares, but Tsuki no Odori is a good choice for its mix of the accessible (chicken wings), the more challenging (chicken hearts) and the left-field (snails). A good casual choice is Goichi near Osaka Station.
The dish: donburi
The word literally means “bowl”; like ramen, this B-kyu classic is endlessly versatile. Katsudon is topped with a pork cutlet, while ten-don is topped with tempura. Oyakodon, or mother and child donburi, is named after its two main ingredients: chicken and egg.
Where to eat
Tokyo: Fish for breakfast? If that sounds good, head to Segawa at Tsukiji fish market, which serves up maguro-donburi, slices of super-fresh raw tuna piled high on a bed of nori (dried seaweed) and vinegar-enriched rice. At Kuishinbo Gabu, the beef donburi is as carefully presented as an ikebana arrangement.
Segawa, 4-9-12 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku
Kuishinbo Gabu, 3-7-9 Megurohoncho, Meguro-ku
Kyoto: At Kyogoku Kaneyo, the specialty of the house is eel; order the unadon bowl with grilled eel and an egg roll topping the rice. Meat lovers should head for Sukiya, a chain restaurant specialising in gyudon (beef donburi), which has three Kyoto outlets.
Kyogoku Kaneyo, 456 Matsugae-cho, Rokkaku Shinkyogoku-higashi-iru, Nakagyo-ku
Sukiya, Bouquet garni 1F, Shichijodori Karasuma Higashiiru Maoyacho 197, Shimogyo-ku
Osaka: One of the best bargains in town is Tenya’s One Coin Ten-don meal, an assortment of tempura on rice with a side of miso soup. Alternatively, Chitose Honten has won a devoted following for its renditions of classics including donburi.
Tenya, 2-1-3, Nanba, Chuo-ku
Chitose Honten, 8-1 Nambasennichimae, Chuo-ku
For more information on culinary experiences in Japan, visit Japan National Tourism Organization’s website: www.jnto.org.au