It’s no coincidence that Osaka and San Francisco are sister cities: They’re both densely populated with food-obsessed citizens. Sure, Osaka has a lovely castle and temples, but its number-one destination is Dotonbori Street – with its vast neon and restaurants featuring Godzilla-like plastic models of their house specialties hanging above the front door – the epicenter of what’s known as kuidoare.
Kuidaore, which means to eat into financial ruin or eat ‘til you drop, is so synonymous with this city that it even has its own clown for a mascot. Over the New Year’s holiday, I savored a three-day food tour of Osaka, topped off with a side trip to nearby Kyoto for a little nature and culture. In Osaka, I patiently lined up with the locals for okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakitori, kushikatsu, and, with tickets in hand waiting to cash in, a bowl of ramen at the counter. The lively eat streets around the Namba Station are great fun, but the best food I found was off of Dotonbori Street.
If you’re looking for a weekend-dining dash to Japan, here are a few places worth seeking out.
Walking through the bustling shopping arcades between Nipponbashi and Namba Subway stations, I came across Chibo. While Hiroshima may object, Osaka claims to be the origin of okonomiyaki, a saucy, savory pancake. On my first attempt to experience an authentic Osakan taste, which Chibo is known for, the line was deep, so I went two blocks west and found Kaiten Sushi. Perhaps it has a different name, since kaiten sushi translates to rotation or conveyor belt sushi, but with its large signage and distinct black awning with 回転寿司 and “Kaiten Sushi” repeated along the border, it’s well-marked and deserves an honorable mention for its cheap, fresh fish and outstanding fried octopus.
The next day I decided to give Chibo another shot. Just after the 11 a.m. opening, I managed to beat the crowd and scored a spot at the counter in front of the teppanyaki or ‘iron griddle.’ Chibo’s okonomiyaki has the texture and flavor of a cross between pancake batter and brioche. The batter is then mixed with diced vegetables, cheese, cuttlefish, shrimp and a few chunks of beef. Then topped with two sauces, strips of bacon, and katsuobushi (dried, smoked bonito flakes), somehow these disparate components strike a surprising balance. It was the priciest (1,480 yen) of those I sampled but the most delicious one I’ve ever had.
If you’re a baseball fan, sushi connoisseur, or follower of the best selling author and former Les Halles chef Anthony Bourdain, then you want to ride the Midosuji Line down to Nishitanabe Station for Gosakudon. It is a hard table to get, so be persistent. But once in; you’re in. This ‘sports bar’ was featured on the popular Travel Channel show No Reservations, where Bourdain was impressed by the ardent supporters of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team and Gosakudon’s stellar sushi.
Gosakudon’s toro (medium-fatty tuna belly) was melt-in-your-mouth perfection and the hotate (scallops), with its succulent meaty texture and subtle sweetness, certainly were mighty impressive. Besides the delicious and very reasonably priced menu, head chef Satoko and her husband, who manages the floor, know how to make a visitor feel right at home. Complemented by the gracious patrons, the whole atmosphere of this friendly pub, or izakaya in Japanese, creates a truly memorable experience. Arigato.
A few blocks from Kyoto Imperial Palace Park, there’s Honke Owariya. Opened in 1465 as a confectionary shop, this elegant yet inexpensive traditional washitsu (Japanese-style rooms) restaurant has been serving soba (buckwheat noodles) to zen monks and the Emperor’s family for centuries. Soba is a simple unadorned dish of cold noodles with wasabi, leeks, shiso leaf chiffonade and a special homemade dipping sauce on the side. These plain hand-cut noodles feature the finest buckwheat flour imported from Hokkaido and reveal a delicate refinement. Their kake soba (hot noodle) is served in a soup flavored with mirin (sweet sake), dashi (dried bonito-flake broth), and nori (seaweed) for that umami taste. Speaking of sake, the Momonoshizuku sake brewed in Kyoto and served here, is akin to the soba itself: light, delicate, refined.
Something Else: Convenience Store Japanese Beers
I love convenience stores in Japan, especially Lawson. Their bento boxes, snacks and spirits selection is varied and offers so much more than the typical CU or 7-11. Furthermore, the beer fridges are stocked with beers you often can’t get in Korea. So, if you’re looking for something different, here’s a few to check out. Salud!
Yona Yona Ale (5.5% ABV, 240 Yen)
From Yo-Ho Brewing Company in Nagano, this American Pale Ale offers meyer lemon and orange citrus notes. Full-bodied and less carbonated than most beers, it has a slight hop/bitter yet rich finish to balance its fruit flavors.
Aooni India Pale Ale (7% ABV, 280 Yen)
Another brew from Yo-Ho, this has a floral nose with apricot and citrus from the hops. Its medium body brings a mellow, rounded hoppiness with a bitter orange/grapefruit flavor and some malt. This is quite a beer for the price.
Grand Kirin The Aroma (5.5% ABV, 227 Yen)
According to Kirin, it’s an American lager made with a “dip hop and aroma process.” If you like the smell/flavor of Mexi schwag, this light-medium-bodied brew is a must-try. It truly smells like a seedy sack of herb, in a pleasant way, for those that like the skunk.
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