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Shovel Time: Bar Umi

twoshovelI spent nearly an hour trying to find the name of this place and went down a rabbit hole of Google translating the list and blurbs of restaurants in Tokyo Station, only armed with the fact that this restaurant served dishes from Hokkaido. There are so many regional restaurants in that complex: just browsing I came across ones featuring specialties from Okinawa, Niigata, Osaka, Sendai, Yamagata, and Nagoya. I didn’t recall English signage, only that it was more of an izakaya than restaurant,  it was in a cluster of restaurants (there are tons of them i.e. GranAge, Kitchen Street, Ramen Street, GranRoof, etc.) and I was lured in by a chalkboard promising “Hokkaido tapas.” 

I had planned to eat tsukemen at Rockurinsha in Tokyo Station, but the whole state of affairs underground was overwhelming. There are hundreds of restaurants, high and low. I mean, Sant Pau? Or Wendy’s?  I wanted to start a blog no one would read called “Tokyo Station” where I would sample a new establishment every day. There would be fodder for years.

umi deer bacon

So, Hokkaido tapas. I could not resist ordering deer bacon. It turned out to be more like less salty country ham and served with sliced raw onions and mustard, which felt not Asian at all and borderline Hungarian. Whiskey highball, of course. 

umi salmon

This was a nice little bowl featuring salmon, but also fried oysters, roe, omelet cube, and pickled celery (possibly the only humane way to serve celery).

umi trio

Potato, two ways, and a warning against eating raw oysters if you’re tired.

I didn’t make it to Rockurinsha but I did find a new-to-me non-Sanrio character, Kapibarasan, which had a pop-up store devoted entirely to it. Apparently, there was some collab with Rockurinsha because I recognized the brand’s three hexagon logo on goods where the capybaras were slurping ramen.

Bar Umi * 1-9-1 Marunouchi | Grand Roof B1F, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan

Shovel Time: Eagle Suntory Lounge

threeshovelI’m not sure if Japan has lots of bars with liquor brands in their name, or I just happened to visit a disproportionate amount of them (also, Ginza Lion/Sapporo Lion and Kirin City). Eagle Suntory Lounge is right in the heart of modern Shinjuku, yet it feels like a time capsule. A lot of Tokyo feels like that.

suntory interior duo


Every flight of stairs you go down erases a decade. The chandeliers (not pictured), wood paneling, and brutalist stone mural behind the bar signal mid-century, yet the menus appear straight-up early ’80s (when the bar actually originated). Only the prices have kept up with the times.

suntory menu quad


Whiskey, though, starts at roughly $3 a glass.

suntory eagle escargots

I was just there to drink since I’d eaten 200 grams (ok, that sounds larger than 7oz.) of steak en route. But everyone was eating a flambeed dish despite not one being on the menu, and my curiosity got the better of me. It was escargot en cocotte served with toast points.

suntory steak duo

Then the floodgates were open and we ordered a steak sandwich, not hefty American-style, but dainty, more appropriate for tea. The meat came very rare, bolstered with a layer of iceberg lettuce, slicked with horseradish on one end and Worcestershire-ish sauce on the other. Look at the pickle garnish. Crazy attention was paid to slicing and presentation. A couple on my left befriended a couple on their left (all smoking–if you are sensitive to cigarettes, old-school Tokyo bars are not for you) and shared their dish. I’m saying “dish” because I seriously have a mental gap as to what they eating and nothing on the menu jogs my memory (it wasn’t fish or poultry or steak–I’m thinking sausages or ham) yet I remember all the flourish with which it was prepped and served. The bartender sliced the thing I can’t remember into separate portions and plated it using that two forks as tongs technique.

suntory eagle menu purse hook

Half-way through I realized I didn’t have a purse hook. That would not do.

suntory drinks duo

I’m still steamed that I forgot to pocket a coaster.

Eagle Suntory Lounge * 3 Chome-24-11 Shinjuku, 新宿区 Tokyo 160-0022, Japan

Shovel Time: Han Oak

threeshovelEach time I visited Portland in 2016–more times than I’ve visited in 18.5 years combined–I reluctantly enjoyed a different New Portland restaurant. Langbaan in January, Mae in September, and Han Oak last month. All take foreign or regional cuisine and elevate it but not so much that a person accustomed to eating Thai or Southern or Korean food wouldn’t recognize it.

hanoak spread

Han Oak is the biggest bargain of the bunch. Just $35 (though Mae with a suggested donation of $65 and byob is close) for a shitload of food. It didn’t help that I had came straight from my family’s Christmas celebration (on the 23rd because they are monsters) where I ate ham and bacon-laced baked goods, and like 3 slices of assorted cakes.

hanoak cocktail

But I have to start with the cocktail, a Korean Goodbye (whiskey, Campari, vermouth, kimchi, smoked agave foam). I do not think this was a good cocktail. It was an interesting cocktail. Basically,  alcoholic kimchi juice topped with sweetened foam, and I think furikake. It tasted like when you start to throw up in your mouth but swallow it down. I might stick to beer.

hanoak banchan

All the banchan. This night we were served a mix of kimchi cabbage hearts and daikon, roasted brussels sprouts with miso,  squash with togarashi and fried garlic, and in the front an amazing sweet and sour potato, all caramelized, crisped edges and sesame. 

hanoak soup

Kalgooksu. This soup! It was so good. Little squiggly hand-cut noodles (they were being made in front of our eyes) and a very deep chicken stock. You could eat this broth all day.

hanoak ddukboki

I had to order ddukboki because I love the texture of rice cakes and I felt guilty for not seeking any out in my short time in Seoul. This was not the expected red, gochujang, fishy version. This version was a little swampy, green from padron peppers, and laced with bulgogi. 

hanoak meat

The ssam course comes with pork belly, pickled daikon, and rice noodles sheets as well as very rare smoked hanger steak, a slaw and ssam-jang dipping sauce. Oh, and chewy purple rice. It wasn’t until I took a bite of the beef that I realized the campfire smell that permeated the entire dining room (essentially, a garage) was the meat being smoked, an unexpected touch.

hanoak counter

I hate fruit as dessert! Not nature’s candy. I almost lost my shit on Korean Air when I was served half and orange and a giant wedge of cantaloupe and watermelon as dessert. On my return flight I was asked “If I wanted my fruits.” and I was all fuck, no, and the flight attendant looked at me with disbelief, “Are you sure?” Oh yes.

hanoak fruit

So, Han Oak serves fruit as dessert. I mean, the nicest apple and pear are just lost on me (kiyokawa family orchards, if you care to know) and they had run out of pear as we were the last diners (reservations at 9pm on Friday–Portland is not a late dining town). But I appreciated the server’s honesty. “You don’t have to eat all of them,” acknowledging the hefty amount of food we were just served, more than fruit being a sorry excuse for a dessert. The rosy-fleshed slices of apple were very pretty though.

Han Oak * 511 NE 24th, Portland, OR


Shovel Time: The Rheinlander

twoshovelI know no one gives a shit about Rheinlander other than me. Portland is strangely void of history and nostalgia, and well, I’m not sure the food is even good anymore (or if it even ever was). Oh, I guess one person does. It would never even occur to me to pitch a missive from the closing of the Rheinlander to The Awl, but there it is. I’m pretty sure I was there the same night as the author too. That’s why I’m a blogger.

rheinlander-dining-roomI went Christmas week, desperate to see the German restaurant that served as special occasion marker in my family into my early 20s one last time. It was brighter than I remembered, though that may have something to do with the Alpine room (I think it was called) right off the lobby, less labyrinthine and hidden. The food was brought out in quick succession, no waiting for appetizers to be eaten before mains. You could have a three-course meal and be out in an hour (my family who have no patience would probably love that).


There were two accordionists, no Victor Meindl, not in lederhosen. (I recently looked him up as he permanently seemed middle-aged when I was young and could’ve been anywhere from 50-65, so it’s possible he’s still alive. There is an gentleman with his name in West Linn, so I’m holding out hope that he’s still around.)  The fondue is served in a microwavable bowl rather than a cast iron crock.


But…I don’t know…the food was pretty solid. Maybe not so pretty, but delicious. I never order sauerbraten since the last time years ago at Schnitzel Haus it was dry and stringy. Here, it was not, and I could eat the lightly browned, buttered spaetzle for ever. I love red cabbage sauerkraut too.


The local boyfriend who I’d dragged along (I made a reservation for 4 but couldn’t find two other takers!) seemed mystified by the menu and ordered a chicken schnitzel with mushroom sauce, which took me back at least 20 years ago when I attended Christmas dinner with my dad’s new family, and Jody, the methy step-sister who I always imagine in over-sized Loony Toons shirts ordered that very dish. She liked it so much she asked, “Could I get more mushrooms?” and I suffered humiliation by proxy. You ask for seconds at restaurants? She got an extra helping, served in a little side dish, by the way.


Apple streudel, which I’m so-so on, but it was the only German dessert on the menu. I don’t even remember the other three, though I totally wouldn’t be surprised if there was a chocolate lava cake.


We both grew up in the Portland area, so I reminisced how Horst Mager was the original celebrity chef (ok, James Beard, whatever) and appeared on AM Northwest all the time and he had no idea who I was talking about. Times change. Mager was quoted in a press release, “This decision didn’t happen overnight; we’ve been discussing it for a long time. I have bittersweet feelings about it, of course. But I feel it’s the right thing to do, especially considering today’s Portland food scene. It has been evolving, and so must we.” Self-aware, yet I’m not sure what evolution even means for Portland’s food scene. Food trucks and pop-ups can’t be the be all to end all.


I look ok here, maybe a little sweaty, but I had to find and go straight to after-hours urgent care after this meal because I couldn’t swallow or hear and couldn’t stop coughing. I only point this out because Portland makes me crazy but it’s so goddamn easy. (I would consider moving back if the average rents now were less than my NYC mortgage and maintenance.) It was like a 12-minute drive to a different quadrant of the city (NE to NW), we were able to park right in front of the clinic, I was seen right away and in and out in 20 minutes, including the filling of two prescriptions, and it was $65. (I had an ear infection.) I haven’t been so impressed since I had to go to the hospital in Singapore and it was posh and $35.

Previously, on The Rheinlander. 

The Rheinlander * 5035 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR 

Shovel Time: Sushi Nova

twoshovelKaiten a.k.a. conveyor belt sushi is more fun than delicious. But Sushi Nova is extra fun because you order it on demand from a personal screen, there are choices galore (not just sushi), and it zooms on a conveyor belt from a mysterious back room to your place setting. The only human interaction is when you go to the counter and pay (touchscreen payment would complete the diy fantasy).


Sushi shows up in just a matter of minutes.


There are myriad permutations of sushi and appetizers, based on category tabs like, some fairly nuanced. Gunkan  topped with salmon roe or gunkan overflowing with fish roe?


You can even get fries, which were surprisingly good. Way more sushi involved mayonnaise for my taste. Of course, no one forced me to order the ham and cheese genovese (pesto) maki drizzled with mayo.

Sound and action for full effect.

Sushi Nova * 1 Chome-6-12 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan

Shovel Time: Tempura Tsunahachi

threeshovelTempura is ok. Honestly, battered, fried seafood makes me nauseous, though that’s more fish and chips and shrimp you’d have as an appetizer at a American-Chinese restaurant where you’d get ketchup with a little dot of hot mustard in a tiny saucer. But if you’re in Japan, it would be silly to ignore tempura.


Tempura Tsunahachi treats each piece with care, only frying a few pieces at a time and setting them in front of you like precious sushi. I chose one of the set lunches (roughly $20–dinner is considerably more) where shrimp, fish, lotus root, and other vegetables, three at a time, came with rice, pickles, a mound of grated daikon, and miso soup.

I committed the faux pas of pouring soy sauce in my little dish when there was a sauce especially for dipping in the ceramic pitcher (there wasn’t one in arm’s reach at the counter and I thought it contained tea) but in Japan you’ll make mistakes constantly without even knowing it and it’s ok and kind of freeing.


This was the other lunch choice, where the tempura came as a bowl on rice at once.


All the miso soup I was served in Tokyo came with a surprise at the end: clams tiny as my fingernails.

Tempura Tsunahachi Japan, 〒160-0022 Tokyo, Shinjuku, 新宿3丁目31−8

Shovel Time: Ginza Lion


twoshovelI wanted to have a drink after suitcase shopping, a necessary evil to haul all my Sanrio swag, snacks, and Korean beauty products. (Tokyo is totally not known for its deals a la Bangkok or Hong Kong, though I found this cute, kind of impractical trunk at Ginza Karen where all bags are 5400 yen/$46. I later found it on Amazon for $175.) and Ginza Lion, practically across the street, delivered and then some.


As a leo, I couldn’t resist a place called Lion.


It’s a beer hall established in 1879 and owned by Sapporo beer . And it was totally full on a Sunday afternoon. It’s kind of German, so there are sausages, choucroute, but also spaghetti.


That kids meal!


A buttery potato pancake with a ribbon warning the plate is hot to the touch.


I’ve always been wary of mayonnaise on pizza but this one, topped with a bed of seaweed and sliced green onion, plus a nice amount of real crab (roughly $14) was a fitting bar snack. Togarashi too for sprinkling.

Ginza Lion Japan, 〒104-0061 Tokyo, 中央区Ginza, 7 Chome−9−20, 銀座ライオンビル

Noodling Around Tokyo


Keika Ramen This was random ramen, my first proper meal (7-Eleven doesn’t count) in Tokyo. I managed to order what seemed to be tonkotsu ramen and beer by vending machine photos, though I couldn’t discern what set apart minutely different ramens with different prices on the first row, and considered this a success. This bowl was like $6. I don’t think I encountered a bowl more than $10 even at nicer places.


Nogata Hope The soundtrack at this sort of modern ramen-ya near my airbnb (English menus, lots of wood–actually, wooden slabs and tree trunks were used all over Tokyo restaurants and bars) was one of many auditory quirks that I will continue to document. So many restaurants played incongruous music. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember who sang “More Than Words” and my pocket wifi (such a great invention) ran out of a charge. Duh, Extreme. I was also introduced the concept of byob (bringing your own bibs), as a father donned one he whipped out of his suitcase while his son slurped, earphones on, as well as being asked whether you want your broth fatty or not. I did. This place also had personal garlic presses on the table and pickled, chopped red chiles that seemed more Chinese. The ramen was unctuous–all that fat and chile oil–and great. The gyoza just seemed like Trader Joe’s.


? This ramen was just ok, not horrible at all but less punchy and rich than I had elsewhere, but we chose it for likely the same reason as most of the tourists (Asian, by the way) who’d wandered in from the Senso-Ji shrine: English menus. However, the gyoza were better than Nogata Hope.


Afuri is totally something different due to a citrusy chicken broth that I wasn’t convinced I needed to try until in addition to reading English language odes and recently arrived in Portland press ($14 a bowl! My hometown is officially gone nuts), my good friend’s visiting-from-Japan Tinder date from 1.5 years ago that she brought to my Kentucky Derby party even though it turned out to be platonic and he didn’t speak English that I met for yakitori showed me a photo of Afuri on his phone and said it was good. Ok. And wow, it was. I didn’t have the classic shio (also above) but yuzu ratanmen, skinny noodles, spicy with chile oil, garnished with mizuna and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The nitamago (eggs) were always so perfect everywhere. This was filling, but not gross filling–in fact, I still had room for a pancake-soufflee afterward. In NYC this would be a shitshow, but the lines are orderly (I just beat the line and only had one woman in front of me), you use a vending machine, hand your ticket to a cook behind the bar seating, stand around and feel no stress to assert your position even though there isn’t a hostess to keep track and yet it all works. Only once did I see someone think it was a free for all when a diner got up, and a cook/kind-of-host called the rightful next-diners over. Counter stools (always with a place to store your bag underneath) and coat hooks prevent clutter. Cooks start preparing your ramen as you sit down. This ramen was $8. Seriously.

bukkake-udonItteki Hassen-ya I really prefer udon to ramen. More chewy, more diverse. I wanted to go to TsuroTonTan on my last night but it the last order was 8pm on Sunday and I couldn’t get it together in the rain. Shin, plan B, had a line, other places at eye level in Shinjuku were empty, seemed like chains (yes, TsuroTonTan is a chain) none were promising, so I took a chance on an upstairs venue, no English name (but brought to it by Yelp based on a distance search–Yelp was helpful in that way, more so than Google explore) menus, or speakers, all cigarette smokey, and it was a great send off. It might of seemed unorthodox to order a cold udon on a cool night (the chef warned me) but I’m always hot and I wanted tempura. Ebi ten bukkake was no joke.


Un-American Activities: Breakfast at Denny’s Japan


I ate breakfast at Denny’s in Tokyo and wrote about it for Extra Crispy. Spoiler: there are no Grand Slams.


Un-American Activities: KFC and Domino’s Japan


I was blessed to be in Japan in December because I got to witness first-hand the phenomenon that is KFC at Christmas. However, I wasn’t able to partake in it because all those displays and set menus plastered on the wall (Sparkling cider with the Colonel’s face on it! Chicken cordon bleu! A $50 whole turkey with its own tote!) are for pre-ordering only. I had no idea.


So, I settled for a four-piece meal with biscuits, no finger sheaths provided. I love how even at fast food restaurants (well, at least KFC and MOS Burger) if you order iced coffee you receive a little plastic container of simple syrup and the creamer comes in an even tinier plastic container (even though I take it black).


Twitter knows me far too well, as evidenced by Pizza Hut’s enticement of online ordering (no human interaction!) in English (bonus!). But after a solid 20 minutes on their site and being surprised that pizzas cost $30+, I kept getting a garbled message after inputting what I thought was my postal code, which I took to mean I was out of their delivery zone even though I was in a centrally located neighborhood. I was not going to give up ordering pizza to my Airbnb even though it had a wonky address that confused multiple cab drivers.

Plan B. Domino’s, similar oddball flavor combinations (roasted pork with demi-glace and mustard sauce,  crab gratin and something called Mayo Jaga with potato, corn, sausage, and mayonnaise obvs) also offering online orders in English, and no less expensive. I, no joke, spent a half hour trying to type my address into a form so the system would recognize it.


I thought with near 80% certainty that I would be charged, and then like an hour later would receive an angry call in Japanese and I would have no way to direct the driver. I clearly have been living in in NYC too long because in Tokyo you could track your pizza every step of the way. I registered for the service (and received a 1000 yen coupon for another order) about ten minutes into waiting and was shocked to see the pizza was 9 minutes away, marked with a cartoon reindeer (despite Domino’s shelving reindeer delivery in Hokkaido) and moving fast. I could also read about the driver’s favorite pizza, music, and sports team, except that I couldn’t read them.

dominos-duoI made my boyfriend put on pants and run down to the street from our second floor (first floor in everyone else in the world’s parlance) to intercept a potentially lost driver, still not convinced we were actually going to receive our pizza. No worries, two friendly guys on mopeds showed up and the box was handed off (I love no tipping culture even if it results in a $33 pizza).

I was the proud owner of Cheese ‘n’ Roll Quattro Delight. That meant a surprise cheese-stuffed crust, and one quarter each of Margherita, deluxe, special seafood, and garlic master. I kind of was the Garlic Master. Japan can thwart visitors in so many ways–procedural, cultural–so I felt a strange sense of accomplishment for having conjured a pizza to my door without speaking the language. Also, I wonder how long my coupon is good for?