Street Food in Omoide Yokocho – Tokyo, Japan
Tucked in the belly of the glistening skyscrapers of Shinjuku is Tokyo's own "Memory Lane," or Omoide Yokocho, a narrow alleyway housing dozens of bite-sized izakaya and yakitori joints serving some of the best street food in Japan in one of the most striking environments in Tokyo. With a vibe unlike any other place you've ever been and a remarkable history, Omoide Yokocho stands out as a bucket-list destination for many foreign foodies touring Tokyo.
In World War II, this little den in Shinjuku was a black market location for many things, including street food––it was dangerous to venture out, but people had to eat and acquire other goods they couldn't necessary get with ease in wartime. After the war, the food scene here endured, and it was one of the most lively and infamous neighborhoods in Tokyo for eating and imbibing––the Yakuza were frequent denizens, and drunk revelers would often pee in the narrow street, giving it the unflattering nickname "piss alley."
Remarkably, the neighborhood has endured despite being chipped away at and increasingly in the shadows of the gleaming modern skyscrapers of Shinjuku. And every night, Omoide Yokocho still buzzes with a cosmopolitan cast of businessmen, students, expats, and tourists, all looking for cheap eats and cheerful times amidst this smoky and crowded monument to Tokyo's past. And on this trip with the family, it was at the top of my list for a place to stop for dinner.
How this trip came about is a sort of fun tale––sister Georgia and I have a penchant for surprising Mama, particularly for her birthday and holidays, and last winter I somehow came across a $280 ticket to Tokyo from Los Angeles, a price the US legacy carriers were meeting to compete with Zipair, a new low-cost carrier entering the market for that route. I have always wanted to visit Japan, my favorite place, in the autumn, and there was upgrade space on AA, so I was super happy to jump on a ticket for myself in late October, immediately thinking of Mom since she's never been to this part of the world.
Some negotiating and research with Georgia resulted in a plan to surprise mom with a ticket to Tokyo, lured to southern California under the guise of "we're going to Santa Barbara wine country for your birthday." Georgia would meet us in Japan, and we would explore the world's largest metropolis before checking out the fall colors on the northern island, Hokkaido, and then finishing the trip in Seoul, a bucket list destination for yours truly.
Dinner in LA was to be the site of the surprise. I purloined her passport months earlier in Iowa and before she landed convinced the check-in agent at the airport to provide me with her boarding pass so that I might sneak it to a birthday card, and have the restaurant staff present the card with the check at dinner. Happy to say she was surprised and delighted, and we've been having a wonderful time in Japan!
After a very busy day with nearly 30,000 steps of walking, checking out a park in Shiodome, a killer sushi omakase in Ginza, braving the infamous Shibuya crossing to check out a cat café, making a pilgrimage to the Meiji Shrine, and finally settling in for a sunset cocktail with sprawling views at the Park Hyatt, we were very ready for some dinner, and pushed through the Shinjuku rush hour crowds to find the tucked away alley just beyond the busy main road.
Japanese lanterns and autumn-colored maple boughs decorated the narrow corridor, under which huddled diners from all over the world in tiny carbon-copy izakaya joints enjoying cold beer and grilled meat. The smell of charcoal grilling was intoxicating and the energy was palpable as we made our way all the way to the end of the alley to check out the whole scene before doubling back to find some seats for dinner.
The trick with street food is to find places that are busy, and often that mean they'll be full. It can be tempting to find seats at an otherwise empty spot and sit down right away, but the locals who frequent these places will tend to flock to the shops with the best food. It's all about timing––we happened to find a busy izakaya where three people were just paying the check as we walked by, and snagged those three seats at the end of the 11-seat bar looking right at the grill. Three Asahis quickly found their way to our table, and the host took what might become this year's family Christmas card photo.
Nearly all Omoide Yokocho eateries charge a negligible cover for each guest and provide an "appetizer" in exchange. Ours were tasty but simple boiled peanuts, and we also ordered some edamame to share. But the real winners were the skewers.
Grilled over charcoal right before our eyes, the simple bamboo skewers of various meats and veggies are the hallmark of the izakaya experience. We started with shishitos, which were fantastic and charred beautifully.
For the first round of meat we each got one skewer of chicken thigh, black beef, and pork belly. The chicken thigh was tender and rich, the beef a bit tough but heady with charcoal char and a sticky sauce, and the pork belly melted with glorious, fatty umami. And the aromas as things cooked inches from our noses––heaven.
We weren't quite full or ready to leave this wild environment so we added skewers of donko shiitake mushrooms, thick cut green onions, and chicken skins. While the veggies weren't quite cooked all the way through, the chicken skins were the stuff of dreams––dripping with chicken fat with toothsome chew punctuated by crispy edges.
We couldn't leave without revisiting the pork belly and beef, so had her grill up a couple more before wrapping up and paying our tab, and hauling our very tired feet back to the east side of town for some much needed rest.
Street food truly is a thing of beauty, and I can't imagine an environment quite like Omoide Yokocho. Next time you're in Tokyo, take a little dip into Tokyo's past, and find a stool at one of the busy izakaya joints. You'll sit shoulder to shoulder with locals, tourists, and expats alike, share beers with new friends, and chow down on some of the most delicious and affordable eats in the city.