Everybody knows about Tokyo’s famous $70 pineapples and $150 sushi lunches, but who tells us where to find the best $6 noodles shops? Having spent so much of my life in Tokyo, the places that I know best are all about food. Cheap and cheerful cuisine. This does not mean junk food or poor quality ingredients: if there’s anywhere in the world to exist on a $20-a-day meal budget, it’s here – this fine city doesn’t have more Michelin stars than Paris without good reason. Quality is king in Japan, regardless of the size of the bill. I’m not going to waste your time telling you about the multi-national corporations and restaurant empires that are sprinkled all over town, they really don’t need a plug from me. Here are some of my favourite inexpensive places around central Tokyo.
Chinese Cafe Eight is very easy to find : a large restaurant with a verandah lit with fairy lights opposite the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills. Since opening, Cafe Eight’s Peking duck (¥2,880, feeds 3 or 4) has taken the restaurant to such peaks of popularity that 2 more branches have been opened. They are all usually quite full.This place is also famous for it’s interesting, er, fertility decor, but don’t let the genitalia on the walls put you off your spring rolls. The ¥105 water dumplings with your choice of 30 fillings are also legendary, all made fresh, so this isn’t the place to go if you’re in a hurry . All the chinese favourites can be found on the menu, but I always go for 2 or 3 of the 50 appetisers from the ¥210 menu.For a night out with friends, try the ¥1,500 all-you-can-drink-for-two hours option. Loads of healthy choices available as well. Open 24 hours, English website, booking is highly recommended… there’s usually a 40 minute waiting time in the evenings otherwise.
The local Ramen Shop .I’d say ramen noodles the unofficial dish of Japan. I know you all think it’s sushi or miso soup, but everyone in this town really has a passion for Ramen .I’m with them there. I don’t need to give you a specific shop, as you can always find the small bar with picture menus of noodles and beer in the windows are at every train station, on every shopping street in every suburb and city. Tokyoites all have their preferred ramen shop. My personal fave is the one in Hiroo on the shopping street next to the metro station. It’s a tiny place at the beginning of the road on the left side next to a pub. In the early days when I couldn’t even read my own name in Japanese, I came here because of the English menu they offer to the confused gaijin who wanders in from the street. They have nice fresh gyoza and the set menus offer rice, chicken and vegetables and soup for less than ¥800. Noodle soup ranges in price from about ¥600 – 840. The old-fashioned Japanese fizzy drink ramune ( I assume it comes from the word “lemonade”, it tastes something like lemonade with lime in it)is also available in this shop in the old bottles with a marble. Sadly, this lovely beverage, which was so popular in the last 100 years or so in Japan is becoming harder and hard to find as Coke machines take over the world.In most ramen bars, extra topping ( green vegetables, corn, eggs, meat) will be added for ¥100. I have personally never finished a bowl of ramen at my local shop. They are huge. The little 42-kilo Japanese person sitting next to me will inhale their entire bowl in under 2 minutes, go figure!
Shunju is actually…a chain, I know.But it’s a small one. It has organic items on the menu,and local produce so it can’t be that bad, can it?! I like it anyway. Lunch at Shunju is great value at ¥800 + for ginger pork with vegetables and rice, charcoal grilled fish and chicken.Dinner is a bit more expensive, but worth it – a friend and I ordered avocado and lotus salad, fried tofu and charcoal fish for ¥1400 each, not including drinks of course.The decor is very zen, the cuisine is modern Japanese and They have locations in Ebisu and Hibiya, but I like the one in Shibuya on a street call Bunkamura dori, and it’s easy to find – near the Shibuya city hotel and opposite the Bunkamura building…I love the long counter at this branch. Maps are on the website in Japanese, but if you take the map and ask someone once you get on the street, they’ll be able to help.Website is mostly Japanese, but Google Translate helps if you wish to read the menu.
¥100 Sushi – another one that has shops all over town, all of a similar quality. The sushi is on a conveyor belt and is usually priced at 100, 150, 200 and maybe 300 or 500 yen, depending on the fish. You can stuff yourself for ¥800. Not bad. I go to the one in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho area, and more often to the one in Hiroo right by Citibank ( about 4 doors up, it has a blue sign and ¥100 banners. Green tea, sometimes iced green tea in summer, is complimentary and served in most sushi bars.Alternatively, by your sushi at the supermarket or local sushi shop – a pretty little box with shredded radish, wasabi and a flower go for ¥500 and up. Don’t eat the flower. I did – I believe it’s decorative, but what a dumb thing to put on a sushi tray!
The Alfresco Option is cheaper and easier in Tokyo than most places. All bento shops and combinis (convenience stores) sell trays of fried noodles, sandwiches, onigiri, potato salad , some kind of meat on a stick and weird little pickled things for pocket change. If you are really serious about spending as little as possible, these are the places to get $3 meals. Enormous cans of beer are really cheap too, so grab your dinner and go eat it in a park, or around the common areas in Tokyo Midtown or Roppongi Hills, two of the big shopping and business complexes – they have nice little Japanese gardens.
Mos Burger . If you’re going to have fast food, at least do it in Japanese style at a locally owned chain: Mos burger is the Japanese McDonald’s – only everything is fresh and tastes like real food…and it’s kind of cool. They now have outlets in Taiwan and Singapore , this news excited me greatly when I found this out! They sell all the favourites like cheeseburgers, onion rings, chips and coke but they have their own Japanese-style stuff like a teriyaki burger, katsu burgers and the lovely, Chernobyl-green melon soda(it’s amaaazing!). A burger, fries and drink set is about ¥600 and up.Breakfasts are ¥390 – 430 and a hotdog is ¥290. My pick of the menu is the ebi (shrimp) burger for ¥350 – a wholemeal bun, freshly cooked shrimp cultlets,tartare sauce and green leaves. It’s a ripper…I can’t tell you how many hours my friend E and I have spent ages sitting around just TALKING about this burger. Yes, it is sad, but give it a whirl and then trytelling me that it’s just ordinary. Their fish burgers are out of this world too – I’ve watched my dear friend W consume 4 in one go! Mos burgers aren’t ALL over town like Mcdonalds, but they have at least 30 outlets that I know of in Shibuya, Roppongi (right next to the Ibis hotel) Shinjuku, Meguro and Gotanda (by the stations) Just look for the forest green sign with the red “m” and enjoy.
So there you have it! Now there’s no need for spending your entire time in Tokyo at a McDonald’s or a TGIF coz everything else is too exy. One last tip : if you want to have a big fancy meal, do it at lunch time – even the posh restaurants have sets for ¥1500, and you get them for much less. Most of the Indian places have curry buffets for ¥1000 from about 11.30am – 2pm. Happy eating.