By Bryan Hartzheim
Fast food. Any dedicated nerd’s lifeblood. We’re all familiar with every fast food chain in God’s Green Fast Food Nation. But the Japanese have cornered their own market when it comes to fast food. Really, how sustainable would sushi and seared toro for lunch everyday be? Japan has its ashamed and tucked-away population of undernourished fat kids that it needs to feed. And it’s a growing contingent.
You might not have realized that Japanese fast food chains have secretly been invading American shores for the past several years. Yoshinoya beef bowls pervade the west, Beard Papa pastries now dot both coasts, and Pepper Lunch quickie steaks have peppered a couple areas in California. But there’s still a wealth of cheaply made and very satisfying “junk food” that could be imported here pronto.
Kicking off the junktravaganza is a greasy hunk of fried pork. Most of us have had some tonkatsu in our lives, whether it hails from a Japanese diner or a Hawaiian buffet, but Katsuya’s katsu comes in all sorts of shapes and varieties: cheese-filled katsu, bite-sized filet of katsu, katsu curry, katsu topped with grated radish. The soup is filled with some kind of pork extract. The rice is also likely made from pork. The customers here are all single males and their entire bodies are covered in acne. Possibly the best katsu of them all, though, is the Katsu-don, a bowl of katsu over a bed of rice with an egg cracked over the sizzling meat right after it emerges from its hot bath of lard. Katsuya might be ranked higher, but the fact that you can’t order a beer here – an absolute necessity when consuming large quantities of fried animal – limits it to the lowest rung on this list.
Japanese pizza companies like to associate themselves with their American brethren in only the most superficial ways – their names. There’s a Chicago Pizza Company which doesn’t serve a hearty deep dish, Pizza Hut and Domino’s can’t be bothered to serve up a regular pepperoni pie, and then there’s Pizza-La, which might be construed as Pizza L.A. This is possibly intentional, as there’s no such thing as a Los Angeles pizza, so Japanese people can fuck with the recipes as much as possible. On the pizza above, there is sausage and mushrooms. There is also squid, shrimp, corn, penne pasta and alfredo sauce, heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, clams, and garlic mashed potatoes.
If you can think of it, chances are you can order it on a pizza. Eggplant? Definitely. Chicken nuggets? Fucking yes. Natto? Fuck no! That shit’s nasty. The conclusion? Japanese pizza is brilliant and Japanese people are disgustingly indulgent, putting to bed the myth that Americans are the only nation that puts everything but the kitchen sink on their plates.
There can never be too many beef bowl establishments, and Sukiya has a special place in fast food heaven for not just serving up original beef bowl combinations -beef bowl (shredded beef and caramelized onions) sprinkled with herb gouda, beef bowl with fresh tomato salsa, beef bowl with grated mountain yam – but also for going above and beyond the hacked-off loins of a steer. You can order a unagi bowl here, a bed of rice topped with barbequed eel. The texture of barbequed eel, for the uninitiated, is something like eating a very fatty, tender piece of fish (or a snake, but snake sounds unappetizing). The BBQ gives it a smoky flavor, and the special sauce sluiced over the butterflied eel is faintly sweet. Ordering a half-beef, half-eel bowl will result in an assortment of flavors so complex, your face will slowly fall off, Poltergeist-style, if you are not Japanese. Just stick to one and you’ll be okay. [Ed. Note: If Sukiya is good enough for Kinnikuman, it’s good enough for you.]
7) Coco Ichiban Curry
Japanese curry is thicker than Indian and Thai curry, and doesn’t come in coconut or other such varieties. This is ornery curry, full of spices and colored an old-fashioned but business-like turd brown. Like Pizza-La, this curry joint is notable less for its outstanding quality of curry broth, and more for the fact that obscene materials can be thrown into the soup. But all in good fun! The above here example is a conservative curry – just fried quail eggs, pickles, mozzarella cheese, and a half-boiled egg for richer, denser flavor. You can put on toppings like onion rings, calamari, fried oysers, and natto, which is a type of vomit. Coco also offers different levels of curry size and spice – the above is about 300 grams of curry at a spice level of 2. There are 10 spice levels, and a 2 would be the spice equivalent of five packets of Del Scorcho sauce squeezed onto one very mediocre taco. If you eat a 1500-gram bowl of this stuff at level 10, supposedly the bowl is free, but if you fail, supposedly you will spontaneously combust. If you succeed, you’ll spontaneously combust as well, but it will be several years later. There’s apparently a Coco Ichiban in Hawaii, so if you’ve been there, let us know in the comments how it stacks up.
6) Beard Papa Mille-Feuille
Beard Papa’s cream puffs are one of the most successful Japanese food exports since the drinkable yogurt. Flaky on the outside, chewy on the inside, and filled with rich vanilla bean, chocolate, or sweet green tea creams, they’ve fostered a loyal following. But in Japan, they’ve moved on. Papa has created so many versions of that original cream puff, the Japanese have grown disenchanted. And thus was born Papa’s brand new effeminate gourmet daughter. Hailing from some part of Europe, a mille-feuille is a much flakier version of the cream puff, lightly glazed on the outside, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and filled with either a pastry cream or a warm apple jam. And it’s served on the street! This is what Japanese must eat after a long night of drinking, singing, feeling up women on the train, etc., because there are no Mexicans, and hence no carne asada, in Japan.
5) First Kitchen
First Kitchen doesn’t want to be associated with fast food since it calls itself a “city convenience restaurant.” Sure, you still pay at a counter, the same suicidal teenager takes your order, and all your food is served in wrappers. But First Kitchen does have a ton of variety for a fast food joint – your usual run of burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches, yes, but also bowls of noodles, pastas, soups, salads, mini-pizzas, ice cream floats, multi-flavored French fries, and even cakes and hot chocolate. It’s actually one of the few fast food places you’ll see single gals, since they serve shit you eat with a spoon. First Kitchen is also notorious for touting their heavy usage of mayonnaise, to the point where it’s dripping off the food like a Carl’s burger (which, come to think of it, probably looks pretty terrible to everyone but Americans). There’s even a “flavor sauce bar” for your fries, and it’s entirely made up of different tastes of mayo. The above burger doesn’t actually have mayo but tartar sauce, which is so much less disgusting.
4) Mister Donuts
Donut dining? Believe it! If you’ve been groomed on Krispy Kreme balls of congealed sugar, Mister Donuts might be lacking in the sweetness department, and the donuts themselves aren’t quite as chewy either. But not only are there seasonal varieties of Mister Donuts, with frostings and fillings such as green tea, chestnut, pumpkin, and sweet potato, but there are even donut hot dogs, donut croquettes, spicy chicken donuts, and donuts filled with ham and cheese. Some Mister Donuts now serve Chinese food, which makes no sense at all, unless dumplings are considered in China to be some kind of donut. Best of all, you can get Donut Points and earn free donuts or donut-related merchandise, like a set of donut-adorned plates or donut wear, like a donut blanket. Donut! Donut!
3) Mos Burger
Nothing fancy here. Just good, fresh, well-made burgers. Mos Burger has thrived on no gimmicks – like the Japanese In N’Out, their burgers are made to order, use fresh produce, and the higher salaries of their employees make them seem more professional (and less suicidal). Their sides and premium burgers can easily set you back a ten spot, but you can pick from desserts, soups, and Mos Rice burgers, which are like beefs bowls in a burger shape. Each Mos eatery uses the best meat and vegetables from local farms in the area, and they’ll advertise where each ingredient is from right when you walk in. They’re still pretty secretive about the chili sauce on the Mos Burger, but some things are better left in the dark.
Can you really go that wrong with tempura? Tenya’s tempura is pretty damn good for being prepared in less than five minutes. Depending on what’s fresh in season, they’ll have specials of fried crab, scallops, oysters, or even octopus. You can order a platter like the one above, or you can grab the incredibly cheap Ten-don which, at about five bucks, includes tempura shrimp, fish, squid, pumpkin, and green beans over a bowl of rice, covered with the house special sauce, and served with a cup of miso soup. Perhaps Tenya is ranked higher because it serves not only beer, but graciously-poured vials of Japanese sake. If you stop in on your way home from work, you might start crying once you realize you’re drinking alone in a fast food establishment. This, and big gulps of Dewars “for the road,” is why American fast food doesn’t serve alcohol.
1) Ichiran Ramen
Ramen isn’t especially fast food, per se. You can’t take it to go unless you want to eat your noodles with a knife and fork. But Ichiran Ramen is constructed entirely for single people in a hurry, and isn’t that the essence of fast food? Once you step inside the red-tinged interior, you aren’t greeted by a hostess, but a machine in which you deposit your money and get a meal ticket. A wall of blinking lights designates when a customer has left his seat. Each seat is partitioned off not only from the people around you, but from the cook in front of you – there’s a curtain where you place your ticket, and then your food will be slid in front of you (the waitress will still bow to you through the curtain). It’s like a confessional booth, but instead of being absolved for your sins, you indulge in a gluttonous bowl of noodles.
Eating at Ichiran is a completely isolated, lonely, and somewhat depressing experience. Thankfully, the ramen is fucking good, or you’d commit seppuku right then and there. Full of thin, Hakata-style noodles, a rich and flavorful tonkotsu pork broth, slices of chashu, and a dab of Ichiran’s special red sauce, Ichiran’s ramen is one of the best ramen chains in Japan for its taste, speed, and presentation. There have been rumblings that an Ichiran branch is opening in Brooklyn but for “members only.” Ramen is not a meal for wispy elitists. It’s a food for the masses that should be available to all. They need to get on that.