When your world gets a bit smaller, the smaller things get a bit bigger.
That essentially was my summer. Normally, I’d be flitting around at giant group picnics and installing myself in an izakaya until late at night, slowly working my way through the sake menu.
This year, there was precious little opportunity for such frolicking. Partly because of the pandemic and partly because of my new job. It was so hectic I sometimes didn’t have time to leave my home (read: office) for days at a time.
However, without veering towards too much navel-gazing, I realized a couple of important things about stomach-filling: I’m really a very simple, if judgmental, creature. A good coffee can light up my entire afternoon, but the emphasis is on good. I’m unashamedly snobby. And Tokyo is the perfect place to be simple and snobby at the same time.
So, here’s a rummage through my affordable yet fantastic summer eats. At the same time, an ode to the fantastic metropolis that is Tokyo.
Rise of the Food Trucks: Artigiano Rick
Yatai are Japanese street stalls – the kind you see at festivals (matsuri), selling takoyaki and chocolate bananas. In fact, nowadays you pretty much only see them at festivals.
Yet I’ve been delighted to notice an increase of food trucks around the capital, presumably to cater to the pandemic-driven takeout boom. From speaking to a truck owner last year, it’s not an easy business to run – trucks can only be parked on private land and a license must be obtained individually for each prefecture. In spite of that, there are more food trucks on Tokyo’s street corners.
— キッチンカーリック (@rick_kitchencar) October 3, 2021
My discovery is Artigiano Rick Kitchen Car, which pops up at Citabria BayPark on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Arigiano Rick serves pasta. Not just any pasta, but pasta that boldly walks the al-dente tightrope before somersaulting into flavor. Their seasonal special was a porcini mushroom cream spaghetti. The deep umami of the mushrooms was carried by the smooth creaminess into something astoundingly good. Even more so when being created in an exceptionally tiny truck.
The Artigiano Rick Kitchen Car is actually an offshoot of an Azabu-Juban restaurant, self-described as an “Osaka Italian.” The Osakan owner — disappointingly yet unsurprisingly not named Rick — appeals to customers around the concept of meat, vegetables and wine. According to the restaurant’s Twitter, Artigiano Rick Kitchen Car pops up in Akasaka on weekdays, serving very un-Italian dishes like taco rice.
Lunch from delivery only Hao Shokudo – amazing Taiwanese food with proper chilli 🔥 pic.twitter.com/URphV9krqG
— Pheebz (@PhoebeAmoroso) June 18, 2021
Satellite Kitchens: Hao Shokudo
Another transformation in the Tokyo dining scene is the delivery boom. My experience with ordering delivery has, however, mainly been one of almost consistent mediocrity and mournfulness. And then I encountered Hao Shokudo. I order from them maybe once a week. In fact, I am no longer tagging them on Instagram because my level of fandom is bordering on creepy.
Hao Shokudo launched out of Kitchen Base, a shared kitchen facility in Kagurazaka, in April. It’s run by Liu Liang-Yen, a Taiwanese man who came to Japan five years ago and proclaims he wants to share the authentic taste of Taiwan with people in Japan. The focus is primarily Taiwanese rice bowls with different toppings, although he has recently launched a curry menu. There’s a great two-for-one offer on Uber Eats for Taiwanese fried chicken on rice that is exceptional – moist, tender and flavored well with garlic and white pepper. This is fried chicken that you can eat, smack your lips and feel satisfied without wallowing in oily regret.
My top tip is the luxury all toppings rurohan – rich minced pork on rice. It comes with Taiwanese braised thick fried tofu, lightly sweet Taiwanese sausage, crisp pickled cucumber, fresh coriander, a soft-boiled egg and a little pot of red chili sauce that will sear your tongue in that good masochistic way.
If you don’t live in the delivery area, go and collect and live without regrets.
Neighborhood Ramen: Shiina, Shinjuku Gyoen
Wherever you live in the city, there’s a high chance you live walking distance from fantastic ramen. In my case, Shiina is just a few minutes’ walk from Shinjuku Gyoen and I have long, unfairly ignored it. The store opened in 2018 and has rave reviews and ratings on Japanese gourmet websites.
They offer salt, shoyu and tori paitan but I’ve only tried one seasonal special – tsukesoba with Iwate duck and light soy broth. Everything from the tenderness of the meat to the springiness of the noodles was perfect. The broth was also light but complex, entertaining until the last drop. All this was topped off with one of their specialties: obscenely large chicken and shrimp wontons that pack maximum flavor into their generous size.
The interior is bright and clean and they even have a table for four people tucked at the back.
Neighborhood Coffee: Double Tall Shinjuku Gyoen
As a proud owner of a Shinjuku Gyoen annual pass, this is another delightful discovery that beats the Starbucks inside the garden. Double Tall is a small coffee chain with branches in Tokyo including Shibuya and Harajuku, as well as a couple of other cities in Japan.
Beans are from their own farm in Hawaii and roasted in the Coffee Hangar in Shibuya. The menu has all the espresso-based drinks as well as pour-over coffee, cold brew, and a variety of black tea-based drinks. The regular latte comes with a double shot and is smooth and rich. For those with a sweet tooth, pair your caffeine of choice with one of their excellent pound cakes. Keep an eye on their changing flavors.
There are a few seats inside, a bench outside and an entire park nearby that’s begging for a coffee-fueled stroll.
The Store Shaped Like Strawberry Shortcake: Merci
While Japan is a country of rules that can stifle innovation, particularly in the corporate sphere, the gastronomic scene seems to get the same free pass as art: it has a license that permits creativity.
One day, gazing down on the Shinjuku landscape, I noticed a store shaped like a white wedge. What is that store? I set about triangulating the apparent location with street shapes on Google Maps and then I discovered… Merci. A store shaped like a strawberry shortcake!
Now, this would not be the first time that Japan has gifted the world with buildings craftily shaped like what they sell. Kirin Beer Factory is shaped like beer and Meiji Chocolate Factory in Osaka is shaped like chocolate. It is, therefore, with great sadness that I must inform you that Merci does not sell strawberry shortcakes. It doesn’t sell anything French, either.
However, it’s an extremely reasonably priced sandwich store. They have ready-made sandwiches for the day or you can get them made to order. The Merci Original includes a homemade meat patty with a fried egg, a ridiculous number of layers of crispy lettuce and other veggies. It is all around luscious in the way any good sandwich should be. This might be controversial, but I’d argue that it’s far better than strawberry shortcake.
The main store is in Akebonobashi and is mainly for takeout, with a couple of tables outside. Delivery is available. Another store opened in Kichijoji this year. However, I’ve yet to verify if it’s also shaped like a misleading cake.
Featured and top illustration by Masayoshi Ninomiya.
Read more about Phoebe’s food adventures in previous Pheebz Eats columns: