I've been procrastinating this thing for reasons even I don't understand so I guess I better just dive in. I think I will approach this as a kind of bullet point remembering of some great meals I had. I'll probably go through this chronologically but I reserve to right not to.
We landed in Tokyo at about 9pm local time and by the time we had made it through customs, and a $150USD cab ride to the Shinjuku neighborhood, we were a weird mix of exhausted and excited. Such is traveling. That night we just walked around the neighborhood looking for a few beers and trying to avoid the hucksters who kept coming up to us in an attempt to entice up into their various "establishments." Mrs. SlowBreak will be happy to hear that we never really figured out what exactly these places were selling but I'm pretty confident that it wasn't bible lessons. As an interesting aside, one of the friends I was traveling is Korean and he was able to walk down these streets unimpeded. The other two of us, both caucasian, were unable to walk ten feet without attracting the unwanted attention of these guys. So it goes.
That night we probably pushed it a bit too far. At one point I sang a Karaoke duet with a local in what I'm pretty sure was a gay bar. I hope I didn't lead anyone on. Somehow we ended up at a little dive outside bar where we were able to drink a few beers and order some sake (although I suspect we were given cheap whiskey). The night ended around 6am with an unremarkable but needed meal of Gyoza and fried rice. We then slept late into the next morning. It was a pretty good first night for a few guys on the wrong side of 40.
The next afternoon we set out on foot in the direction of Tokyo Imperial Castle. Along the way we had our first great meal. As you can imagine, we were in serious need of a good filling meal but we also wanted to sample some local cuisine. Fortuantly, Ramen exists.
This was not the ramen you remember from your college years. The noodles were firm and flavorful, the chicken and vegetables fresh as morning dew, and the sauce was was a marvel of egg enriched bliss. I think there were even shreds of saffron garnish. Yes indeed, this first real meal would remain in contention for the entire trip.
Dinner that night was a disappointment and breakfast the next day, I'm embarrassed to admit, consisted of a chicken McMuffin as we scrambled through light rain towards Tokyo Station. We had a train bound for Osaka to catch.
Now folks, let's have a brief geography quiz. Without looking it up, what do you imagine Osaka, Japan is like population wise? Personally I was expecting something along the lines of Minneapolis or Seattle. Instead I found Chicago or Los Angeles. In fact, by some measures, Osaka is one of the top ten biggest cities in the world. Who knew?
After a long speedy train ride from Tokyo to Osaka we decided to grab some train station fare to tide us over. I attempted to purchase a bento box but the one I wanted was sold out (what can I say, I have great taste). In a panic move I opted for a package of triangular rice cakes with various offerings of vegetables and fish inside. It came wrapped in some kind of fancy banana leaf and was dense as hell. It was good but not great but I'll say this: I was not hungry again for a long time and I wasn't full of greasy shit like I would have been if I'd been eating emergency lunch in an American train station.
Eventually we made it to our hotel where we were wowed by the high tech toilets and and high speed internet. One of the people I was traveling with is some kind of professor and we had plans to meet up with a graduate school colleague of his that is a professor herself at a University in Osaka. She will be featured in the story of my next two interesting meals. That night she took us to a Malay Seafood restaurant that was on the 15th floor of a very fancy shopping center that was so shiny and clean one could imagine it had been built just the week before our arrival. I think the restaurant was a part of some kind of international chain but the overall experience was pretty good so it was a nice choice on her part. I had never had Malaysian food before so I was interested to give it a whirl and I have to say I was not disappointed. It came off as a kind of weird Thai fusion that was not exactly Thai but I'm not sure what it was fused with. I suppose it's more accurate to just say it was Malaysian food. Also it was spicy, which is always a plus for me. We had a few sides that were pretty good but the star of the show was the crab that we had said hello to on the way in while it was still able to wave back. This one was soaked in some kind of curry.
The next morning we opted for the hotel buffet just to get a nice base going for the day ahead. It was interesting but nothing stood out as noteworthy other than the opportunity to try an Osaka culinary speciality, Octopus Balls. They were squishy- what did you expect. That day we explored Osaka Castle, which offered up some excellent views, and the waterfront, where we were able to take a terrifying ride on one of the biggest ferris wheels in the world. Eventually we met back up with our professorial hostess who promptly took us to another, even shinier, shopping mall. After this we set out on a search for dinner and I made it clear it was sushi or bust, at least for me. My friends graciously agreed and we made our way to an neighborhood sushi restaurant which can be best described as the Fuddruckers of sushi. I mean this in a good way. It was family friendly, fun, and cheap. The sushi came out on a conveyer belt from which you just took what you wanted and at the end they counted up the plates. You also had the opportunity to order specific items from a touch screen if you weren't seeing what you wanted go by on the belt. These items came shooting out like a comet which led to some excitement when our hostess misjudged the timing and ended up spilling a bowl of cold udon noodles everywhere. Thank god it wasn't me! The staff came out and eventually brought us a replacement which, frankly, they could have kept because cold noodle soup with raw egg is not my favorite. Otherwise the meal was good, not great, but shockingly cheap. Considering it was better quality sushi than the Lunds/Byerly's variety the under $30 price tag for a dinner for four was shocking to say the least. Best Sushi value ever!
The next day we were off to Seoul, Korea for a four night stay via AirBnB in the fantastic Hongdae neighborhood. This was the meat and potatoes part of the trip (figuratively, not literally). My friend, a Korean born adoptee, had done a remarkable research job which resulted in us seeking out some specific spots for for food in Seoul. The first of these was a fantastic Mandu (Korean dumpling) place that was simply amazing. We got the sample platter:
I cannot stress enough how fantastic these were. The fried ones were the crowd pleaser- and with good reason but I think I liked the steamed Mandu best. Here's what it looks like in the prep statge:
The next night we sought out a restaurant that specialized in Korean pancakes. Think savory, not sweet. Again we ordered the sampler platter which came out filled with various seafood, meat and veggies, and looked so good when arrived that we forgot to snap a photo. Holy crap were they good though. We scarfed these down with the traditional accompaniment of a sparkling rice wine called Makgeolli. I really need to figure out if this stuff is available in the Twin Cities. Anyone? Help?
The next day (ok, I might be mixing up days) I insisted that we find Dolsot BiBimBap for lunch. I have been to Korea before and have also been to Korean restaurants. I also read Canis Hoopus. All these factors converged to make it absolutely imperative that I eat Dolsot BiBimBap at least once while I was in Korea. I would eat it three times and I'm not sorry in the least but the first time was the best by far. We headed over to the Itaewon neighborhood in search of some lunch. Now this is one of the most international neighborhoods in Seoul and probably could have led to us ordering mediocre lunch at double the price. Fortunately, thanks to a few footsteps off the beaten path, this did not happen. Somehow we ended up in a very much non-touristy restaurant that clearly was designed mostly for delivery to the local shops. I don't know much Korean other than half assed versions of "hello" and "thank you" but the woman who greeted us understood my questioning tone when I asked "Dolsot BiBimBap?" so we sat down and waited. The first thing that came out was the Banchan which are small side dishes, such as kimchi, which generally accompany Korean meals. This was some of the best Banchan I have ever had. Really, it was fantastic. Here is a photo:
Next came the dish itself and, despite the fact that the bowl it came in was not stone, this was the stuff I flew around the world for. It was just so damn good. Two quick notes: first off, the whole time we were eating they were preparing trays of food which were covered with newspaper and then delivered to local shops by an elderly woman who balanced them on her head as she trudged through the midday heat: secondly, this dish is good on it's own (seared rice, pickled veggies, egg) but the star is the red pepper bean paste. This stuff should be renamed "god sauce." Anyway, this is what came out of the kitchen and I will dream about it for the rest of my natural life.
Like I said, I ate this food three times over the next few days and, although it was alway very good, it was never as good as this first place. Still, I will share a picture of the next time I ate this because who doesn't love pictures of food?
By now we had found good Mandu, good Jeon and good BiBimBap. There was only one food that, as American tourists, we were contractually obligated to eat. That's right folks, I'm talking about Korean BBQ. We found a place that specialized in pork belly and that was outside. It was fantastic and very cool. Someone even had the job of coal tender! That's one hell of a job if you ask me. Anyway, they bring out a plate with lettuce, hot peppers, mint leaves and other sides and then we are left to cook the pork ourselves. I can't really explain it. Maybe some photos will help.
Well, It seems as though I have written almost 2000 words about food that I ate. I have to admit this seems weird to me so I will wrap it up with a few quick hits on things I don't feel like writeing a whole lot about. I hope you will understand. First up is an ice cream cone with carmel popcorn. This was in the busy part of Hongdae. The ice cream was essentally flavor free which was perfect because of the sweetness of the carmel corn. I liked this way more than I thought I would.
One of the places we checked out was the Noryangjon fish market in Seoul. Apparently you can purchase the fresh fish and then bring it to one of the nearby resturants and they will prepare it for you. I kind of wanted to give it a try but my friends weren't up for it and I can't really blame them because the whole sitiation was super intimidating. Maybe next time. Here is a very cool video clip about it if you are interested.
I was lucky enough to spend my 42nd birthday Gangnam Style! It's actually a pretty fun neighboorood but we mostly could only afford to drink at the 7-11 which had a nice beer selection and chairs out front for us to sit at. The bars were pretty expensive. We did manage a nice dinner which came as a fixed price meal including drinks. I think it was meant for two but it was perfect for the three of us. Here's a picture:
The last night of the trip we found ourselves back in Tokyo. It had been a long day of travel so we were not as enthusiastic as we might have hoped but being that it was our last night we managed to scrape together some fun. The last bar of the night had some nice seared tuna (I think) sushi for too cheap to pass up. It was pretty good despite our not being very hungry.
I'll end with a quick non food related note about a personal adventure of mine from our last day in Tokyo. We had a redeye flight to Seattle to catch which put us in the weird position of having a full day in Tokyo but kind of feeling like the trip was over. I took advantage of this to fulfill a goal I had stored in the back of my mind of getting a tattoo in Tokyo. Japan is home to one of the world's great tattoo traditions and I had done my research and knew that if it was going to happen it would be at Three Tides Tattoo. Because the last day was kind of weird anyway, and the shop was only a few miles away from the hotel, my friends were cool enough to walk with me to the shop and then hang around the neighborhood while I got my tattoo. It probably helped that it was a pretty interesting neighborhood. Anyway, the trip ended with this awesome dragon tattoo!
Well folks, that's my trip. Obviously it was pretty sweet. Thanks to my two good friends (both Canis lurkers) for the great time and obviously a very special thanks to the amazing and supportive Mrs. SlowBreak for letting me go on such a grand adventure without her. I hope you enjoyed this culinary reminiscent post and I look forward to hearing from this great community about some of the wonderful foods you have happened upon in your own adventures.