Sky Full of Bacon

Sons, at The Loyalist for Son #2’s (left) birthday

It’s a transitional time in life for me—one kid out of the house already, another about to be. They have been such a part of my dining life for so long, my companions on discoveries, the audience I practiced my material on before it went into cold type. Not that they aren’t still—two of the high-end dinners about to be cited here were with Son #1, now old enough to be served wine and beer (and to do a shot with the chefs, which he did).

But even when I traveled the world in the past, it was with them. Yet this year I took two trips without them—once to Vancouver with my wife, once to Mexico City with David Hammond. And son #1 will be taking one without me, studying abroad in Ireland this spring.

Son #1 with bottle of wine I bought shortly after his birth

This is how travel will be, I guess. So this annual ten best list is from a new life coming into view. As always, if you want serious and thoughtful discussion of the restaurants I admire in Chicago, get your hands on The Fooditor 99; this is more an impressionistic list of the things I tasted during the year and still think, damn, I would eat that again right now:

10. Dill and creme fraiche dessert, Band of Bohemia
I forget how it was phrased on the menu exactly, but when I saw those words on the dessert menu, I thought—with a name like that, in which the word chocolate does not appear at all, it has to be good. And it was—bracingly bright, as savory as it was sweet, but utterly refreshing. Jacquelyn Runice, who created it, has since gone on to Temporis, but I’ll follow her there one of these days.

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9. Chiusoni, Tortello
The subject of this Fooditor story, but son #1 had the best comment: “You forget how good pasta can be sometimes.”

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8. Chinese food, Chicago, Vancouver, Atlanta
I’m violating my own one-best-thing-I-tasted rule for this list, because I ate so much Chinese food this year—much of it for this Fooditor piece—and there were many outstanding things, yet no one thing I can say stood above. Instead what I got from it was the high quality of Chinese food in North America (despite what this article says). From the leek and bacon at Szechwan JMC in Chicago to the crispy pork at Hong Kong BBQ Master in Vancouver (the first place David Chang and Seth Rogen eat on that Netflix show), I had an immersion in Chinese food. If you’re going to make me pick one, I guess it would be the lacquered pork (above right) at La Mom Kitchen in Chicago—and there’s a funny story; I skipped it for the Chinese list linked above, because at the time its main focus seemed to be on Asian burritos. A month or two later, it’s the hottest new Chinese restaurant in town, and I missed it.

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7. Bread and butter, Middle Brow Bungalow
I like the pizza and salads, I like the chill rehabbed-building vibe, but this place wowed me the most with the first bite of densely brown, nutty bread and salted butter. The second one is a more complex dish (bread with a cured egg on it) but it’s up there too.

6. Kadala Curry, Thattu
If there was more vegetarian food as clean and simple and perfect as this black chickpea curry at Thattu in Politan Row, I’d eat more vegetarian food. Love the spicy biscuit cookie thing, too.

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5. Nantucket Bay Scallops with Paw Paw Pale Ale, Moody Tongue
This just in, too recently for The Fooditor 99, but the two Jareds—brewer Rouben and chef Wentworth—have a winner in the second iteration of the brewery built around food ingredients, which now includes a tasting menu in which elegant dishes interplay with complexly crafted beers to create combinations you’ve never seen before. (Needless to say, that’s not a scallop, but it was the best dish picture I took that night.)

4. Bavette steak with kimchi truffle sauce, Jeong
From Buzz List in March: “The only thing I’d say against the tasting menu is that I’d have liked a little more of the Korean flavors—in fact, the ones I liked the best were the ones that combined tasting menu finesse with the shock of the new, like a hunk of bavette steak with a delicate (!) kimchi-truffle sauce that is likely to be on my ten-best list this year, or the last dessert, a spice cake which had a bit of barley-tea rusticness to it.”

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3. Cambodian chicken sandwich, Hermosa
Mike Sula has done the most writing on what this little food stand with a playful chef (who used to be a host at Next!) is doing, but suffice it to say that in a very good year for chicken sandwiches, this is the one that really blew me away with its downhome Asian spicing.

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2. Bread and butter course, Schwa
“Bread and butter course” would be known as the A5 Miyazaki course in any other restaurant, the usual standout in a tasting menu—but ever-playful Schwa starts you with a more conventional-looking wagyu plate, then leads to a wagyu bao that was the most intensely beefy thing I ate all year, accompanied by butter and cocoa nib-dipped French breakfast radishes—the bread and butter.

1. The Madonna of the Gorditas, Mexico City
David Hammond and I were walking from the Pallacio des Bellas Artes toward the Mercado San Juan, down a street full of shops selling LED lights. There were a couple of street vendors on each block. As we passed one I saw a familiar movement out of the corner of my eye—someone handpatting masa into a tortilla. I made a braking noise like in a Warner Brothers cartoon and convinced Hammond that we needed to sit down for a gordita break (not hard). We watched as the young woman who worked the stand with her mother patted out our gordita, smooshing in whatever we wanted in it (a little meat and cheese), then grilled it. It was made so lovingly, with such devotion to producing the best possible result, that we were charmed, even rendered into a state of grace watching her at her work. And when we got it—for all of about 90 cents—it was everything we hoped and wished it to be. An experience of food grace, to remind us what it’s all about, and how little that can have to do with what it costs.

Here’s Hammond’s version of the same tale.

F99 2020 cover kindle

Get your copy of The Fooditor 99 here.

I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2018 2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003


Sky Full of Bacon exists now mainly to host this list annually (and for its own archive, of course). I figure Fooditor readers have had enough of my opinions and list making by the time The Fooditor 99 is done, and anyway, the purposes of that list and this one were always a little different. The Fooditor 99 is the best 99 places to eat; this was the ten best things I ate. A place that wasn’t great overall, could make one fantastic thing and be on this list.

But as I start trying to figure out what those ten things would be, I’m having a hard time seeing the distinction. Maybe it’s that I’m still in Fooditor 99 headspace. But my 2018 was much less about finding that mind-blowing taste and more about finding that place that takes you, whole, somewhere else.

Nowhere was that clearer to me than when I finally went to Thailand this year, during Christmas break. A few years ago I definitely would have searched for the thing that blew my mind, expanded my idea of what Thai food could be.


And I know I should have wanted to stand in line for twenty minutes at the place that offers… toast, hand-grilled over charcoal on the street. People asked if I was going to hip new places and Michelin-starred innovators… honestly, traveling with kids whose enthusiasm wanes quickly the longer and fancier the meal gets, made that just too complicated for me. For one thing, honestly, from the Thai food I had in Thailand… Thai food in Chicago is really good, and deeply authentic at its best. So while I’m sure there are new things to be had, and some mindblowers out there, it wasn’t a matter of having “real” Thai food at long last.


There was a revealing moment for me at a Chinese restaurant in Bangkok, Canton House, when we took a Taste of Thailand tour (as recommended by Steve Dolinsky). We had a spread of dim sum in front of us to sample, some familiar, some new. And the best of it was almost all the stuff we already knew, barbecued pork buns and shrimp har gow and so on. While the new things were less exciting, not as successful or delectable. (It suddenly dawns on me that that was pretty much my reaction to The French Laundry, too.)

Yet I loved just walking the streets, passing vendor after vendor cooking on Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road, and in the side streets that turn off of it, and in the alleys that turn off of them… hundreds of people adding the scent of what they make to the air, and the intensity of their industry to an amazing food scene. I kind of didn’t have to eat (though I did), it was almost enough to simply see it and feed off that energy, to see that life in action. And the sheer fecundity of food stalls sprouting everywhere by the hundreds—not just all over Bangkok but even in small, somewhat tacky Ao Nang, where we stayed at a resort nearby for a few days—makes a joke of ever thinking you’ve had the best of anything. All you can hope for is The Really Good of a thing.


Anyway, I’m not saying this is a huge change in how I have always explored food… but it is something of a shift, from wanting to eat it to caring more about being in the thick of it as a culture. So these are the ten things that I remember most from 2018, that stuck with me, but not just because of how they tasted—because of what they represent in the lives of people who share their eating lives with us, I guess. Something for which I am always most grateful, living in this great city and getting to visit others.


10. Carne asada huarache, Taqueria El Katechon.

With everybody in love with Xocome Antojeria, I need a new neighborhood Mexican place to push for wider awareness. This place was on this Fooditor list but finally returning to it, I was doubly impressed by the toothsome housemade tortillas (shown above) and incendiary salsas. The service is friendly as can be, too, even if not much in English. Check it out.


9. Carnitas tlacoyo, Xocome Antojeria.

Super hearty and comfy dish at a nice family place. Read more here.

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8. Rolled noodle-crispy pork soup, Kuay Jab Nuai Han, Bangkok.

A test for me after trying a bunch of things in one night is to see, a few days later, which one comes to mind first. For our Chinatown eating tour it was this amazing soup of a clear broth tasting brilliantly of black pepper, pieces of crispy grilled pork fresh off the fryer, and chewy rolled noodles. Simple, pure, perfect, a Charlie Trotter level bowl for a buck fifty. (Other top things in Thailand: grilled pork neck (shown above), pork belly at Err Urban Rustic Thai, boat noodles at Ao Nang Boat Noodles. I never thought much of that dish before, now I’m sure it ranks with ramen and pho among the great Asia soups—in fact, sort of halfway in-between the two, fire and five spice.)


7. Kyoten.

I could try to reconstruct the best fishes and preparations at this new sushi hotspot to name them one by one, but just go there, have it all, experience new things from a rising star with his own way of doing things.


6. Steak taco, The Laughing Taco, Milwaukee.

Like many chefs today, Justin Carlisle started at the top (Ardent, regularly ranked Milwaukee’s best restaurant) and has worked his way down with Red Light Ramen and now this local taco chain. All the tacos were good but the carne asada one using his dad’s richly flavorful Carlisle beef, same as Ardent does, must be the best steak bargain in the midwest.

5. Saturday afternoon snacks, Bar Biscay.

The best thing is a new restaurant that gets better and better every time you go back in its early months. Bar Biscay was promising at a media preview but some holes showed; much improved at a dinner a month or so later… and, as I tell the story in The Fooditor 99, just perfect one Saturday sipping vermouth and noshing on things from the sea on bread.

4. Orange dreamsicle, Pretty Cool Ice Cream.

Though it could as easily be the Fudgsicle one or the mint chocolate chip one. This place is the charmer of the year.

3. Eggs on eggs (caviar omelet), duck with coriander and India Pale Ale, Band of Bohemia.

The dishes that turned me around on this three-year-old restaurant/brewery (and led me to do this piece about them), from then-brand new chef Ian Davis, who brought the food and its beer pairings new complexity and subtlety.


2. Foie gras/langoustine courses, Schwa.

It started as a bowl of foie—and I’ve kind of had all the foie I ever need, but this was sharp and on point with tangy citrus notes and deep, oboe-ish chocolate notes. Then I got a spoonful of yeasted ice cream and used it to mop up the last fatty bits of foie, as the rollercoaster slid from hot to cold. Surely now my bowl would be bussed and replaced by something else… but instead I got what looked like a rubber ball with something inside, which went in my bowl and was topped with steaming broth. Now it was a bowl of soup, which continued changing flavor as the ball melted away, releasing a second broth that mixed with the first, and a langoustine trapped inside. (It did not come to life and start growing larger, but that wouldn’t have surprised me.)”


1. “Ddukbokki gnocchi” with lamb ragu, Passerotto.

I don’t think that’s the actual name but it’s how Jennifer Kim described it to me, the dish that best combines Italian and Korean cuisine in her restaurant, and almost certainly the dish that’s on the most ten best lists in Chicago this year. We ordered it twice back to back! John Kessler loved it!

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Get your copy of The Fooditor 99 here.

I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

To be entirely repetitive of my 2016 list, I wrote a book of what restaurants to go eat at in Chicago, so I don’t want to repeat all that here. Instead this is a more intimate list of ten things I ate for the first time in 2017, that I’m sitting here thinking about, wishing I had, right now. Sorry to places where I had very good overall meals but not one specific standout thing, but those are in the book and other places I’ve made recommendations. Note: Photos are often the thing talked about, but sometimes just the best picture I had to show.

10. Southside Johnny, St. Gennaro, Tempesta Market
These people who make ten best lists in early December—to me it’s giving up on the hope that something else fantastic might be out there. This year’s mid-December find was this new market/sub shop front for the ‘Nduja Artisans business, which is less Italian subs than composed dishes on bread, using their own fantastic cured meats (read more here).

9. O-toro, Raisu Japanese Cuisine
After our 2016 trip to Japan, my younger son eats exactly one kind of sushi— salmon. And so I took him to Raisu on my second visit and he had a bowl of udon soup, and some salmon nigiri. On the way out he said, “That’s the best sushi I’ve had— in Chicago.” That’s my boy.

Liam repping Birrieria Zaragoza at the Centre Pompidou

8. Picnic in the Centre Pompidou plaza, Paris
So we went to France, and food-wise, it was kind of a disappointment. Well, restaurant-wise, that is—compared to Chicago’s diversity of flavors, France seemed bland, underseasoned (that, admittedly, could be me more than it), a bit stuck in the past. Clown Bar was the best meal we had but I don’t think it would make my top ten overall; I wish I had eaten less French and more north African, as it was certainly more fun exploring and discovering the little street stands than sitting in often stuffy restaurants, especially in 90 degree heat in Lyon.

Sidewalk dining at Urfa Durum, Paris

The best eating in France remained simply buying things at local shops and eating in the open air; some funky charcuterie, some crusty bread, some cheese (when I failed to find a cheese shop open, I simply went to Miniprix, think 7-11, and bought their house brand camembert—and it was glorious); or in Lyons a bit of pate en croute from the Paul Bocuse market. That’s the best, and cheapest, of France.

7. Bell dumplings, thick noodles, A Place by Damao
“A tiny storefront seating about 20 people, specializing in the foods that people buy and gobble down on the street in Chengdu—simple and nearly all dunked in chili oil, for more of a deep, warming heat than the quick burn of fresh peppers, and often mixed with the metallic tang of Sichuan peppercorn. Some of it’s meaty things—braised duck necks, duck feet, chicken gizzards, fried pig ears, rabbit. Others are simple, carb-heavy dishes—pork dumplings, a bowl of fat handcut noodles, wontons in a volcanic-looking broth.” Read more here.

6. Coffee with egg custard, noodles with grilled beef, Cà Phê Dá
I like HaiSous just fine, but maybe because I’ve been eating at its preview dinners for two years (see this story), when I finally ate there I enjoyed it, I love the clean simplicity of Vietnamese food, but I didn’t think “wow, that’s new.”

Then I just popped into HaiSous’ attached cafe… and the movie-set version of 50s Vietnam, the banh mi (a step above what you find at Argyle banh mi shops) and the lushly sweet coffees, a healthy-tasting bowl of noodles and grilled beef… it was restaurant discovery magic for me.

5. Hamachi aguachile, pork collar, Quiote
Two outstanding Mexican restaurants opened just a couple of blocks from each other, and either could have made this list (and did make The Fooditor 99), but I give an edge to Quiote over Mi Tocaya Antojeria for food that just seems deeper, more satisfying, making a stronger case for Mexican (especially Oaxacan) as a great world cuisine capable of doing everything from lighting your mouth up with spice to warming you from the inside out with deep peasanty flavors.

4. Tajarin, beet agnolotti, Daisies
I eat at too many places to have a favorite restaurant, but I had an all-purpose answer at one time, for a neighborhood place of exceptional skill and care with local farm to table ingredients— at very affordable prices. It was called Mado, and Daisies’ handcrafted pastas are the closest thing to at least part of that menu— and very close overall in spirit.

3. Fried chicken, Husk (Charleston)
You don’t have to do much to get me to like Southern food, and visiting Hominy Grill twice in five days seems like it might be enough to land a good comfy place on the list. But then Husk topped it with sheer fried chicken perfection (making up, by the way, for the disappointment of another Sean Brock restaurant, McCrady’s Tavern).

2. Olive Oil Poached Tuna, Sungold tomato, conserve vinaigrette, Nico Osteria
Farewell Snaggletooth. Long live Nico Osteria under chef Bill Montagne; this dish, suggestive of Spanish canned fish (in all the best ways), was the one that convinced me it wasn’t a bad trade.

1. Fish collar with nam prik, Proxi
I’m not the one who ordered this twice at the same meal. That was Anthony Todd. But I’m not going to say I objected in any way, either. I’ve loved every meal at Proxi, mostly because I love seeing mostly Asian flavors treated with such care, and served at such reasonable prices amid downtown glitz and glamor.

* * *

So I’ve been making ten best lists forever at different places; here’s the whole list of them:
2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

I spent enough of 2016 making a big list—The Fooditor 99, now available at Amazon and for Kindle!—so I’m not going to belabor what’s in that guidebook. But I’ve been making ten best lists for over a decade now so I might as well keep at it. Here are my ten favorite things I ate, most of which will not come as a surprise to readers of The Fooditor 99:

10. Jianbing, as described in The Fooditor Guide to Chinatown’s Richland Center Food Court: “Start with what looks like a burrito wrap, but is actually a flour crepe, fry egg directly on the crepe, stuff it with some things like lettuce, scallions and a schmear of hoisin sauce, wrap it up and you have a simple, fresh-tasting and absolutely delicious breakfast food.”

9. Black and white pizza from Nomad at Green City Market. Never let it be said that the Trib’s an-X-a-day-for-a-month didn’t produce at least one discovery for me. Thanks, Louisa.

8. Cantaloupe with lime leaf and chile, anise-cured egg dessert, etc., The Loyalist and Smyth: I seem to be a bit of a rarity in that I think the fine dining Smyth has great things ahead of it but is a little obscure, a little tough to puzzle out just yet… while I love The Loyalist, the more casual side, pretty much unreservedly. But that cantaloupe, so simple yet magical, stuck with me all year as a perfect example of chefs taking stuff at the high point of its season and dialing it up just a little past nature’s perfection. The burger’s good too, have you heard that?

7. Assorted Thai dishes at In-On Thai and Immm Rice and Beyond. We’re in a little Thai renaissance, including Paula’s, Tom Yum Cafe, JJ Street Food and others, but two stood above the rest. The tastiest one, alas, is closed now because the Lakeview building it was in was torn down—that’s In-On Thai. (There are hopes it will come back; read more here.) Immm Rice and Beyond is more challenging and not always as obviously pleasurable, but as discussed here, the street food-oriented buffet line offers a very different view of Thai food from any other place I know of.

6. Any fish plate at Snaggletooth. To quote The Fooditor 99, “It’s like Jewish deli sushi.”

5. Tasting menu at Hanbun. It was exciting to go to Oriole and Smyth & The Loyalist at the beginning of illustrious careers, but going to the strip mall in Westmont to eat Dave Park’s fine dining food with Korean flavors was in a whole ‘nother ballpark of not-for-long obscurity. Just do it.

4. Eggplant, broccoli with hummus at Giant. You can hear me on a Fooditor podcast a few months back saying I felt Giant was overlooked (which it was by Michelin). To judge by everybody’s ten best lists in the last week or so, it’s everybody’s favorite restaurant now. These are the two dishes that I still think about and want to emulate at home.

3. Plin, risotto with white truffle, etc. at Osteria Langhe/Arancini at Animale. I managed, somewhat by chance, to have three terrific birthday meals—Publican Anker, one of the year-end’s most promising meals; lunch at ever-reliable Sepia; and then Osteria Langhe. And the last, at the height of white truffle season, was just blissfully good and it was a pleasure to share their warm hospitality with my family. I’m a fan of their spinoff Animale, too, even as it continues to evolve its model.

2. Tasting menu at Oriole. Relaxing, people you want to cheer for, deliciousness.

1. Japan. Obviously it’s not fair to put an entire country where you spent ten days as an entry on a list, but just as obviously, what greater food experience did I have, could I have had, than immersion in this food-obsessed, perfectionist country? I wrote about Tokyo here, and my most exceptional experience in Kyoto here, but I think about it nearly every day.

A few runners-up to mention: Justin Behlke’s Thurk pop-up would have made this list except he’s not doing them any more (I don’t think) as he takes on duties at Kitsune, so I’ll save a space for him next year; had an excellent meal at Parachute with a terrific broccoli and date dish that proves it’s only gotten better; I still think about a brisket biscuit at Bang Bang Pie & Biscuit that kind of socked me out for the rest of the morning but was still so good; my new favorite burger is at Small Fry; the perfect whole fish at Leña Brava; El Che, the sexiest new room in town; Hunter Owens won me back over to burritos after years of declaring Chicago a taco town, at Burrito Juarez; Saigon Bistro, much better than those cranky crabs, thanks Keng; I’m glad to see the comfy and utterly agreeable Cafe Marie-Jeanne making other peoples’ ten best lists, and I’d make room for Spinning J’s right next to it; the Quiote pop-up at Eataly; Julbord, for the first time with the whole family, at Tre Kronor; and it was kind of a pop-up (but it comes every year, so you could have it next year), but the cassoulet dinner at Publican Quality Meats left a whole table blissed out, me included.

Ten best for: 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Fooditor Radio 27: Inside Michelin’s Brain 2017, with Anthony Todd, Sarah Freeman and Maggie Hennessy.

Fooditor Radio 26: The Parthenon Falls, But Chicago Marches On, with Joe Campagna and Anthony Todd.

Fooditor Radio 25: In the Backyard With ManBQue, with John Carruthers, John Scholl and Jesse Valenciana.

Fooditor Radio 24: Tacos, Burgers and Other Tastes of Chicago, with Nick Kindelsperger of the Chicago Tribune, and David Hammond of New City and Wednesday Journal.

Fooditor Radio 23: My Dad the Critic, My Son the Restaurateur, with Sherman and Josh Kaplan.


I fretted before our trip to Japan, because here was a chance to dine in one of the world’s greatest food cultures, perhaps my only chance to sample certain things—sushi, wagyu beef, etc.—at their absolute peak. So the clock was ticking, I had to get it right! And picking outstanding restaurants to go to was difficult; it quickly became clear that there was a fairly small set of restaurants talked about by westerners, and a vast iceberg beyond that (Tokyo, famously, has over 100,000 restaurants, and that’s not hyperbole—TripAdvisor lists 82,724 of them). In the area of sushi in particular, for instance, the ones known to the west—led of course by the famous Jiro—were booked up weeks if not months in advance.

So an agonizingly drawn-out process began of soliciting recommendations from people who knew the scene pretty well—including Steve Plotnicki and Yukari Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo, which also came recommended by both Steve Dolinsky and the Momotaro cook Scott Malloy, who I wrote about for the Reader. They would give me names; I would email my hotel, because you generally cannot make reservations yourself but must go through a concierge or other service; and somewhere around 48 hours later, I would find out if anything had room for us at any time.


Now, let me give you the good news: you kind of don’t need to do any of that. Well, you might for sushi. We ate sushi twice, and there was as obvious a quality difference between the two experiences as between a fine dining restaurant and a diner—which indeed is pretty much what each of them was, and fine in its own way. If you want that high-level experience, which we managed to have, finally, at an up-and-coming sushi temple called Sushi-Ya, you’ll need to do some research and make some plans.

But I’m not so sure I’d do it for anything else. I don’t regret our other high-end, quite pricey experiences, but I don’t know that I think any of them was that necessary, either. The caliber of the food culture is so high that you could just walk into anywhere in the more popular parts of town, just based on what sounded good, and have a great experience. I mean, almost nothing disappointed. We picked an udon place once in Kyoto where the broth wasn’t that great, but even there, the tempura chicken on top was as good as any I ever had in my life. Hell, even at Starbucks we had something that was fantastic—a canteloupe Frappucino with chunks of fresh canteloupe in it.

This is how Japan eats.

And there’s one other advantage to not messing with reservations much—the Japanese, for all their efficiency, have never accepted that street signs and address numbers would help tourists (and themselves). Most of our reservations involved getting somewhere close to the place with the help of our phones, and then standing outside, desperately scanning buildings for some clue as to where what we wanted might be. A stressful start to an expensive meal.


In the end, we stayed in a hotel (Citadines Shinjuku) near the action, though pleasantly a little away from the center of that busy area with its giant department stores and Blade Runnerish red light district, and around the corner from our place was a nice strip of modest restaurants which seemed to have one of everything—ramen, teppanyaki, a breakfast spot, Chinese food, Italian food, and so on. And it was much more pleasant to simply decide what we felt like, and walk two minutes to it, and give it a try—and it was always good. If you go to Tokyo, I recommend doing it that way—it’s cheaper, easier, and makes you feel more at home there.


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And yet, we were still close enough to mad, mobbed central Shinjuku that we could walk in ten minutes to Takashimaya, the great department store. Whose basement food halls are like Food Disneyworld, and overwhelming in their color, their variety (not just Japanese food but everything; we went there a few times for French pastries to eat the next day), and how beautifully they’re presented. Anya von Bremzen has an excellent piece that explains sociologically why and how the department store basements, or depachika, have come to be such temples of gastronomic delights:

To a Westerner these subterranean food halls seem less like places to buy-and-bite and more like mammoth hyperdesigned exhibition spaces devoted to the latest food trends. And it isn’t just the profusion (an average food basement stocks some 30,000 items). The thrill of being at a depachika these days is the sense of riding the crest of the Japanese shopping mania, marveling at the virtuoso layering of the ritualistically traditional and the outrageously outré, of handmade and high tech. If Japan is the mecca of global consumerism, depachika are its newest shrines to excess.


Von Bremzen’s insights are well worth reading but, like a lot of Disney sociological insight, you’re not necessarily going to have more fun in the moment by thinking about it critically rather than just letting yourself go with the flow of sheer sensation. In the supermarket part there’s a guy tending clams in rushing water as if he were at an aquarium and wagyu beef marbled like an Italian palazzo and candies and spices and teas of every color. There are stands for yakitori, and Chinese food, and shimmering cakes and stained-glass-like custards and jellies. In multiple trips to Takashimaya as well as one to nearly-as-nice rival Isetan, I was always exhausted, overstimulated like a sugared-up three-year-old, before their wonders were exhausted for me.



Prepared meals in a bag.

We ate a lot of these. Basically chocolate rolls a la cinnamon rolls.



Indeed, not counting breakfast at the hotel, our first meal was entirely stuff we picked up at Takashimaya, bento boxes of this and that. One question, though—where do you eat it? Not, it turns out, at Takashimaya—there’s no seating (though there are separate restaurants some floors up). Generally people seem to picnic at the nearby park, though as it was spitting rain, we just ate back at our hotel.

Sushi-Ya, which literally means, “Sushi Place.”

Delicately thin chives inside a slice of fish.

That night, for the first and only time to date in a foreign place, we left the kids on their own. Ramen is easily their favorite Japanese dish, and there were two ramen places on our little restaurant row, so we gave them money to pick one and order for themselves. Meanwhile my wife and I took the subway to Ginza to find Sushi-Ya, which turned out after much phone-mapping to be in an alley (with no English signage)—never mind that everyone dining there was an English speaker from another country (such as Singapore).

I could tell what everyone was because it’s an 8 seat restaurant. This is part of the charm, certainly, and one we’re just starting to adopt in the U.S., the tiny dining space where you’re up close and personal with the chef and your fellow diners. I would like to report that the intimacy meant we all made friends and I have new pals in Singapore, but honestly, it was awkward as well as charming, a hushed experience like dining in a library; less jet-lagged, I might have worked harder at making us all convivial, but I just didn’t have it in me that night. (Next time, I go with Plotnicki.)

Baby octopi.


Anyway, the fish. I should say the crabs; the most interesting parts for me were things like a purple-skinned soft shell crab, or a hair crab salad (stuffed inside the hairy shell).

Looks brown, but it was purple.

Slightly obscene, but tasty.

All in all, it was many things we had not seen before, and very fine. The kids meanwhile wandered down our little restaurant strip and found a ramen place, ordered off the pictures, paid their own cash… and had a grand time on their trip to Tokyo, too.


So a couple of days later we met a hired guide at Tsukiji Market for a tour of the fish market. That’s Kiyoshi, our guide, in front:



The famous tuna auction was hours before, but we caught a 7 am vegetable auction.



Bluefin is valuable, clearly.

So even after you’ve been to the smoke hall of Oaxaca and the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul and other things, Tsukiji is something else, acres of guys cutting up fish surrounded by markets of stalls selling everything that has anything to do with food and restaurants and everything.

Those look like… purple-skinned soft shell crabs!

One of the questions for any sushi devotee is, can you get the things that the high end sushi places in Tokyo have, or is there just a class of fish offerings so rare and so far above your puny station in life that you could never have them any other way, certainly not in America? And the fact was, we saw much of what we ate at Sushi-Ya here for sale, quite readily. Of course there’s a matter of quality, you can’t buy the same tuna from the same guy that Jiro can, but still, it looked to me like it was purple soft shell crab season, for sale all over the place, and the only thing stopping you from having that in the U.S. was knowing about it. There are surely some super-rare things—Sushi-Ya is high end, a spinoff of three Michelin star Sushi Saito, but not the highest end—but basically, everything seems to be available.


Anyway, an extraordinary place… and in November it will close and move to new, undoubtedly less atmospheric digs. We did a little noshing along the way, like this bacon-wrapped fish cake, or this noodle place (see the pic of the family slurping noodles at top):



Afterwards we stopped in to one of the little diner-like places, for sushi breakfast:


It was no Sushi-Ya, but it was fine, the rice still warm from having just been made, the staff pleasantly surprised when my kids picked out and ate their own orders.

But enough of fish. There is also beef in Japan, as you may have heard. We booked two special beef experiences, which was probably one too many. One was Sumibi Yakiniku Nakahara, which turned out to be sort of like a teched-up version of Korean BBQ:


They brought us stacks of incredibly marbled meat, different cuts, and I cooked them over coals—and I could tell they thought I was overcooking them:



But dammit, you need a little actual searing or browning for the flavor, in my book. This was an all-meat meal, which was interesting as a sampler but a bit odd, a kind of stunt meal. Our other meat experience was high-end teppanyaki at a very posh place in a modern office building called Ukai-Tei:



This was quite expensive, the kind of place visiting businessmen go, very handsomely wood-paneled and so on, and the food was almost worth it. It was beautifully prepared—Susan and I actually had a tasting menu which had some exquisitely crafted things like white asparagus dotted with all kinds of modernist touches:


Though the most impressive thing on the plate, honestly, was that tomato wedge, one of the best tomatoes I’ve ever had.

And yet… I don’t want to use a phrase like “soulless” because the kitchen’s craftsmanship was excellent, the service treated us like emperors, the decor was over the top in a very refined way… but overall it gave off an air of the place Accidental Tourists go to avoid real contact with the city. This was when I thought, at the teppanyaki place down our street I could have had a meal 80% as good for 30% of the money, in an atmosphere that didn’t feel cut off from the place we were visiting. And that was more like what I was there for. So after this meal, I canceled a couple of our other reservations and resolved to just eat wherever I saw what looked good.


Instead, here’s the kind of thing we could eat for all of $12. Ramen, at the other ramen place on our street, Gotsubo, which came with a couple of nice slices of what was advertised as Iberico pork. Really? I could question that, yet without question it was very fine quality pork, and great ramen, for no more than any ramen would cost here. Which points to another bit of travel book advice you can forget. Books listed some very popular ramen places in the center of Shinjuku where you should go early and line up for an hour to get your precious seat. But I don’t believe for a second those places are measurably better than Gotsubo—they’re just better known to guidebooks. We put money in the machine to get tickets for the type of bowl we wanted, we waited maybe 10 minutes tops… and we had great ramen.


Same for tsukemen; I found a place called Gachi, located on a gay strip a few streets west (though so subtle that the kids barely knew that’s what it was), which proved to be a hipster tsukemen place, and a lot of fun. Again, maybe a 15 minute wait for thick, richly flavored tsukemen with fantastic fried chicken on top.



While in Ueno Park (home to the national art museum, well worth a trip for a quick history of Japanese aesthetic styles over time, and what the Impressionists stole from them), we went to Innsyoutei, a tea house. This was our first real exposure to the flavor of historical Japan, and the flavor of the experience went over better, I have to say, than the mostly vegetarian bento box meal did with the kids. Too many weird things in disconcerting colors.



A different time in history can be felt wandering Asakusa, another shopping area which has the feel of 50s Japan, GI’s looking for Hawaiian shirts. Indeed, one of the main strips still has its raffish black market feel as well as the modern food that goes with shopping for Levi’s and T-shirts with illogical English phrases on them—Döner stands.

In a suburb, we caught the cat bus for the Studio Ghibli museum.

Not a Disney-like theme park, the museum devoted to the filmmaker of Spirited Away and other anime films tries to instill a magical appreciation for filmmaking. You can’t take pics inside, so this is the pic everyone takes, with a robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky.

Hachiko, Tokyo’s most famous dog, has a statue at Shibuya station. Note hat with illogical English phrase.

Liam, fitting in.

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There are many treats to be had in any Tokyo train station.

Next: Kyoto