- Healthy Ramen: Taiyo no Tomato no Men
- Gourmet Napolitan: Spaghetti no Pancho
- Hamburg Steak: Tsubame Grill
Healthy Ramen: Taiyo no Tomato no Men
I’ve known about Taiyo no Tomato Men (太陽のトマトの麺 or “sunny tomato noodles”) for over ten years now, but it hadn’t occurred to me to take my parents there for a meal until recently. It was mainly because I thought that ramen was a dish they couldn’t possibly like. However throw in some tomatoes, sprinkle a generous amount of parmesan cheese on top, and it is now one of their favourite dishes to have while in Tokyo.
Although it’s technically ramen – noodles are the main ingredient and it’s eaten with chopsticks – it feels more like eating an Italian pasta dish, probably because instead of broth, the noodles come with a soup made of tomatoes and olive oil. Also it’s healthier than your regular bowl of ramen: their concept is to serve a healthy ramen for ramen lovers, using low-fat and low-calorie ingredients. If you’re not quite full once you’ve eaten all the noodles, you can get order some “rarizo” (らぁリゾ a combination of ramen and risotto). This is in fact some brown rice which you can mix with the leftover soup to make a mini-risotto.
Currently, there are 20 stores in the Tokyo area. I recommend visiting the “Taiyo no Tomato Men Next” (Ikebukuro) and “Taiyo no Tomato Men with Cheese” (太陽のトマト麺withチーズ – in Shinjuku and Shibuya) branches, since they include more comfortable seating with separate tables, brightly lit interior, and colourful wall decorations (mainly featuring tomatoes). In the “with Cheese” branches, you can select whether you’d like melted raclette, gorgonzola or smoked cheese, which you can pour yourself into your ramen (on top of the parmesan cheese). Recommended for those who really like cheese!
Gourmet Napolitan: Spaghetti no Pancho
Another of my favourite places, which turned out to be an unexpected hit with my family, is “Spaghetti no Pancho” (スパゲッティーのパンチョ or Pancho’s spaghetti), a chain store that specialises in napolitan pasta or “naporitan” (ナポリタン). This dish uses Italian-style spaghetti, but the recipe is 100% Japanese. It it said to have been created by the head chef at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama at the end of World War 2. In addition to pasta it uses ketchup, chopped onions and pepper bells, and sliced sausage.
Since it is relatively easy to make, it can be found on the menu in numerous cafés and restaurants. For this reason, it is often looked down upon as being nothing more than fast food. However Pancho’s Spaghetti has done a remarkable job in turning this everyday dish into something approaching “B-kyu gurume” (B class cuisine). The sauce is made daily using an old-fashioned recipe which doesn’t rely too heavily on the ketchup. After being served, you won’t be able to resist digging into it with your fork!
In addition to their great-tasting napolitan, there are two more reasons that make their restaurants popular. First, they offer small (300g), medium (400g) and large (600g) portions for the same price, so it’s great if you are a big eater. Second, they have many variations created by adding a fried egg, a thick slice of bacon or melted cheese on top. What is great is that you can help yourself to as much cheese as you like from the parmesan boxes on the table !
There are a total of 17 stores spread throughout the Tokyo area. The interior set-up is similar to a ramen store. However the decor, consisting of red and white checkered tables, gives it an Italian touch. You need to buy a ticket from a ticket machine but the attentive staff is usually on hand to help out first-timers. One fun thing about some of the stores is that they are decorated with posters from retro anime – no mistaking that you are in Japan!
Hamburg Steak: Tsubame Grill
Another dish that is often looked down upon is the “hambagu” (ハンバーグ). Not to be confused with the hamburger, it’s served without a bun, and is roughly similar to the hamburg steak. Although it has the same ingredients as the latter, the two are considered different dishes, with distinct tastes. As for the Napolitan above, it’s a popular dish available in many establishments mainly on the cheaper side, although the “hambagu” has been around for more than a century.
If you’ve been living in Tokyo long enough, you’ve probably heard of (and perhaps been to) Tsubame Grill “tsubame Guriru” (つばめグリル). The name come from a now defunct express train called “tsubame” that used to depart from Tokyo station close to the location of the original store. The store has been in existence since 1930, but their famous Tsubame style hamburg steak only appeared on the menu in 1974.
Their most famous dish is the Tsubame-style Hamburg Steak “tsubame fu hanburugu” (つばめ風ハンブルグステーキ). It’s served inside an aluminum foil balloon while steam is whistling from a small hole. You’ll need to break it with your knife and fork to reveal the “hambaga” as well as marinated meat and green beans inside. The smell is heavenly but be careful not to burn yourself as it’s really hot. What I really love is that it’s served with baked potato inside its skin with butter on top. Finally, if you get the lunchtime menu, you can choose freshly baked baguette with butter instead of rice!
Cutting open the aluminium foil to see what’s inside
They have 24 branches all over Tokyo. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a German beer hall: retro decor and lots of space. There are other western dishes on the menu in case you aren’t in the mood for a hamburger, like salmon meuniere. Of the 3 places I mention in this article, Tsubame Grill is most likely the one that will offer the least Japanese experience. However it will also be your safest bet, when you are not accompanied by Japanese foodies.