Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Japan - Fast Food!

(UPDATE: This post is now a two-parter! When you're done reading this entry, click here for my 2007 revisit of Japanese fast food.)

It goes without saying that Japan has some of the best food in the world, from traditional nigiri sushi (if you're into that sort of thing) to all sorts of modern-day takes on every kind of ethnic food in the world. Tokyo is probably as big of a restaurant city as New York or anywhere else.

But some days, nothing beats a teriyaki burger and a deep-fried apple pie.

McDonald's stopped deep-frying their pies in the United States probably 15 years ago now, and that was the day I stopped buying McDonald's apple pies. But they still make 'em that way in Japan, and they taste just like I remember.

McDonald's Japan's menu is, in fact, pretty different than McDonald's in the United States. This is the secret of most American companies' success there (with some exceptions) - the Japanese love to think they like American things, but most of them don't really. It's like how we try to be trendy and say we love sushi but all most of us ever eat are California rolls. So for any American company to do well in Japan, they've got to retain what the Japanese think is cool about the brand but update everything else for Japanese tastes.

For an American, that makes a trip to McDonalds in Japan a fun little adventure. Their big thing that's being promoted right now is the "Ebi Filet-o" - basically a shrimp sandwich. They've also got "Ebi-chiki", which are shrimp mcnuggets. I didn't try either of these, though, because I just can't get enough teriyaki burgers and pies. I feel like I've wasted a trip if I don't pick up one of each on every visit, and I can't really eat more than that.

The teriyaki burger itself is a little wonder of fast food cookery. I myself have tried to replicate the taste at home but without success. I have also petitioned McDonald's USA to add this burger to their menu, with a similar lack of results. The teriyaki burger is, to quote George Costanza, a taste explosion. It is a burger smothered in teriyaki sauce and topped with lettuce and mayonnaise. It sounds very simple, but the trick is the sauce is both thick and mild - something normal teriyaki sauce isn't. It's also sweet. I finally figured out one of the burger's secrets the last time I was there: it's made of pork. So we've got a pork burger literally dipped whole into a vat of teriyaki sauce that isn't teriyaki sauce and then smothered in mayo - who says this wouldn't sell in the United States?? Try it and you'll be converted.

One other amazing thing about McDonald's in Japan: when it gets busy, their employees run. They are also extremely nice. To an American, these things are more than a pleasant surprise to experience; they're almost a shock to the system. Hey, dumb Americans, here's a tip you can learn from Japan: when it gets busy, work faster! Maybe you'll drop a few pounds in the process.

McDonald's is not the only burger chain in Japan, of course.

There's also MOS Burger, which is famous for, well, MOS Burgers. The first time I went to MOS Burger, I made the mistake of trying their teriyaki burger, which just struck me as a pale imitation of the original. The next time, I went for the namesake sandwich and I was awestruck. The MOS Burger is basically a chili burger, but like all things Japanese, it's a much lighter version of what we have in the United States. The chili is thin, and almost sweet - more like a sauce, and it's got mayonnaise underneath (they do love their mayo in Japan). MOS Burger's other big claim to fame is that they make everything to order, like a real restaurant.

The truly impressive thing is that their burgers look exactly like the pictures in their ads and on their menu. Buy a MOS Burger, and when you get it, it will look just like this - open bun and all. I didn't bother taking a picture of the one I got while I was there, because I knew their web site would have exactly the same shot. All of their clerks have apparently been trained in food styling as well as cooking and serving. It's all about that famous Japanese attention to detail.

Japan has their own Japanese fast food too. Of course, you could call pretty much any noodle shop "fast food", but I'm talking major chains here - and the biggest and oldest of these is Yoshinoya. Yoshinoya now exists in the United States as well, but it's not the same - ingredients (like egg) have been removed, the seating arrangement is like any other fast food restaurant, the bowls are styrofoam. In Japan, Yoshinoya is almost like a real restaurant, albeit with a cheap fixed menu and fast service. Seating is at a counter at most Yoshinoyas, like a diner. They use real bowls, and real drink glasses. You pay for your meal after you eat, also like a diner.

Yoshinoya is credited with inventing the modern beef bowl ("gyudon"), basically a bowl of rice with stewed beef on top. Variations of this no doubt existed going back to ancient Japan, but not exactly like what's popular today. Oddly enough, with the ban on American beef (because of mad cow fears), you can't get a beef bowl every day at Yoshinoya anymore, but you can sometimes. There's a calendar telling you what days they'll be available.

Even stranger, though, is that you can still buy a "yakiniku" beef bowl even on days when regular beef bowls are unavailable. (That's what I ordered above.) Go figure.

People think I'm kind of crazy for going to all these fast food restaurants whenever I go to Japan. The truth of the matter is I can get authentic Japanese food any time I want in New York, from the totally rustic and traditional to the ultra-trendy and modern.

What I can't get in New York is a teriyaki burger and a deep-fried pie.


  1. I love japanesse food.

  2. Anonymous3:01 AM

    It's no wonder, evruone has its own kind of interest bordering with madness... Yours is not that bad! I like your blog!


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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