Three Tokyo Restaurants that my Parents Loved

If you’ve been living in Japan for some time, you may be faced with the following issue: where to take visiting family members out for meals? Although Japanese cuisine is ranked among the best in the world, it may not be for everyone. Your family will probably be interested in seeing the main sights, however they are mainly there to see you; and remember that there is no guarantee that they will want to eat Japanese at every meal. So, here are three restaurants serving Japanese dishes with a twist, that should appeal to those looking for something more familiar.

Healthy Ramen: Taiyo no Tomato no Men

The neon sign at Tomato Ramen Next

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.

Tomato cheese ramen with extra parmesan cheese

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.

A rarity: comfortable seating in a ramen restaurant

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!

Tomato ramen with cheese and a side of melted raclette cheese

Gourmet Napolitan: Spaghetti no Pancho

Look for this sign to find a Pancho’s Spaghetti branch

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.

A custom plastic model of a Pancho Napolitan

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!

Let’s be clear: it’s not fancy, it’s fast food

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 !

All you can eat parmesan cheese

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!

Tables at Pancho’s Spaghetti have that Italian touch

Hamburg Steak: Tsubame Grill

A restaurant with a long history

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.

A peek inside the kitchen at Tsubame Grill

If you’ve been living in Tokyo long enough, you’ve probably heard of (and perhaps been to) Tsubame Grilltsubame 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.

This is how the Tsubame-style hamburg is served

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

This is what it looks like 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.

The bread is served before the main dish

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Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.