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Dinosaurs and Ramen

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Almost forgot about it being exactly 1 year since I moved back to the United States.  Coincidentally, I spent the “anniversary” not in St. Louis but up in New York City.  Got to meet up with some friends who live in the area, and the last few days my brother came and met up with me.  It had been a long time, probably around 8 or 9 years since I was last up in NYC.  It smelled a lot less of urine than I had expected or remembered.  Also I didn’t encounter any cracked out homeless guys screaming about women stealing your DNA like last time.

The weather up there was fairly similar to here in St. Louis, which included the break in the heat that luckily started about a week before my trip.  I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with the intense summer heat in New York, considering how much walking I ended up doing and how pretty awful the underground train stations were even in decent weather.  Is there no ventilation there!?  The trip was primarily to hang out and do I guess touristy stuff – it was a good vacation.  Went to Times Square the first night and met up with Seth, who took me to an izakaya that was basically a warp hole to Japan.  It was pretty awesome to have yakitori and shochu and all kinds of menu items that I don’t really get here in the midwest.  And while I’m on the topic of Japanese food, later during the trip my brother and I went to Ippudo, a Japanese ramen chain that I used to go to in Chiba since it was a straight shot down the street from my apartment.  The food was hands down perfect.  The big difference though was the price (fair since I was in NYC on vacation, so whatever) and the building itself.  I was pretty shocked – instead of a small noodle shop with counter seating and a few small tables, this place was a huge restaurant with I guess what you would call trendy lighting, furniture, and music.  It felt like a nightclub that just so happened to serve Japanese ramen.  There was a long wait just like the Chiba location had during rush times, but in NY they actually had hostesses and a waiting list.  I think I prefer the Japanese Ippudo’s decor, but again it’s not really a complaint since the ramen was awesome and I was still in America.  It was also  kind of strange feeling to have Caucasian American waiters yelling “IRASSHAIMASE” when a table was sat.

ニューヨーク居酒屋・萩一風堂NYYES RAMEN

The American Museum of Natural History in Central Park was pretty sweet, and as a bonus it was a good break from walking around outside.  I didn’t really understand the ticket pricing at first though, considering they give you a “suggested” entrance fee but you don’t technically have to pay anything.  We paid the full suggested fares, which I’m assuming most people do.  It was pretty smart of them though to actually have people at the entrance gate instead of just a machine or a box for donations, because I’ll bet having an actual human shames people into paying more than they would with just a machine/donation box.  But yeah dinosaurs are sweet and embarrassingly while I didn’t take many photos while in New York, most of them were at the museum.  Oops!

YES! DINOSAURS!

New York restaurants are, as expected from the biggest city in the county, amazing in both quality and diversity.  In addition to the Japanese places I went to, pretty much every meal in New York was great.  Chinatown was, of course, one of the highlights, so much that I went twice during the short trip.  I’m pretty sure I could eat dimsum every day.  There unfortunately weren’t as many stores selling cheap electronic knockoffs, and junk like I was kind of looking for, but that was also probably because it was raining on the last day we were there and it wasn’t worth walking in the rain to buy cheap stuff in Chinatown when we were already full of food too.  And yes, I did actually eat American food in addition to all the other multicultural stuff – stacked high sandwiches at a Jewish deli were probably the highlight from that category.

Overall I got to see a decent amount of the city, especially Manhattan, during the few days I was up there.  There was almost an incident with some shady scam-cab driver one night when my brother and I were coming back from meeting up with Dave down in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t a big deal since we got out as soon as he said he was going to try and charge us $20 to go just a few blocks.  But aside from that, the trip was great and I definitely want to go back again sometime.  To eat, at least.

Landlocked

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I am still in the final stages of recovery after last night’s partial food coma, brought on by going to a casino buffet here in town for birthday celebration/gambling thing.  The food there isn’t especially great in terms of flavor, but they do have a lot of variety I guess.  One of the items they had on the buffet was sushi.  As you can imagine, it was standard American buffet grade sushi.  Soggy seaweed, bland crumbly rice, cucumber, a fish-like substance, and some kind of “exotic” Asian ingredient like black sesame seeds.  I’ve noticed this is gaining in popularity here (in the US), even having sushi as a selection at various buffets, etc.  Here in St. Louis, which is pretty much about as far as you can get from the ocean, there are about a dozen more sushi/”Japanese” restaurants than I remember there being 10 years ago.  That’s just off the top of my head – there are probably many more.  But does that mean they’re any good?

Well I don’t really know.  I haven’t actually been to any of these newfangled sushi shops stuck in the middle of the United States, primarily out of fear of food poisoning or just plain being afraid of eating gross food.  Sure I’m biased since I just moved back from Japan, but in my experience up to now, a lot of the sushi in the US is pretty terrible.  I don’t really like the emphasis on rolls with all kinds of crazy stuff in them, although sure that’s the kind of cosmopolitan sushi re-working that is popular on the east coast.  And since that’s what’s popular over there, it has filtered across the country and that seems to be mainly what they have in the Midwest.  While there are of course some of those fancy US-style sushi rolls that are decent, I’d almost always rather eat plain old traditional workin’ class salaryman sushi.  Less focus on making something crazy and just focusing on fresh ingredients that speak for themselves.  I think when the Choshimaru (kaiten sushi place) in Chiba near my old apartment had the “aurora salmon” on special for 150 yen a plate a few summers back I ate like 10 plates worth in one sitting.  You can’t really beat fresh fish like that.  Melts in your mouth.  And now I am drooling all over my laptop.  Even the cheap places like Kappa Sushi are about 20x better tasting than most sushi I can remember eating stateside.  I haven’t tried much in California though, and I’m sure they have some pretty good places out there.

Prices are also going to be a main problem, because even if I’m able to find a place here in town that has great quality sushi, I’m positive the price for standard grade (good) sushi will be several times more expensive than even a high-end place was in Japan.  I understand that transportation costs, etc will factor into that but there will inevitably be a markup just because there isn’t much variety and this is a specialty food here.

So yeah sushi in Japan = fresh and delicious.  Sushi in St. Louis = scary and intimidating.  I’ll try to get out and actually give some of these places a chance – maybe a place that seems more like a somewhat authentic Japanese restaurant rather than a trendy place catering to Americanized varieties.  How did this entry turn into me rambling about sushi?  Eh.  I think in the long run, sushi is going to be the equivalent of pizza and Mexican food when I was living in Japan.  Amazing and abundant in one country, more rare and not nearly as good when you’re living in the other.  There were a few decent places I knew in Chiba/Tokyo that had pizza or Mexican food, and even a few really great ones.  But for the most part they were few and far between.  Sushi places in St. Louis will likely be even harder to come by.  I have noticed though, that my #1 favorite food genre, Chinese, is pretty much universally good (as long as you choose a decent restaurant, but they’re not as hard to find I don’t think).  Maybe because whether you’re in America, Japan, or probably anywhere else, you can find places actually run by Chinese people.  We are all over the place, after all.

On the passive To Do list: find a decent sushi place in St. Louis.  Also while I’m at it, if I can find a good Korean BBQ that would be awesome too.  I am open to recommendations.

Almost forgot – HK 2010

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HK dai pai dong

It’s officially too late to write about this, but here goes anyway.  Back at the end of July I took a trip to Hong Kong since I figured it would be a lot easier and cheaper to do it from Japan than from the US at some point later on.  Got a pretty cheap flight from HIS and off I was to HK for about 5 days.  Derek and Christy were nice enough to take those days off from work to hang out and show me around.  Also got to meet up with Sunny and Chris on my second day in town.  This was like my fourth trip so by now I at least know how to get around and stuff, but there’s always new stuff to see, explore, and eat.  Despite my fairly limited travel experience (compared to most “global travelers”) I still think that Hong Kong has the best food on the planet overall.  It doesn’t help that I was raised on Cantonese food and love eating in general.  But I mean come on – it doesn’t get any better than dim sum, does it?

I arrived in HK on a Friday night.  Bought a prepaid SIM card for super cheap (100 HKD?  Only around 15 USD) and put it in this crappy unlocked phone I had.  Talk about easy!  Even my prepaid GoPhone in the US didn’t seem this easy to set up.  I think it only took me about 3 minutes to buy the SIM chip, install it, and make my first call.  After that I snagged a taxi from the airport to Derek’s place which wasn’t too far away.  Cheap taxis in Asia are always a nice change from Japanese taxis, which might be cleaner but are also about 10 times as expensive.  The next day got dim sum for brunch and checked out a huge mall in the afternoon.  And yes the legends about Derek are true – he has a Spiderman Golden Master Pass to every gym in HK.  During our visit to the mall he ducked out for a 15 minute workout in the gym that was conveniently located inside the same building.  About an hour and a half later he was finished.  I totally thought Hiroaki was joking about Derek doing this, but it’s totally true.  The man is a machine.

Anyway that night we had Chinese hotpot which is a lot different from Japanese nabe or shabushabu even though the basic premise is the same: take a bunch of pieces of food, put it in boiling soup until it’s cooked, eat, repeat.  This was at a chain restaurant called Little Fat Sheep, and it was great.  It’s all you can eat for 2 hours although they don’t really care about the time limit since it’s pretty impossible to eat hotpot for 2 hours straight.  Tons of meat, vegetables, and “other” keeps coming at you on little trolleys, and you have two soups on a burner in the center of your table to put it in.   One was like a standard mild soup, and the other one was a spicy one.  Spicy in China is not the same as spicy in Japan.  Here, the soup was literally filled with red chili peppers, cut in half so as to release their spiciness throughout the pot.  You couldn’t put your ladle in the pot to scoop out your cooked meat without getting half a scoop of chili peppers every time.  Since I didn’t want to die, I left a sizable pile of uneaten peppers on my plate.  I hope I wasn’t the only one since I’m sure I looked like a wuss.

Next day hit up a Vietnamese place for lunch and got on a bus for Shenzhen, China.  Last time, I took the train up to cross the border, but the bus was also really cheap and fast.  You have to change buses when you get close to the border, but it’s an easy process and in just about 2 hours total we had moved from a shopping center in Hong Kong, which sold global luxury brands like Gucci, Prada, LV, and Coach, to the giant mega shopping center in Shenzhen who sold copies of global luxury brands like Gucci, Prada, LV, and Coach.  That evening we went to this spa place, which at first sounded really sketch, but when I got there it was actually really nice and clean.  The place was called Water Cube, or 水立方 in Chinese.  No, not the Water Cube from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but a spa in Shenzhen who has cleverly stolen the name.  At first when Derek and Christy were talking about going to a spa/massage place I had imagined like a super shady happy ending place.  But when we got there it was more like a family-oriented resort fused with the nicest high-end Japanese internet cafe you can imagine.  You get there and go to segregated locker rooms.  You can shower, use the hot tubs, jacuzzis, etc., then you head to the main area (which is co-ed) where everyone is wearing the same goofy Chinese pajamas.  You don’t have to carry your wallet around with you, since any charges are just billed to your locker number which is on a plastic wristband you wear around.  Drinks and fruit are free, but there’s a restaurant in the building where we got some dinner.  The food was good and cheap, since it’s like that pretty much everywhere in China. You’re free to roam around the place – there were tons of sections of super comfy leather easy chair recliners, pool tables, ping pong, fruit and juice bars, a video game corner, and even a room with a giant projector screen.  Each chair has its own TV and there are attendants running around everywhere whenever you need something, or are too lazy to go to the juice bar to get your own glass of watermelon juice (which is the nectar of the gods).  You’re charged a really low entrance fee and can pretty much stay as long as you like.  There’s TV, internet, and magazines and stuff to relax with, then of course there are massage packages and individual massages you can get.  Everything is pretty cheap and they just add it to your bill.  You can even sleep there over night if you want on the recliners: they turn the main lights off and everything.  The whole place is pretty much just a huge awesome internet cafe with better food and with massage options.  I’m not really a huge massage guy, but I did get a “foot scraping” where an old Chinese dude comes and uses a straight razor to shave dead skin off your feet.  It sounds horrible, but that was probably the weirdest and oddly awesome experiences of my trip.  I definitely recommend hitting up one of these types of places in Shenzhen if you get a chance – you probably  need to take someone who speaks Chinese with you though because otherwise you have to do a lot of sign language which sometimes works but is kind of a pain in the butt.  My favorite gesture is the “I dunno” head shrug with both hands.

Did some of the standard shopping in Shenzhen for bootleg movies and cheap clothes before heading back to Hong Kong on the train.  Stopped by Temple Street on my way back to do some shopping and eating at the dai pai dong street stalls, which are amazingly cheap and delicious.  The last day of my trip was pretty much just buying souvenirs for friends in Japan, and eating.  It was a great trip and I really hope I can make it again sometime.  And hey now I can get back to writing about stuff that didn’t happen 2 months ago!

Lotteria Meatwad Challenge

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ロッテリア期間限定 「タワーチーズバーガー」

Look at this beast.  This is Japanese fast food chain Lotteria’s special limited time only destroyer of arteries, the aptly-named Tower Cheeseburger.  Finally got around to conquering it over the weekend.  I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed of that.  Probably a little of both.

I first heard about this behemoth last month from Gigazine, who compared it to KFC USA’s Double Down sandwich in terms of terribleforyouness.  Unfortunately (fortunately?) until the beginning of June the Tower Cheeseburger wasn’t available at the Lotteria near my house and I never got around to trying it anywhere else in Tokyo.  But yeah, Blanchard and I hit up Lotteria yesterday for lunch and each got the Tower Cheeseburger plus fries and a drink.  It was a disgusting and delicious experience.

Obviously, the thing is massive.  It’s kind of like eating an entire meatloaf only greasier and cheesier.  It comes wrapped in paper just like a normal cheeseburger, but it’s pretty tough to pick up and actually fit into your mouth like a normal burger.  Brian somehow managed to do so in record time, but I had to get a fork to finish the thing off bit by bit.  Surprisingly, the taste is pretty good overall once you get over the fact that you’re destroying yourself.  The cheese was really good, and the meat patties seemed like pretty good quality , although with that much cheese and meat the flimsy bun and skimpy condiments (only on the buns) make it a little boring to eat.

I hadn’t been to a Lotteria for a long time since their normal burgers are pretty small and their prices seem more expensive than McDonald’s.  But after this experience I’m likely to hit up Lotteria again in the next few months before I leave, although definitely not for a 10×10 ever again.

新潟の景色

Over the weekend I got the hook-up from Brian and Bryan to go with them on a free bus tour to Niigata.  Niigata’s up like northwest of Tokyo near the Japan Sea and is famous for rice, sake, and ski resorts.  I’d never been there before and didn’t have anything planned so I figured why not.  It was overall pretty fun since it was like a short road trip with friends, but I don’t know if the actual planned activities on the tour were as awesome as I had imagined.  It was a pretty rough schedule too, so that might have something to do with it.

バスWoke up around 5AM on Saturday morning in order to get to Ikebukuro by 7:40.  The only people I knew of course were Brian, Bryan, and Saori, but whatever.  There were some actual tourists on the bus and some of B and B’s coworkers who seemed all right.  We took a Greyhound-ish bus from there up to Niigata, stopping along the way at 2 or 3 “service area” rest stops.  These are significantly better than highway rest stops in the US being that they actually have decent restaurants and shops, lights at night, and restrooms that have been cleaned this decade.  Also there is much less of a sense of “you will be gruesomely murdered here.”  The bus ride took about 5 or 6 hours, which was pretty grueling to be honest.  I was able to get some sleep but not as much as I would have liked.

にいがた酒の陣

After getting to Niigata we immediately went to the “main event” of this tour, the にいがた酒の陣 (Niigata Sake no Jin), a convention for Japanese rice wine.  They had over 500 different varieties you can sample, which meant by the time we got there around 2 in the afternoon, there was a huge crowd of old Japanese guys stumbling around totally red faced.  There were seriously people sitting on the ground completely wasted.  We also saw a women who had passed out in a pool of her own vomit get carried away in a wheelchair.  I heard her friends say something like “she’s resting.  She should be fine in about 30 minutes.”  What a country.  I’m no big sake connoisseur, but they had some good ones and some bad ones there.  In addition to just regular sake, they had plum wine (umeshu) and the unfortunately named and milky white in color jizake, a kind of unfiltered rice wine.

We stayed at the show for a few hours, even though it seems like most people on the tour, including us, would have been fine with leaving earlier.  We checked into the Toyo Inn and went to dinner, covered by the tour.  It was a pretty fancy sushi place, but unfortunately the tour only covered one drink and like 10 pieces of sushi.  I mean, the sushi was really awesome, but 10 little pieces of fish on rice isn’t what I would call a full dinner.  Afterwards a small group of us went out to get dinner and drinks at a standard izakaya.  This ended up being a pretty long night, topped off with some awesome spicy ramen.

せんべい王国Slept for a few hours again, at least actually in a bed this time.  Woke up for another 9AM meeting time.  We were taken to the せんべい王国 (Rice Cracker Kingdom), which sounds about 50 times more sweet than it actually was.  It was pretty much just a small senbei store that also had a small factory in it.  They at least had some funky little mascot characters I guess, but to be called a Kingdom I was expecting something more Namja-like.  We also hit up some kind of museum village or something that didn’t have much worth mentioning except we found a hidden PaRappa the Rapper in the wall displays.  Lunch was at some “wealthy mansion owner’s home” that has been converted into a tourist trap, but at least they had pretty good traditional Japanese food.

So yeah I’ve been to Niigata!

Boeuf! Haw haw!

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フォワグラと牛フィレ肉のロッシーニ風"

The night before leaving Japan for Christmas back in the US, I grabbed a late dinner. Had a beef filet Rossini style, which has foie gras and a truffle sauce over it. Sounds kind of fancy, right? Except that it only cost me about 1400 yen (USD $15) and it was at Denny’s. Whaaaat?

Obviously, Denny’s in Japan is a lot different from “real” Denny’s in the US. For one thing, their breakfast food is a joke. It’s pretty much the same kind of generic “Western breakfast” stuff you can get anywhere in Japan, even at Yoshinoya in the mornings: 1 egg, two mini sausages, and a cabbage salad. There’s no Grand Slam, no Moons Over My Hammy, no other disgustingly greasy and delicious American breakfast foods. And the pancakes. OH GOD DON’T GET ME STARTED ON J-DENNY’S PANCAKES. Too late. They’re about the size of what we might call silver dollar pancakes if the chef took the size of a silver dollar as a literal unit of measurement. And you only get like 3 of them and they’re dry and gross. Yet somehow they try to market this as a real stack of pancakes you would get at real Denny’s when in reality you’d get more volume if you get your breakfast set with the half piece of toast they also offer. Ugh. In short: don’t ever get J-Denny’s pancakes if you’re expecting real pancakes. You will be angry, disappointed, hungry, and scarred for the rest of your life.

Anyway, the filet I had was good. I’m actually starting to mind J-Denny’s less and less. Even though they have none of the menu items you can get in the US, they have sandwiches and pasta and stuff that are decent, and they have pretty good coffee. Not really college student stay up all night coffee, but decently good coffee. It’s a little more expensive than the other J-family restaurants, but for variety it’s OK. I guess recently they’re trying to improve their image even more, offering gourmet ingredients in wannabe fancy dishes like the Rossini filet I had, or the truffle and prosciutto pasta they offered last month. Kind of interesting, although I’d trade it all for a Breakfast Dagwood or a Moons with fries.

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