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Posts from the ‘Chains of Love’ Category

Un-American Activities: Starbucks in Kyoto

Japan has no shortage of high-design Starbucks locations, some where you would have to strain to even see a logo. I’m neither a Starbucks person, nor much of a coffee snob despite growing up in the Pacific NW, the epicenter of second-wave coffee culture. Pre-ground Cafe Bustelo is my morning jam, followed by two cups of watery office coffee of unknown provenance on the days I go to the office.

But I almost always end up at a Starbucks when traveling to other countries. Mostly to gawk at any localized beverages or snacks. I was introduced to an unknown-to-me sweet, lamingtons, little Australian square cakes, frosted, and coated in coconut flakes, at a Starbucks in Hong Kong. I would always get one in the airport (it makes it sound like I regularly hit that airport; I’ve been in and out of it maybe eight times, none in recent history).

So, it was not a leap to seek out the Starbucks in Kyoto that took residence in a Taisho-era teahouse last summer. Even though there is a sign hanging beneath the shingled eaves, it would be easy to miss the Starbucks on the cobblestone path up to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site in a city lousy with shrines, temples, and Michelin stars. The wood-clad building on the corner blends into the surrounding shops stocked with more pickled things than you could ever imagine being pickled and souvenir cans of Pringles in takoyaki flavor, the octopus balls that are a regional claim to fame. (I am still kicking myself for neither trying takoyaki nor buying these Pringles.)

Look past the Japanese tourists dolled-up in rented kimonos, though, and you’ll see a slate-blue noren with the familiar mermaid marking the entrance, as well as the original racy topless, two-finned logo on an iron lantern that looks as if it has been there for more than a century but could’ve been crafted in 2017.

The interior is dim, understated, with cement floors, wood beams, and neutral tones that lend a spartan quality more aligned with an art gallery than coffee shop. Rock gardens and bamboo fountains occupy outdoor nooks. It’s genuinely a respite from the weaving mobs outside that neither favor walking on the right or the left. I don’t understand this about Japan. Even subway stations would sometimes have arrows indicating to walk on the right, which pleased the rule-lover in me, then sometimes on the left. That’s chaos.

Starbucks has a long history in the country, as it entered Tokyo, its first international market, in 1996. The Seattle-based company has added 1,303 stores since. Kyoto alone has 33.

The newer world’s biggest Starbucks in Shanghai has been grabbing recent attention among the followers of chain-related happenings. That’s all fine for more-is-more China, but they do things a little differently in Japan where hypermodernity clashes with analog traditions. The country clings tightly to phone-only reservations and a preference for cash transactions, inconveniences for digitally reliant foreigners. (Of course, you can pay by app at Starbucks in Japan..)

Upstairs, customers patiently wait on benches for their turn in one of three tatami rooms covered in the traditional straw mats and zabuton cushions for seating. There are friendly reminders to remove your shoes and low shelves to store them. No worries about anyone making off with your footwear–this is Japan, the lost and found capital, after all.

(My travel companion left his iPhone in a cab, and we got it back the next day, only with the help of a Japanese speaking friend who communicated with everyone and filled out the paperwork–did I say they like analog transactions? This amazing turn of events, spurred us to pay it forward the next day when we found a phone dropped on the sidewalk and turned it into a police station on the corner. They had to get an English-speaking translator on the phone to explain we had a right to claim any reward money as well as being reimbursed for travel to turn it in!)

Maybe in other parts of the world you might feel embarrassed for showing interest in an American chain rather than immersing yourself in authenticity, but most Japanese citizens aren’t judgmental like that. No one in Tokyo is ashamed to line up for Shake Shack or overpay for nacho fries at Taco Bell. A few gawkers were taking photos of this 100-year-old-plus structure and young women with expensive SLRs had no problem striking poses or setting up shots of pastel drinks, presumably to share on Instagram, or more likely, Line.

Perhaps not my best photo, but it does capture something essential to my character.

Blessedly, pumpkin spice has not yet infiltrated the autumnal Japanese consciousness (though they are mad for sweet potatoes). Instead, seasonal beverages included Grapy Grape and Tea Jelly Frappuccino with blobs of gelatinous black tea and sliced grapes bobbing around, Hojicha Cream Frappuccino, made from the roasted green tea, and a Christmas colored Candy Pistachio Frappuccino sprinkled with raspberry cookie crumbles. This nutty beverage might be the only treat in Japan of that pale green hue not flavored with matcha. No surprise, the glass case at the counter is a sea of green tea scones, pound cake, and doughnuts. There is no Thanksgiving buffer outside of North America so songs like “Winter Wonderland” and “Sleigh Ride,” reworked by The Platters and Earth, Wind & Fire were on rotation the fourth Thursday in November.

Un-American quirks abound, like the advertised existence of a smaller size than “tall.” It is called “short.” There are tiny thimble-sized plastic containers of milk, no self-serve pitchers, and no almond or coconut pseudo-milks (soy milk is 50 yen extra). Perhaps the most un-American thing about the Kyoto Starbucks, though, was the clientele. Westerners made up fewer than half of the customers and I didn’t hear one familiar accent.

Starbucks * 349 Masuyacho Kodaiji Minamimondori Shimokawara Higashi Irushiigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan

Un-American Activities: McDonald’s Japan EBI Filet-O

 

I’m not one of those McDonald’s nuts who has to pay a visit in any city, but it was late and the Marriott I was staying at for two nights in Osaka had a skybridge attached to the train station  with a McDonald’s on the other end that happened to be still open right as I was heading home. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

And the EBI Filet-O a.k.a. shrimp burger seemed to highlight the differences between American and Japanese tastes best. It’’s a classic, always on the menu, not a limited edition. Shrimp is a perfectly fine thing to make a patty out of, though this is more like a flattened croquette, crusted in panko and fried. The sauce was kind of tartar and kind of thousand island. For some reason in Japan, fried food doesn’t seem like an unhealthy choice.

These cheesy potato puffs, a.k.a. American Cheddar Potato, were part of an “American Deluxe” promotion. Less like tater tots, these were mashed potato mixed with cheese and fried. Yes, like another croquette.

I Do(nut)/Un-American Activities: Dominique Ansel Japan

She said yes! 💍 Honored to be a part of a special moment here at the Bakery, when Allen surprised his girlfriend Sam – not only did she not know he was going to be in Japan, but then he proposed to her with a ring hidden inside our Blossoming Hot Chocolate! Congratulations to Allen and Sam! Wishing you lots of love and hot chocolates for many years to come. #DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #shesaidyes #Omotesando プロポーズ大作戦! フィリピンからお越しのサムさん、何も知らずオーダーした花咲くホットチョコレートから輝くエンゲージリングが💍、そしてフィリピンにいるはずの彼のアレンさんがサプライズ登場!!✨ アレンさん、サムさん本当におめでとうございます㊗️いつまでもお幸せに!#ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #ドミニク #花咲くホットチョコレート #プロポーズ #表参道

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There is nothing un-American about using food in your public marriage proposal. I think it might’ve been one of the tenets our nation was founded on. So, I suppose it’s not that strange for someone to use a Blossoming Hot Chocolate for a “Will you marry me?” vehicle at a Tokyo branch of an NYC bakery helmed by a Frenchman. No idea on the nationality of the betrothed, though I think it’s a safe bet with names like Sam and Allen they are not Japanese.

I’ve never eaten a cronut before but I can’t resist seasonal, localized flavors so I did stop into the Omotesando location and order the November flavor, rose ganache, chestnut jam, even though floral edibles are not my bag. Also, the autumn religieuse, which turned out to be very pumpkin-y, just because it was so pretty.

Mr. Roboto buns, fake tomatoes, and more.

Our Oden Bûche de Noël, just in time for the holiday season here at @DABJapan. It’s inspired by our favorite kinds of oden! 🍢 The “Hampen” at the top is made with cheese cake, the braised egg in the middle is actually caramel with a yuzu mousse “yolk” inside, and the “Chikuwa” oden at the bottom is made with chestnut mousse. Available also as a mini version both @DABJapan Omotesando and Ginza Mitsukoshi.#DominiqueAnselBakery #DABJapan #Omotesando #Ginza #Christmascake 今年も人気のおでんのようなブッシュドノエル🍢 上から、滑らかなチーズケーキで出来た はんぺん に、煮卵 はキャラメルとユズムースで黄身もしっかりと表現されています。そして 一番下の ちくわ はしっとり大人な味わいの栗のムースです🌰 #おでん #ブッシュドノエル 大きいサイズは表参道限定 ミニサイズは表参道、銀座店共に販売しています! 注目のオデンブッシュ、ぜひお試しください。 #ドミニク #ドミニクアンセルベーカリー #表参道 #銀座 #三越 #クリスマスケーキ

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Sadly, there was no trompe-l’œil oden on my visit, though it was cool enough for real oden to make an appearance elsewhere. I wonder how much usage the 🍢 emoji gets outside of non-Japanese world?

Chains of Love: Ichiran

I used to get excited about foreign chains in NYC but lately I’m more indifferent. Case in point, Ichiran opened right around the time I went to Japan last year for Thanksgiving and I still haven’t checked it out and it’s almost the end of 2017. I don’t want to go to Bushwick to eat overpriced ramen, as in $19, even in a so-called flavor concentration booth. (I’d liken them more to library carrels, which I just spelled “carols” even though I’ve worked in a zillion libraries.)

Bowls of ramen are practically all under $10, even with tip, in Tokyo where novelty comes cheap and with the territory. Ichiran in Tokyo is 24 hours, you buy a ticket from a vending machine with large photo buttons kind of like a cigarette machine (you do remember those?), look for an open seat on the big electronic wall display, then proceed into a hushed room flanked by two rows of stools. You can fill out a card with preferences like degree of noodle doneness, richness of broth, garlic or no garlic, spice level, and extras and add-ins. And of course there is a red button if you want service. 

Each seating space has an individual water dispenser which is amazing. If you order a ramen that comes with a tea egg, it will be presented first in a little dish. At least I don’t think this is an appetizer as much as it looks like one. You will only see hands and lower bodies beneath the screen and once the hands place your order in front of you, they will drop the screen altogether.

As to the ramen, I never have the wherewithal to go nuts with flavor descriptions. I don’t think I’ve yet to encounter a meh bowl of ramen in Japan, and Ichiran’s was better than average. What makes it so? The tonkotsu-style broth is rich and assertive as a pork broth should be, but it’s not overpowering.  There is a balance to the amount of noodles and sliced not-that-fatty pork with just a pop of salt and heat. 

I hate to say that ramen isn’t my first choice unless I’m starving, but it tends to make me feel too stuffed and tired afterwards. I’m sensitive to carbs, though. I’m also not usually a food-sharer–in fact, I’ve been called a “food hoarder,” disparagingly– but I ended up giving some chashu and noodles to my travel companion (you can also fold the wooden walls to make a shared space). I can’t even imagine ordering extra noodles, which you can. I was the only one at group meals (even with super fitness-y women) to order a small rice instead of the standard and was the only one who didn’t finish it.

More to the point/less about my adorable eating habits: I would recommend Ichiran for the full immersive experience if you happen to be in Japan. There are 60+ locations around the country so it’s likely you’ll pass by one.

Ichiran * 3-34-11 B1F Shinjuku Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan 

Unamerican Activities: Taco Bell Japan

 

One of the most recent American fast food (re)entries in Japan is Taco Bell, and there was surprisingly little difference on the Tokyo menu from our standards. I was led to believe there was a localized shrimp and avocado burrito, which I didn’t see, and taco rice. There was beer (though we’re catching up). 

There were loaded fries (Taco Bell Japan are no racists) which I did order, though the nacho cheese was strangely low on flavor. Maybe it just needed more salt.

The biggest difference between the Taco Bells on two continents was price. Two hard shelled tacos, fries, and two Asahis cost over $20. I guess that’s the trade-off for $8 ramen that would go for $15 in NYC. There are no self-serve salsa packets, perhaps because Japanese don’t have spare kitchen drawers to store extra condiments and abhor litter. You have to specify spice level when you order.

A tacocat was posing out front, fortuitously. He (or she–the mane might’ve fooled me) was gone when we left.

P.S. A new Tokyo Taco Bell just opened today!

Taco Bell *  2 Chome-25-14 Dogenzaka, Tokyo, Japan

International Intrigue: Wagamama

We all have our biases. My ears prick up if I hear word about a Japanese chain coming to NYC, which means my ears have been pricking up a lot lately.

(And as an aside, it’s been a decade ago but I don’t recall that DaDong in Beijing was this upscale. I also doubt they will serve the black sesame sludge for dessert and crab apples with dramatic dry ice vapors rising between them. And because no one reads blogs anymore, I can say here that I’m baffled by the new sensitivity that has emerged surrounding anything derogatory said about food someone didn’t grow up eating, and if it’s not “othering” than it’s it’s liking it too much and being a cultural appropriator. Like Bon Appetit was called out the other day for saying matcha, turmeric, and spirulina tasted like dirt. Dried, powdered turmeric pretty much tastes like dirt, so I guess I’m a racist. Am I allowed to say black sesame pudding looks like sludge?

wagamama squid

UK chains? Not so much. Sure, I checked out YO! Sushi but I was only motivated to visit pan-Asian Wagamama when its newest branch opened recently in the former East Village Japanese convenience store, m2m, and they were giving away free meals to the general public.

The buns were nice, though the pork version was tastier than the beef, which is almost always the case unless you’re at a steakhouse or burger joint. And the fried squid was fine. The dipping sauce did have a little bite. 

wagamama ramen

The “ramens” weren’t so much ramen as noodle soup. And no, I’m not even sure now that I think about it what makes something a ramen. For me, it’s in the broth, and this version with duck was kind of wan and lacked the depth of even a simple shio ramen. At least they included a few fatty shreds of duck meat and skin for extra flavor.

The prices weren’t crazy, the dining room with lots of blonde wood communal tables was spacious for the East Village, and I imagine it will do well close to all of the NYU spillover. But it’s certainly not a destination, especially with all of the Japanese ramen in the neighborhood plus Little Tong, Yuan, and others. 

Wagamama * 55 Third Ave., New York, NY

 

 

International Intrigue: Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya

kizuki facadeRamen is all good and well, of course, though there is something to be said for the journey rather than the main event. Which is to say, there is practically nothing I love more than uncharted suburbs (and stumbling upon US chains abroad) and I’ve realized I miss driving through them. I’ve been away from Portland for nearly 20 years, and in my absence planned communities have sprung up from fields on the outskirts of town and people want to live there. (My first encounter with this boxy sprawl was in 2002 when I met my former library coworker at an Indian restaurant in the still-developing Orenco Station enclave.)

This visit 15 years later, I met a high school friend in a suburban strip mall on the westside because it was close to her office even though we both grew up in an eastside suburb where she still lives in the exact same house with her parents since the 1980s.

cedar hillsFirst, I had to find a Walgreens because I’d ran out of a prescription and ended up in some area called Bethany Village that seemed to consist of one giant earth-toned outdoor shopping center surrounded by new apartments, likely with vessel sinks and carpeted bedrooms. Or is Bethany a neighborhood? I don’t recognize fully half of neighborhood names in the Portland area and they are not inventions that nod to geography like South Slope or BoCoCa. No, they are confident, seemingly historical names like Arbor Lodge, Overlook, and Brentwood-Darlington that  materialized post-millennium and are now accepted as fact by new residents. If someone says a restaurant is in Cully, I have absolutely no idea where that is.

The young white woman who was working at the pharmacy had blue and magenta hair and she complimented me on my wallet, which only now I’m realizing was blue and magenta. I put a plastic bottle of Perrier in my purse and walked out without paying for it like an old shoplifter starved for attention.

To get to Kizuki (formerly Kukai, as it still reads on the facade, Kookai in Japan, but apparently the word means poop in Hawaiian?) my GPS steered me through ‘80s upscale neighborhoods anchored by a country club until I popped out in another development that looked like Bethany Village but without unified branding. These modern strip malls always seem higher-end but on closer examination this one contained a generic grocery store called Market of Choice and a Supercuts (though also a barre studio).

suburban cowboy

 

Even though these developments are meant to evoke small towns, there is no foot traffic, everyone drives. So a craggy man in a cowboy hat, maybe in his 50s, cigarette dangling out his mouth while taking a small dog for a walk seemed wildly out of place. I tried taking a few creepshots but he was too far away to capture all the detail. A woman my age with a grade school daughter glanced at my feet, either admonishing or admiring my grass green Swedish Hasbeens. I shot a glare at the back of her head to psychically signal that she couldn’t judge me because I’m not a Portland mom.

kizuki ramen

 

Will I get to the ramen? Maybe. I’m more ramen enthusiast (udon is more enticing, honestly) than expert. I ordered the gut bomb version, garlic tonkotsu shoyu ramen, with a photo in the middle of the menu, larger than the rest, which was pointed out to me when I asked the enthusiastic server what was most popular. I like a rich pork broth, though this was extra oily, with a whole soft-yolked egg, and lean cut of chashu. I’m a slow eater so my big bowls of noodle soup always cool down before I get to the bottom, which makes the fattiness more pronounced. I would try the yuzu shio next time to see how it compares to Afuri’s signature yuzu-spiked version.

I was surprised that my friend said she couldn’t use chopsticks, despite my knowing that Filipinos don’t traditionally use them, and yet unsurprised because there was something very Portland about this, like no matter your heritage or place of birth, each decade spent in Oregon diluted any evidence of being “ethnic” despite your appearance. Some go the other way as adults. I know non-religious black people who became Muslim and changed their names and Jews who I didn’t even know were Jewish move to the Upper West Side and become orthodox. But more typical are minorities who support Trump, which I discovered when I accepted a Facebook request from a middle school friend.

Upon arrival, I got the no seating incomplete parties story, which is unusual for the area, particularly since the restaurant was nearly empty. We overstayed our visit, lingering at our table for two that was blocked by a wall from the main dining room, and as we left, I noticed the restaurant was full with people waiting not just in the lobby but outside as well. Clearly, the suburban ramen chain has an audience.

Kizuki Ramen & Izakaya * 11830 NW Cedar Falls Dr, Portland, OR

 

International Intrigue: Tsurutontan

tsurutontan udon

Tsurutontan rode in on the wave of imports late last year that included Ichiran, Tim Ho Wan, and the promised Inkinari Steak that didn’t get off the ground until 2017. (I’m so mad they are going to add chairs in the US.) I meant to check one out when I was in Tokyo but put it off until my last night and I couldn’t get it together for the 9pm last order (I kind of appreciate the anal-ness of publishing last calls for food in Japan) but was dying for udon and couldn’t deal with the 10 person line outside of Shin Udon. I did end up getting a bowl of cold udon, which was maybe weird in December but it was on offer, at a restaurant up a flight of stairs with no English name. I finally was tough enough after two weeks to handle an all-Japanese language menu.

Tsurutontan, off Union Square, is no noodle hole-in-the-wall, with prices that are more akin to Ipuddo and beyond. Also, without the wait and counter seating. I liked the row-facing-row with a partition separating the sides for solo diners. Plus, the Japanese thing where you can order regular or large amount of noodles for the same price, thick and thin.

I chose thin for my summer special of cold dashi broth with uni. The broth was light but the sea urchin added creaminess, and a slight bitterness, plus shredded shiso that gave the dish more bite and held it just back from being too rich. This doesn’t look like a big portion (regular noodle fyi) but it was oddly filling. I let the little batter nuggets turn to sog and scooped them out with the giant metal spoon at the end, then slurped all of the remaining sesame-studded cloudy broth like fishy cereal milk.

Tsurutontan * 21 E. 16th St., New York, NY

International Intrigue: O’Tacos

franchise-o-tacos-depuis-2007-210716(1)

I was recently made aware of a French chain in Crown Heights called O’Tacos that, yes, serves tacos. Yet from the looks of these burrito-panini hybrids, I’m not sure the French know what a taco is.

otaco menu

There appears to be 50 locations of this restaurant, and the Brooklyn branch is the only one outside of France. This is more baffling to me than the bastardized taco. The website is only in French, which is very French. It’s easily discernible that fillings include chicken breast, ground beef, nuggets, tenders, merguez, and cordon bleu. I don’t see that they explain that french fries are sometimes stuffed in these tacos. There are are 12 less discernible sauces including Algerian, samurai, and giga.

I am curious about this taco, and might be blessed to live in the same city as the only foreign outpost, but not so curious that I’m eager to spend 1 hour, 9 minutes on two subways to try one.

 

International Intrigue: The Holy Crab

IMG_3248

I did not eat at The Holy Crab because I already have a Chinese-run Cajun seafood restaurant on my block with a better name (Oceanic Boil), but am mentioning it it is an Indonesian chain serving Cajun seafood in Canada, and that’s all sorts of layers to dissect.

There also appears to be a knock-off in White Plains.