Monday, June 18, 2012

Osaka: An Amazing Food Town

I have my reservations about Tokyo. I've stated it before. I still like the city, but it's really just too big for me. It feels like a city with a little bit of a confused identity at times, and the rush is just too intimidating... like exactly not what I'm looking for when I'm on vacation.
I had been a little worried that Osaka might feel the same. Just a big shiny city, with too much bustling. But Osaka delivered big time. The city has been featured somewhat recently on TV shows like Bizarre Foods and No Reservations, and I can see why. The people there are funny, kind and love to eat. Despite being a huge, commerce-oriented metropolis, citizens sauntering the Dotonburi don't seem to take themselves quite as seriously as those in Tokyo, and therefore, everything seems a little more silly and laid back. You know that feeling that you get when there's an ad hoc party and you're asked to stop by to chill? That's kind of what Osaka felt like.
First off, let's take a little tour of the amazing signage. It's awesome for those seek out wild neon, as does the Bigger Half.
You can peer down the street at huge fugu set over restaurants hawking, well, fugu.

Another restaurant next door might have a gigantic moving crab, thereby indicating that they sell crabs.
Then a little further down, there's a dragon eating ramen.
On the other side of the street you'll see a huge octopus cooking tako-yaki (the city's most beloved food).
Then there's the famous Glico Man sign, and that weird clown guy that bangs a drum, which was actually cooler than I thought it would be.
And I think there was also a restaurant called the surprised donkey... great name... though not sure what they're selling.
Some restaurants showed families hovering over big bowls of horumon or offal, and then there were other random signs showing huge tanukis welcoming people to Dotonburi.
Now, I'll disclose at this time that we had already settled down at a random little restaurant earlier in the evening to hang out with our friend Mari who had been married just days earlier in Kyoto. I was so excited to see her, I just wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible with her before she would have to catch her train/bus back home, and therefore food took a back seat. For the record, we ate at a little restaurant with some great mochi okunomiyake, but I was so thrilled to have time to talk to Mari, I didn't take any pictures. My b.
Pork on sticks!
After Mari left, and we had some time to digest and walk around the Dotonburi, we finally arrived at a random little stall, kind of off of the beaten path. The place had wooden tables and stacked crates outside to sit on, and there was a single narrow bar on the inside with about five stools. Above the bar, there was a handwritten menu, and on the other side was a single hard working gentleman, manning an aromatic charcoal grill. When we walked into this place, the man behind the bar and a single male patron sitting on one of the stools looked a little concerned. There are no English menus in this place, and it's a little down and dirty old west in appearance. But the nose don't lie. When I smell delicious pork wafting into an alleyway via charcoal grill, it's gotta be good. A few moments after speaking in Japanese to the two men, and reading the menu, asking about this item and that, they were at ease, even breaking out into English and talking a little bit about Osaka with us near the end.
And the food didn't disappoint. You have to keep your nose to the air for these kinds of places. The gentleman manning the grill let us know that tonight they were only serving pork, and we were actually pretty excited by this news. This was again new for us to try in Japan.
We started out with orders of the liver, which was minerally, irony, and nice and creamy. While the outside was nicely charred over the hotter area of the grill, the center of each chunk of liver was left rare, making for a nice crunchy and creamy contrast of textures. The sauce on the outside was sweet and salty, as were the other sauces that we had encountered for grilled foods in this country. Very delicious pork liver.
A cut from the throat
The patron sitting next to us also kindly recommended a different cut of meat. I don't recall the term that he used, but he explained that it was a cut from the throat, and we were eager to try his recommendation. The pieces of this meat were sweet and porky, with the actual flesh tasting of the must succulent pork loin you could imagine. There was also a piece of cartilege and fat attached. This may freak some people out from a textural standpoint, but it really just adds a bit of bacony flavor and then the crunch from this chewier piece of meat. I was so glad the guy next to us recommended it.
A cut from the leg
We also went for another recommendation from our new pal. This piece, I believe is from the leg of the pig, and as strange as it sounds, the melt in your mouth, tender texture of the dark meat was similar to a prime rib of sorts. It was dark and minerally and intensely porky. Because I suck at life, I don't have a translation for you, but perhaps you can either show this picture, or point to your leg and hope for the best.
With our beers consumed, and snacks long gone, the two men were happy to discuss food and baseball with us for a while before we bid them a good evening. And then it was time for one last snack before calling it a night.
We went back to one of the stalls on the main street that had been grilling up takoyaki all night, and it seemed that it was one of only a few that had a perpetual line of people waiting for those octopus balls. With the line greatly shortened since it was so late, we ordered up a batch of six, topped with sauce, mayo, and katsuobushi. They were screaming hot... like burn the roof of your mouth, have all the skin fall off, and pay for it for a couple days hot. But totally worth it. Creamy center, delicious sauce, and tender octopus, all in a perfect orb shape. I miss them already and am not likely to get something anywhere near as good for several years. If you're going to Osaka get the takoyaki.
I'm glad that we decided to spend a sort of night in transition in Osaka. It was pretty fantastic, filled with nice people and tasty, beer-appropriate food. I would definitely put it on your itinerary, at least for an evening in any upcoming travels you have scheduled for Japan. P.S. Go Hanshin Tigers!

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