Words by Katy Anne, Photos by Ilana Freddye
Tokyo will seduce you - consume you - with its bright lights and electricity, its careful chaos, its cramped and crowded alleys, its wealth of small six-seat restaurants, all of which take themselves seriously.
It’s intimidating at first but quickly becomes familiar. It's much easier to navigate than you expect it to be. You'll start to love it. It takes care of you. It invites you to sit at the bar, pours you a cup of tea, tries to understand you, is patient with your shitty Japanese.
There's no bullshit here. Nearly everyone takes pride in their craft. Every neighborhood has its own long list of amazing restaurants, both Michelin starred and literal hole-in-the-wall joints specializing in an array of Japanese cuisine - ramen, sushi, soba, yakitori — and then specializing within that: thick, porky tsukemen ramen, fish-based, light and citrusy.
It's a city of endless good options. But here are a few of our favorite stand-outs:
Have you been? Let us know your favorites in the comments.
Among the long rows of divey-looking sushi restaurants at Tsukiji Fish Market is Sushi Dai: a small spot that opens at 5am It’s easy to spot; it’s the only place with a line that extends well into the street. And be prepared to wait: if you want to be first in line, you need to get there around 2-3am.
It's worth it. Maybe it’s the anticipation and hunger and (in our case) hypothermia that builds as you’re waiting, but the fish is incredible, the chefs are entertaining and kind, and the whole experience feels novel. It’s 400 yen (~$39 USD) for a 7 piece omakase that comes with 3 different cuts of tuna among other fish and ends with a piece of your choice.
Bonus points because this place has a female sushi chef (very rare - historically women were thought to have warmer hands and couldn't touch the fish).
5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chūō, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan
(TSUKIJI FISH MARKET)
TRANSIT: Tsukiji Station (yamanote line)
Okonomiyaki, the Japanese pancake-like street food, comes in many forms and styles. We sampled a few of them and this was our favorite: Hiroshima-style, a little messier than what you might find elsewhere and piled with a ridiculous amount of chopped scallions and bonito flakes. This particular spot is a gem: hidden in an alley in Nishishinjuku, with about ten tightly packed seats and two men standing behind a long flat top. They were kind to us and spoke a very small amount of soft broken English. Get a juice box of sake and enjoy the refuge from the rain (or maybe you’ll be smarter than us and go in the summer).
7 Chome-22-34 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0023
Transit: Nishi-Shinjuku Station (Maranouchi Line), Shinjuku Station + 20 minute walk (Yamanote Line)
This was our first meal in Tokyo and it absolutely blew our minds. Order a tempura set, almost like an omakase, and they dip and fry each piece individually and place it on a tray in front of you on the bar. Near your plate are a stack of three different salts - purple, green, and white — with tiny delicate spoons, a small bowl of dipping sauce, a bowl of finely grated daikon radish dressed with umeboshi paste, a bowl of hot white rice, and a small dish of Japanese pickles - cucumber and seaweed. A cup of steaming miso soup with tiny clams. Everything is just enough.
You sprinkle the salts on your plate with a tiny spoon, then dip your impossibly light and crunchy fishes and pumpkin into the salt and then into the dipping sauce, taking small bites of rice or radish or pickled ginger in between.
〒160-0022 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 新宿３丁目３１−８
TRANSIT: Shinjuku Station (Yamanote Line)
This is one of the spots that David Chang goes to in the first season of Mind of A Chef, and it’s as good as he says it is. There’s two types of home-made noodles in the soup: one is long and flat, almost like lasagna, and the other is hefty and awkward and addictively al dente. The broth is thick and silky and topped with tiny preserved fish.
It’s a charming, dark and tiny bar with no more than 6 seats and like most ramen spots in Tokyo, you order from a machine inside the restaurant and hand your ticket to the ramen chef. If you don’t know Japanese, the machine is a guessing game in terms of what to order — but know that everything is good.
Oh - and it's open 24 hours.
1 Chome-1-10 Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0021
TRANSIT: Shinjuku Station (Yamanote Line)
This ramen chain is all over Tokyo now (and in Portland too) but definitely worth a stop. The yuzu-scented chicken broth is addicting and much lighter than other ramen styles. It's bright from the yuzu and comes with thin noodles, a hunk of pork belly, fresh veggies, and seaweed. There's a few variations including a beautiful steamed veggie ramen. We loved the yuzu-shoyu topped with soft egg & hot chicken fat.
〒150-0013 Tokyo, Shibuya, Ebisu, 1 Chome−1−7, 117ビル
TRANSIT: Ebisu Station (YAMANOTE LINE) + other locations
This place is a sleeper. It’s hard to find — hidden on a residential street in an unmarked building — and feels exclusive. It’s one of those intimidating, sexy places that I just assumed we couldn’t get into. But we only waited about 20 minutes for lunch around noon.
Like a lot of Japanese restaurants they specialize in one thing: soba. There's a lot of options but we both had the soba with raw egg. First they bring a tea pot of hot broth/sauce, a bowl of scallions and a bowl with a raw, rich golden egg. Pour the hot broth over the egg, add the scallions, and mix it with chop sticks until it becomes a thick sauce. Then take the soba noodles from the ornate ceramic box, dip them into the sauce and slurp them into your mouth.
On its own, the soba is more a light meal or snack. If you’re in it to win it, there’s options to add tempura, salads, etc. If you’re into “progressive dining,” like we are, stop here for a snack, have some sake, and then go eat build-your-own okonomyaki in Harajuku-ko.
5 Chome-23-3 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
TRANSIT: Shibuya Station (Yamanote Line) OR Harajuku (Chiyod Line)
Our first omakase and an overall killer experience. When food is this good, it’s not about palate or preference anymore; it’s fact. Every piece of sushi is meticulously prepared, rhythmically pressed to the rice several times with bare hands. Tuna, glazed lightly with soy sauce and topped with pulverized scallions and ginger; seven tiny white fish with heads and tails attached, wrapped in a small piece of nori; squid sprinkled with sea salt.
It’s quiet in there, old school, and minimalist. You eat the whole piece of nigiri with your hands, fish down so you can taste it first, and chew it in the front of your mouth.
Pro-tip: always try the fancier sushi spots at lunch. Much lower price for the same quality - this was 600 Yen for 7 pieces. We didn’t make reservations but found luck with walking into restaurants right when they opened. If you're planning ahead, make a res.
2 Chome-11-8 Hamamatsucho, Minato, Tokyo, Japan
TRANSIT: Hamamatsucho Station (Yamanote Line, Keihintohoku Line)
Japan does Portland better than Portland does Portland and Paddler’s is a great example of that: a Portland-esque coffee shop serving Stumptown Coffee and American-style lattes. It’s run by our now- friend Daisuke, an ultra-hip, very down-to-earth Japanese native who spent ten years living in Portland.
The space is beautiful on a quiet corner in Shibuya-ko, with a light wood deck shaded by trees. And the coffee is very good. Coffee is just becoming a thing in Tokyo, and this spot is the best, if not the pioneer of it.
If you’re sick (like we were) get the hot lemonade: like super sweet lemon tea, and soothing AF.
2 Chome-26-5 Nishihara, 渋谷区 Tokyo 151-0066
TRANSIT: Hatagaya Station (Keio New Line)
Two women run this homestyle restaurant from the bottom floor of their apartment and it’s fantastic: real Japanese home-cooking, which is hard to find in restaurants.
The menu changes nightly and we let a local order for us. Some highlights: pumpkin fritters, fried burdock root, cucumbers with umeboshi & fresh ginger; salad of watercress, roasted brussels, and black pepper. Be sure to try their homemade plum & passionfruit wine.
1-7-5 Kamimeguro Meguro Tokyo
TRANSIT: Nakameguro Station (Hibiya Line)
Winestand Waltz Natural Wine Bar
A small, hip all natural wine bar with about 8 seats with an adorable bartender who's knowledgeable about their long list of natural wines. Loud, cramped, and convivial. It makes you feel like a local to be there at this tiny spot hidden off the main drag of Ebisu.
4 Chome-24-3 Ebisu, 渋谷区 Tokyo 150-0013
Transit: Ebisu Station (Yamanote or Hibiya Line)
A basement spot and hard to find - but worth the journey. When you walk in, through the automatic door and two curtains, the chefs yell "Irasshaimase" and motion you to sit down. Yakitori spots specialize in chicken - you can get every part of the bird, literally, including three different parts of cartilage. But there's veg too: the roasted ginkgo nuts & day lily blossoms are so good, as well as a few different mushrooms.
If you’re brave this is a great spot to try chicken sashimi. They serve the breast meat, sliced thin and totally raw, topped with ginger, shiso, and some kind of vinegar. Once you get over your deep-rooted fear of salmonella, it’s pretty easy to enjoy (Japanese meat is extremely clean - there’s a .004% chance of catching salmonella there). It has the texture of raw tuna and the flavor is fresh and mostly masked by the really delicious topping.
〒106-0031 Tokyo, Minato, 西麻布４丁目２−６
tricky to get to by transit, either take a leisurely walk from Harajuku and stop at all the fancy shops along the way or grab a taxi.
It can be pretty hard to find fresh vegetables in Tokyo. They’re always cooked or pickled, and after ten days of eating noodles and tempura and grilled meat, it’s nice to change things up.
Enter Brown Rice: a vegan spot in the Shibuya neighborhood not far from Harajuku. They do several set lunches, each of them light, delicious, and appropriately healthy. We both got the steamed vegetables - 9 or 10 of them cooked in a bamboo basket — which comes with pickles, brown rice, and dipping sauce.
The mandarin juice costs 80 Yen or so but is absolutely delicious.
5 Chome-1-8 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
Transit: Meiji-jingumae <Harajuku> Station (Fukutoshin line)
Not the highest quality sushi by any means, but still better than almost anything you’ll eat in the states. And you get to take it off a conveyer belt. Make sure to special order something, because it comes on an “express train.” Our favorite: Katsu Midori in the Seibu Department Store in Shibuya.
It feels worth mentioning that 7-11 is everywhere in Tokyo and actually has some decent food. Some of it is crap, but a lot of the food is pretty fresh and gets delivered every few hours. We became addicted to a breakfast of 7-11 onigiri filled with cured egg yolk. They wrap the seaweed separately from the rice so it doesn’t get soggy until you eat it. The Japanese are geniuses. They also have a section of HOT canned and bottled drinks along with cold.
Oh thank heaven for 7-11, am I right?
Michelin-star yakitori next door to the very famous Sukiyabashi Jiro in the Ginza metro station. Get the ginkgo nuts.