Cheap Eats · Comfort food · Curry · Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Ikebukuro Cheap Eats

It’s interesting traveling with other people. You get to learn their quirks. For example, TJ does not like to hunt for a good restaurant. Sometimes, she won’t eat for 24 hours. I asked her how she can go without food for so long. TJ responded I could do it too. You just go without. When she’s finally ready to have a meal, she wants her food immediately. Her criteria in Japan: 1) fast 2) convenient 3) cheap and 4) big portions. I’ve tried to bring her snacks to quell her appetite so I can search for a better restaurant, but I was unsuccessful. I’ve found a few places that meet her criteria. For this post, let’s listen to The Hanging Treefrom the Hunger Games soundtrack.

TJ approved of Kareno Lo. I found this katsu curry shop, which was less than five minutes from our hotel. You buy your ticket from a vending machine. The descriptions are in Japanese, so make sure to bring your Google translate app with you. There’s only about 12 seats at the counter. It’s the sort of place you’d go by yourself to chow down and then get the hell out.

Once you get your ticket, hand it to a cook who will fry up your cutlet. The portions here are hearty. For about 900 Yen, you get a generous cutlet, rice and curry. The katsu at Karen Lo is superior to what you can get in Calgary. I’ve had better katsu in Kyoto, but I paid at least double that amount. The difference between Karen Lo and other higher end joints? You get a fluffier batter, different breed designations, variety of cuts, endless bowls of perfect rice, miso soup, pickles, salad, condiments and tea.

TJ tried to find Kareno Lo again without me but she couldn’t find it. I thought that was hilarious. This is a woman who can find any business, cultural site, university or village in Japan. Tj uses real maps, not Google map. She even looks up multiple maps for one location, because each version shows varying degrees of detail. I’ve got my own special powers. I’m a savant when it comes to eating out. I can remember every single restaurant I’ve even been to, everything on the menu, where the restaurant is located, and everything that was ever written about the restaurant’s food. Sadly, no one gives out awards for this rare talent. I’d give the katsu 3.5/5.

The third place I found that TJ enjoys is Ginza Kagari Echika Ikebukuro. This noodle shop is located next to my favourite sushi joint by Exit C6 at Ikebukuro Station. There’s usually not a long line-up. I’m particularly fond of the cold soba noodles with the sardine dipping sauce. The cold, grilled vegetables and meats were refreshing and the perfect accompaniment to the noodles. Bowls of soba cost 1000 Yen and up. I’d give the sardine noodles 4 out of 5.

I’ve tried the famous chicken soba soup with truffle mayo. The broth was very fragrant and rich, almost like butter.

I found Iwamotokyu at the end of our trip. Iwamotokyu is not nearly as good as the tendon chain – Tempura Tenya – but it’s open 24 hours. The soba is quite nice, far better than the rice, which was too wet. The noodles were firm, toothsome and almost nutty in flavour. The tempura itself was average. I’d skip the fish and meat and go for shrimp or veggies instead. For about the same price as a meal at the local 7/11, Iwamotokyu does the trick of filling up our bellies. Solid 3 our of 5.

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There you have it. There are loads of cheap eats in Tokyo. Not so much in Kyoto. To be continued.

Cheap Eats · Comfort food · Deli · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Ootoya Ikebukuro

Before L and I leave for dinner, we would usually have a drink in our room. When L first came to Japan a decade and a half ago, there was only Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo. The beer scene has really taken off and craft beer in Japan is booming.

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Now when we visit an upscale grocery store, there’s a half-dozen options. Each can is between 300 to 500 Yen, depending on the brewery. I prefer Alberta’s craft beer because of its greater complexity. I find Japanese beers one-dimensional.

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Ootoya was a restaurant I found on Yelp that L and I both would not bother returning. It had all the makings of a good restaurant. The interior is pleasant and clean. Service was prompt. Prices were excellent and the presentation of the food was nice. The only thing missing was taste. For this blog posting, I’m going to play some music you’d probably hear at a restaurant in Tokyo.

It’s cheaper to eat at this pleasant canteen than a combo meal at McDonalds in Calgary. Most dishes were around 1000 Yen. We picked a chicken dish and breaded pork in curry with an egg. Both entrees came with rice and vegetable side dishes.

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See how good this chicken looks? Well, there wasn’t much flavour. On the plus side, no flavour usually means it’s not drenched in sugary or buttery sauces. The portions are generous, more geared to Westerners. We were both too full after eating our meal.

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L ordered breaded pork cutlet in curry. The batter was soggy and all the vegetables were overcooked. It’s pretty rare we try a restaurant in Japan and wouldn’t return. The only other place is a noodle house right by west side of Ikebukuro station exit – Tachi Kui Soba Kimidzuka. L hates this place. Whenever we walk by, which is at least twice a day, I make a joke about eating here.

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This stand room only shop sells udon and soba for cheap. Despite its prime location, it’s only busy around lunch time. Most of the customers are business men in a rush to get in and out.

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In 2017, I wanted to try it. We saw another person order zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles). I know we are supposed to order by number but the zaru soba wasn’t on the menu. L said excuse me in Japanese and pointed to what a customer was eating. The man in charge in the kitchen shouted at L to order by number. I said “Zaru soba” and then showed two fingers. I wanted to add tempura at the last moment and that infuriated the man even more. He slammed the food down on the counter and gave L a dirty look. He didn’t gave L his change back either. There’s no tipping in Japan, so this was a big affront.

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L said it’s a huge insult for a local to not give you your change back. It wasn’t busy inside either. It takes a lot to get L mad, but oh boy, when he does get riled up, watch out. I told L that it was clear that the man wasn’t living the high life and to let it go.

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How was the food? I’ve had better instant noodles in Japan. Having said that, some of the instant noodles in Japan are better than the ramen I’ve had in restaurants in Calgary. L didn’t eat his food. I thought it was a bit tasteless, the service and the soba. If anyone tells you that you can’t get a bad meal in Japan, just send them to Tachi Kui Soba Kimidzuka and tell them to special order something ;-).

Beer · Cheap Eats · Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo – Torikiozuku

In the evenings, most of our group would leave Ikebukuro for the busier spots, such as Shibuya (entertainment district that appeals to the youngsters), Shinjuku (the busiest train station with the largest red light district) and Harajuku (know for street fashion, but I didn’t see anything but tourists).  L and I preferred hanging around Ikebukuro, where it was easier to walk around, weaving in and out the quaint little nooks in the city. I much rather get to know a neighbourhood really well rather than seeing a little of a lot.

IKE Night

Going out to drink in Tokyo is more difficult and expensive compared to Calgary. Most bars fit ten people or so, so it’s not easy to get a seat for two during prime time. Smoking is allowed, so L will throw a fit and make me leave if our table is next to smokers. There’s usually a seating fee, even for the hole-in-the-wall bars. Tiny sleeves of average beers cost 800 Yen. Below average wines start at 1000 Yen.  I’m not into drinking sub par drinks at a premium, which is why I chose to drink before I went out in the evenings.

Sake

TJ likes to describes herself as a thorough researcher, which is why she needed to buy every single sparkling sake she could find. Last year, she was really into plum wine, which I find much too sweet. Due to her deep love for knowledge, I’ve sampled 15 different sparkling sakes.

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Single servings (100-300 ml) of sparkling sakes purchased from grocery stores/liquor stores range from 600 to 1, 500 Yen. The bottles of sake (750ml) I enjoyed ranged from 5000 to 6000 Yen. That’s dirt cheap compared to what I pay in Calgary.

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I prefer “cloudy sparkling sake” over sparkling sake. Regular sparkling sake is sweet and in many cases, reminds me a delicious, one-dimensional soda. Cloudy sparkling sake is usually higher in alcohol percentage (15%) and taste more like regular sake. My favourite sparkling sakes are Chokaisan and Sparkling 39. One of the better sakes I tried is Dassai 39. I wanted to bring home a sake that was recommended to me (6000 Yen), but I was afraid it might break in my luggage and I didn’t know if it was worth the risk. I plan to buy a bottle to try at the beginning of the trip to ensure it is luggage worthy.

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If you want to eat and drink at an izakaya (Japanese pub), it can get pricey. The exception being places like Torikizoku, a chain restaurant known for selling all its dishes and alcoholic beverages for a mere 300 Yen (plus taxes). L doesn’t like this place too much, but we’ll come after we get rejected by the better izakayas that only cater to locals.

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We found out about Torikiozuku in the spring of 2017. Two members of our group found it by befriending a local on the street. They told us not to tell the rest of the group to prevent Torikiozuku from getting too busy. I kept my promise and only showed members of our group the one in Kyoto. I still got in trouble.

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I’ve found the food inconsistent – sometimes it’s quite tasty and other times I find it lacklustre. I have a soft spot for this place because it was the first izakaya I went to and the staff are nice and accommodating to foreigners. For the price, I don’t care if some dishes aren’t that great.

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You order from an iPad. There is an option for English too. The cabbage is all-you-can-eat. The cabbage is just roughly chopped up and tossed with soy sauce. To me, it tastes a bit like plastic. The ramen and rice bowls are below average. The best thing to get here are the skewers.

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L and I accidentally ordered liver. This version was gross – the texture was gritty and tasted  like clotted blood. Generally, I preferred the yakitori with sauce rather than just salt and pepper. The karrage is okay, though very dry. The deep-fried chicken knees were my favourite – little crunchy, munchy nubs. The meat patty skewers with cheese were also good.

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There’s a low quality beer in a big mug and a slighter better beer in a sleeve, both the same price. L said the bigger sized beer taste like piss. I didn’t like any of the alcohol served here. You do pay for what you get. We can eat and drink here for about 20 US.

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Seeing as how we’ve mastered Ikebukuro this year, next year I’d concentrate in a neighbouring areas. In Tokyo, we take the Yamanote Line – which loops around central Tokyo. Places we haven’t explored deeply include: Shin-Okubo  (Tokyo’s Korea town), Shinagawa/Gotanda (high concentration of izakayas), Takadanobaba (college neighborhood that’s home to Waseda University) and Yurakucho (restaurants under the tracks of the Yamanote line).

Japanese · Restaurants · Tokyo

Tokyo Eats – Sakura Cafe

Back in Japan! Due to L’s work, we spend three weeks in Japan. In Tokyo, our group stayed in Ikebukuro, a lower income area known for a surplus of girlie bars. There are a few seedy streets, but other than that, Ikebukuro does the trick.  For this post, let’s listen to Plastic Love by Takeuchi Mariya.

For breakfast, L always goes to Sakura Café, which is part of our hotel – Sakura Ikebukuro. The 24 hour cafe has a large outdoor patio, a rarity in Tokyo. Last year, the cafe was quiet and filled with mostly tourists. This year, the cafe was packed with locals and tourists. In the previous year, the staff allowed our group to meet inside the cafe.

On our first morning in Tokyo, I knew our group was in trouble. A bunch of them came in and ate their store bought food inside the cafe and threw away their plastic bag and containers in the cafe’s bins. Japan is very strict regarding where you dispose your garbage. The appropriate thing would have been to keep your garbage with you and dispose of it in our hotel room or the hotel’s garbage bins.

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Other customers looked annoyed at our group, as the communal volume deafened all other conversations inside the patio. When we left, a staffer informed TJ that our group was too large to meet inside the cafe and no one was allowed to bring outside food to consume inside. We were also told that our group was too loud and implied we were being obnoxious.

L likes the breakfast at Sakura Cafe. For 350 Yen, you get all-you-can-eat white toast, Asian soup, coffee and tea. L ate here every day because he prefers a light breakfast and he could work while the group could find him if they had questions. I joined him a few times. I would get there early in the morning and drink three tiny cups of soup. I always scooped up the goodies on the bottom of the pot (bits of meat, seafood, vegetables). By the time I got my third cup, the pot of soup was mostly broth. I thought it was funny but when I told L, I could see he disapproved. I didn’t feel bad that other customers only got broth. It’s not my fault the cafe skimps on the good stuff.

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The coffee was weak and the toast reminded me of Cobb’s white bread. A flavourless margarine and three types of jam were offered for the toast. I preferred picking up oden from 7/11 and then buying a coffee at Sakura Cafe so I could sit with L.

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Most convenience stores don’t sell oden in the spring or summer season. However, the 7/11 by our hotel did. I would eat three to four pieces – usually an egg, daikon, kinchaku, wiener-maki or shirataki.  Each piece ranges from 80 to 120 Yen. The broth was light, salty and savoury, made from a combination of soy and dashi. This simple stew looks strange but it’s tasty and warms you up first thing in the morning or late at night.

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Our hotel gave us a coupon for a free glass of wine or sake with the purchase of an entree. After a long day, TJ told us she wanted to grab a bite for dinner.  I knew from past experiences that when she’s hungry, she doesn’t want to wait for a table or to take the time to look around for a good restaurant. TJ only cares about the three Cs – convenience, cheapness and copious portions. I suggested we eat at Sakura Cafe even though I knew the food was the equivalent of Calgary’s Chili’s.  The wine taste like apple juice so I requested some ice cubes to enhance the flavour.

We all ordered the cafe’s specialty – Hamburger Gratin (1, 290 Yen). Basically, it’s a hamburger in a bun, covered in a creamy, cheesy sauce and baked until it’s a hot molten ball. I ordered a side of fries (490 Yen) to mop up the sauce and scraped most of the bun under the cast iron pan on top of my plate. L made a face because of the mess I was making. I told him I’d put the discarded bun back on the pan after I was finished dipping my fries with the sauce. I needed to move the bun otherwise the bread would soak up all the sauce. He pretended he didn’t know what I was talking about. After eight years, I can read L like an open book.

Highlight – my newfound love for oden. It’s a low calorie and a guilt-free option.

Lowlight – getting reprimanded for our group’s behaviour. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.