Eat Like a Local: Why These 5 Hotspots Will Give You a True Taste of Tokyo
With 160,000 restaurants and more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, Tokyo’s dining scene can seem intimidating at first. Factor in secret locations and menus exclusively in Japanese and the faint-hearted traveler may wonder if they should’ve just stayed home with some instant ramen instead. Luckily, Tokyo is full of outstanding food and with a little wandering, hidden gems are numerous and waiting to be found. Hold off on the tourist trap food tour and peek into these top spots where locals go to fill their bellies.
The best category to start with are the izakayas—informal Japanese gastropubs, literally translating to “a place to linger with sake.” One of particular authenticity and excellence is Shinsuke in Yushima, a family run izakaya open since 1924. Sake choices are locally-sourced and the best food orders are also the most simple: sashimi of saba mackerel, deep-fried sardines (iwashi no ganseki), and yuba uni (silky soymilk skin with a dollop of urchin). Look out for a door marked with a sugidama, a ball of cedar branches, the sign of sake brewers.
On the other end of the spectrum, we look to Shinpaku—the new darling of the upscale sushi scene. A meal here generally involves ten types of sushi and 20 small dishes, accompanied by the backstory behind its creation, often with the chef passing around a video of the fish preparation as well. Grapefruit over a Nagasaki oyster with ponzu sauce, olive oil, and a sugarcoated rose petal is a current menu star. Patrons are composed of Tokyo’s culinary elite.
Swinging back to humbler fare, Ponchi-ken is third on the list, specializing in tonkatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets). Expect a long line of salarymen at lunchtime that is absolutely worth waiting in for the crispy and tender Okinawan pork. The meat comes in two cuts, thin or thick, and is served alongside shredded cabbage, house pickles, miso soup, and rice.
Segueing into noodles, Kanda Yuba Soba is not only a culinary must, but a historical one as well. The establishment has been around since 1884 and has been perfecting the buckwheat noodle ever since. A classic order is the Kamo-nanban soba, hand-cut noodles topped with a heap of sliced duck. Their famed winter dish is kaki soba, with oysters and wakame seaweed.
Topping off our list is Nagi Golden Gai for ramen, but forget everything you know about the popular soup. Located in the old red light district, Nagi serves ramen in sardine broth, niboshi, making for a smoky, salty flavor. Try the tokusei niboshi, filled with savory fat-marbled pork slices, bamboo shoots, and a soft-boiled egg. Like most authentic ramen joints in Tokyo, you order through a ticket machine and eat at the counter, most likely squeezed between other diners. Upon first hearty spoonful, you’ll be too satisfied to notice your surroundings.
Now for some final tips to take with you to any Tokyo eatery, always bring cash as even some of the highest-end restaurants don’t accept credit card. Slurp your noodles—a Japanese demonstration of enjoyment. Don’t be afraid of long waits, lines go quickly and symbolize what’s inside is worth it. Lastly, remember to always say gochisosama desu, a respectful way of saying thank you for your meal!